Every once in a while a tool-related questions pops up and it usually gets closed. Our policy is that these type of questions are off-topic. I think maybe it's time to revise the policy :).

Some pros that come to my mind:

  • Other professional SE sites allow them (matlab on Math.SE, Lightroom on Photo.SE, Illustrator on GD.SE etc.).
  • There's no other place to ask this type of questions on SE.
  • In terms of being "answerable", "How to implement something in Axure" is precisely as answerable as any question on SO, so the nature of these questions shouldn't be a problem. The topic is, in my mind, extremely relevant to a community of UX researchers and practitioners. After all, this is the day-to-day work, and the tools we use are as big a part of the craft as the UX problems we deal with.
  • It can bring more traffic to the site and generate a whole new type of questions, without sacrificing its strictly-UX orientation or blurring its borders (OTOH more on that in the cons).
  • Somewhat philosophically, we know that the guy with the stethoscope is a doctor and the guy with the flasks is a chemist. The girl with the Visual Studio is a developer and the one with the Photoshop is a graphic designer. The tools help define a profession as a profession, and that's a problem in our field, because the recognition is not where we'd like it to be. Maybe it won't help this cause, but at least we should start by recognizing the software we use as tools of the trade.

And some cons:

  • The range of tools is pretty large and it usually parallels the level of fidelity at that stage in the process. From paper to Powerpoint to Balsamiq to Axure to Photoshop to HTML&CSS, with a large number of tools in between. We could say that the latter two belong on GD and SO, but it can be tougher with the gray areas and the beginning of this fidelity range. Would sketching techniques be on-topic (are they today?)? How about Powerpoint techniques?
  • It's not just about wireframing and prototyping, I've used Camtasia and Audacity and different mind-mappers etc. So the line to be drawn would be somewhat arbitrary. Although I think that dedicated wireframing tools are easy to identify.

From the amount of my pros and cons you can see where I stand :).

Would love to hear your thoughts.

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How about we just keep growing until we're so relevant and irreplaceable to designers that tool developers approach us asking if they can use our site as a place to answer questions about their tool, similarly to how Microsoft, Facebook, etc. now use Stack Overflow to answer questions. If Balsamiq approached us with that kind of question I doubt any of us would have a problem with it :-) –  Rahul Dec 3 '12 at 13:30
    
I think @Rahul as a valid point. Wordpress questions are known to pop up on stackoverflow, and where specific more to Wordpress than to web/programming in general, they get transfered. However, many other "subtopics" on SO are kept there. Ultimately the topics at hand here are overlapping and a wider perspective is something people are likely to profit from rather than getting negatively impacted by. If the focus of a question is on the coding part and not the UX part, it should be moved. Otherwise, it could be of interest to other users here. –  kontur Dec 4 '12 at 11:34
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5 Answers 5

I would be concerned with what would come through that door if we opened it. GraphicDesign.SE already have problems with too many Photoshop questions that they've had to go out of their way with incentives to get people back to asking Graphic Design questions.

If we allow tools help we could become an Axure / Balsamiq user forum rather than dealing with UX problems.

Also, where would it stop? How to create a dynamic panel in Axure? How to create a dynamic panel is JavaScript? How to combine JQuery and CSS to create a styleable dynamic panel?

Once we accept one of these questions it sets a precedent that will be hard to go back from.

Keep tool questions where they belong: Dedicated Axure / Balsamiq user forums and stick with solving User Experience problems here.

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GD and photoshop questions immediately jumped to mind as well. Also these questions seem to generally be on topic on SUper User, though they wouldn't have as many experts. But dedicated Acure/Balsamiq support forums are (generally) a better place. –  Ben Brocka Nov 30 '12 at 19:41
    
I don't think we'd become a support forum, since the vast majority of questions will still be about UX. Development questions will be migrated to SO just like now. Instead of sending UX people away I want to provide them with answers. There's a bunch of Photoshop support forums out there, but GD doesn't send people there. If we're about bringing in more users, I think we should allow it - and these users will also bring more UX questions. The thing is that these users are necessarily UX people, it's won't "dilute" the site or blur the lines. –  Vitaly Mijiritsky Nov 30 '12 at 20:42
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@VitalyMijiritsky it's not about diluting the people but the content; all the support sites tend to get LOTS of questions about how to use things in short order. It's much easier to ask "how do I do X in Axure" than it is to ask a conceptual/design process question. Graphic Design is practically drowning in photoshop support and I straight up do not use the site because of it (even with ignored tags there's just so little to do there). –  Ben Brocka Nov 30 '12 at 20:50
    
I am one of the folks that spurred this question as I did ask about using Axure Dynamic Panels. To me the distinction between asking about how to do something with a software tool and how to do something like refine a usability test is not significant. There are many tools that we use that are not software-based and are considered valid questions, so why be exclusionary? The concern about too many questions on a topic that is not of interest to certain users is easily mitigated by utilizing the "ignored tags" feature. –  Charles Wesley Nov 30 '12 at 21:06
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@Charles when it becomes the majority of the content of the site (as it has on Graphic Design) it's much more of a problem than "just ignore it" can solve. A lot of attention will be drawn from the other questions onto the new questions (there's only so much attention to give per person per time period), and ignoring tags is a power user thing, not everyone knows it's there. I'm not opposed to trying to allow a few, but if the number is large I'm afraid it will harm the usefulness of the site as a site about UX as opposed to a site about using UX software –  Ben Brocka Nov 30 '12 at 21:24
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@BenBrocka I don't think we're at any danger of becoming a support site for Axure. With all my love for it, it's a far cry from Photoshop :). There's a limited number of things you can do with it, and most of them are pretty straightforward. We may get many duplicates about technicalities, and once we close them down, I guess it's going to be about 1-2 unique questions a week. Even now we very rarely get these questions, and that's without people knowing that they're discouraged (the FAQ isn't clear on this, as Charles says). –  Vitaly Mijiritsky Nov 30 '12 at 21:35
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I think that the discussion should be more centred around what sort of tool questions should be allowed.

Broadly useful questions that aren't about a specific tool should be allowed, while questions that pertain to a single tool should not be allowed. That would allow the site to point people in the right direction, but prevent it from becoming a support forum.

E.g.:

Good - What wireframing / prototyping tools allow mobile panel scrolling?

Bad - How do I position a mobile panel in XYZ tool?

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I agree however I think that this is also a catch 22 because any question of "What wireframing/prototyping tools allow mobile panel scrolling" would get closed as a shopping request, no? I think that the trick is to encourage questions that ask about tools in a meaningful way that rise above the shopping request category but fall below the brand-specific tutorial request. Today's question about mouse tracking is a an example of what "good" question should look like –  Charles Wesley Dec 4 '12 at 16:48
    
Agree with your answer. I often find myself interested in some questions on wireframing tools as I have little experience with them myself, but almost all of those questions get shot down. –  kontur Feb 6 '13 at 19:26
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I would welcome 'Shopping Request' type questions too (e.g. which Wireframing tool would you recommend?). As a community of specialists I would welcome the informed opinions of other members when it comes to purchasing decisions.

What's the underlying objection to this type of question?

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I enjoy this community, even though I am new to it. I appreciate the care and editorial vision that exists, so my opinion is shared as a constructive contribution to the conversation.

I don't think it would be the end of the world to keep the "policy" as-is, however I think it should be more clearly articulated in the FAQs just to avoid having this discussion over and over.

Currently when one of these questions is closed, the following message appears:

Questions on User Experience - Stack Exchange are expected to relate to user experience within the scope defined in the FAQ. Consider editing the question or leaving comments for improvement if you believe the question can be reworded to fit within the scope. Read more about closed questions here.

When you consult the FAQ, there is no mention of tools being out of scope. In fact, the language is written in such a way that it encourages "practical" questions related to "actual problems":

You should only ask practical, answerable questions based on actual problems that you face. Chatty, open-ended questions diminish the usefulness of our site and push other questions off the front page.

Your questions should be reasonably scoped. If you can imagine an entire book that answers your question, you’re asking too much.

If your motivation for asking the question is “I would like to participate in a discussion about _”, then you should not be asking here. However, if your motivation is “I would like others to explain _ to me”, then you are probably OK. (Discussions are of course welcome in our real time web chat.)

By that measure, a specific question about how to use a UX tool is entirely valid according to the stated policy.

In my case I wondered if it would be in scope or out of scope, and was leaning towards not asking the question until I read the FAQ. As it is written, it encouraged me to post my question. Which was downvoted and closed.

That said.

My own opinion is that we should allow tools to be discussed, as the mechanics by which we ply our trade is how UX manifests itself in the world. This is already well established and supported on ux.SE for MANY tools... that aren't software. A/B testing. Personas. Usability Testing. These are all tools that are the subject of questions asking about "using" the tool. Including how to use Axure to illustrate an interaction seems to be the same thing, it's just that it's an executable you run on a computer, not a process/procedure you run in the physical world.

The concern I seem to be picking up from most of the comments on this thread is that the current policy results in a clean environment. More signal, less noise. I totally get that, and I value that. There is a justifiable fear that the current community could become overrun like some other SE communities.

The difference I see is that there currently are not that many tool-related questions. Using the "ignore tags" feature will ensure that those who are not interested in reading about tools can filter those posts out, and those who are, can get some additional information. If it does get out of hand, there is nothing to stop us from changing the policy back to a strict ban.

Update

There is a really good question that was originally downvoted, revised, upvoted, and answered that is an excellent example of how tool related questions can add value to the community.

Further, I think including some tool questions is an opportunity to further some of the goals outlined in the stack improvement drive--primarily increasing the number of questions and expanding our reach to draw in more users.

Update 2

A great summation of what I think could be a definition of what tools questions are in and out of bounds:

@Chris Super User is for power users of desktop software. Asking them a wireframing/prototyping question and expecting a UX-relevant answer wouldn't get you very far. The UX community, however, generally deals with this exact problem and can therefore help the OP. It's less a question of "what's the objective right place" and more of a "which audience is right for this question" issue. In other words, this is a process question, not a software question.

When it comes down to it, some tools are so specific in their application to UX that the only way to get any kind of meaningful answer is to go where the people who can answer your question are.

Update 3

Is there a tool for managing user stories?

Falls into the "shopping request" category and yet was highly voted, favorited, answered, and viewed over 1200 times. These types of questions can add value to the site and there is a demand/interest in them.


BTW not flogging a dead horse here, just adding to the answer to collect examples and context for future thought.

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BTW I should say that I also posted the question on the Axure forum and got a good answer from one of the Axure reps, so it is a valid argument to say that vendor forums are a good resource for these types of questions. –  Charles Wesley Nov 30 '12 at 21:46
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The close reason depends on the question; lots of the tools questions were closed more because they're shopping requests (what software does...what software should I use...) rather than questions about doing specific things. I'd agree that whatever the outcome of this discussion is, it should be more clearly relayed in the FAQ though –  Ben Brocka Nov 30 '12 at 22:17
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The issue isn't that a tools question isn't answerable - clearly it is - but it's about whether it is a User Experience question. In my opinion just because the tool is used by UX professionals that doesn't make it a UX question. I use paper and pencil for initial sketches, but I wouldn't ask what is the best way to sharpen my pencils is on this site. –  JonW Nov 30 '12 at 23:43
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Are questions about paper prototyping not UX questions, then? I'm not asking to be facetious I'm trying to understand the distinction. Perhaps a better question is: what is your definition of a User Experience question? –  Charles Wesley Nov 30 '12 at 23:52
    
@JonW I agree that it's not a UX question per se. But it's a UX community question. I don't think it's different from career or education-related questions in that regard, and we do allow those. –  Vitaly Mijiritsky Dec 1 '12 at 10:00
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I'm on the fence about this one.

UX folks tend to use software that is either rather unique to the industry (wire framing products, for instance) or common, but used in unique ways in the context of UX (visio, excel, etc.)

So, broadly speaking, I'd say asking questions about which tool to use for a particular task is certainly a great type of question.

But are questions of 'how do I do x with tool y' a good idea? I don't know. I agree with other posters that, at least on Graphic Design, the amount of tool-related questions tends to over-power the GD related questions.

I suppose ideally, we'd have a SE site for tools. In fact, I like this idea for most of the SE sites. Just as every site as a META sister-site, it'd be great if sites could have a sister TOOL site.

So we could have tools.graphicdesign.stackexchange and tools.ux.stackexchange etc.

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There already is a StackExchange site where questions about individual applications can be asked - superuser.com –  JonW Jan 30 '13 at 17:13
    
That's a much different concept than product or genre-centric software. There's nothing wrong with it, but not nearly as useful as a focused forum on a set of particular applications, IMHO. –  DA01 Jan 30 '13 at 18:20
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Maybe as an example, UX and GD both have huge overlap (and, at times, both can overlap with SO), yet we've decided they are unique enough areas of expertise that they can have their own homes. But for software, we've dumped everything into one giant catch-all site. Again, not a BAD thing, just not as ideal. –  DA01 Jan 30 '13 at 18:21
    
Another thought (sorry, just dumping random thoughts here...) software is often context-centric. For instance, UX people asking about Photoshop may have very different software questions than Graphic Designers asking about Photoshop. –  DA01 Jan 30 '13 at 18:23
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The problem is you need a critical mass of people able to answer the question. The UX community is so small, you are in a catch 22 when it comes to this subject. If you go to superuser nobody there will be able to answer your question (try searching on Axure). If you come to UX where people have the ability to answer the question but choose not to, the current state is that you are left to google or vendor boards. –  Charles Wesley Jan 31 '13 at 19:42
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