Ask the Duck

December 16, 2021 by Steven Ng

If you've ever had to help anyone troubleshoot an issue, then you're probably familiar with the frequently used opening statement of "it's not working", which is easily the most useless piece of information about a problem you'll ever get.

The only useful nugget of information in that statement is that there is possibly a problem with a system or possibly a problem with the user/requester.

To most experts, empty problem descriptions can elicit curt, disdainful responses, which, to a degree, are understandable, but are bad form nonetheless.

An expert's time is valuable (as in expensive) and shouldn't be wasted on having to make the requester provide more information, when it should be obvious that some homework or thought should go into the problem description.

The thing is, asking a question or providing a problem description is actually a skill. And it's not obvious to organizations to provide this type of training to new recruits, even those in technical positions, irrespective of seniority.

I lurk a number of technical subreddits on occasion to answer questions, because I like the "puzzle" aspect of helping to solve someone's problem. Unfortunately, with a lot of requests for help, you get empty problem descriptions with zero context to what the poster is trying to accomplish. And sadly, some of these questions come from people who are purportedly good at what they do.

And, it seems like a lot of posters don't bother (or know to bother) to provide some clearly written context to their problems to help more knowledgeable members of the subreddit solve their issue. It usually results in a bit of back and forth before a clear picture of the problem is even created.

At some point, a lot of the more knowledgeable members of the subreddit simply get tired of answering questions, or providing nice responses, leading to some of the newbies to incorrectly conclude that a subreddit is toxic (which is usually untrue).

In the end, however, it comes down to people not knowing how to ask the duck.

I don't know the true origin of the phrase, as there are different versions of the analogy. Nevertheless, it usually goes something like this:

Someone had a fake or toy duck, and when they had a problem, they would ask the question to the duck out loud. Since the duck has no knowledge of anything (it is a duck, after all), the person asking the question would provide more context to their problem than they would to a senior person or expert, and the answer/solution is often revealed in the process of asking the question itself.

A lot of people aren't familiar with the concept of asking the duck. It's easily trained, and it is an incredibly important part of problem solving and communicating. It's probably something that should be taught in schools.

For organizations, however, it should absolutely be included as part of the onboarding orientation. It is a skill every employed person should have, and it only takes a few minutes to teach or reinforce.

So the next time someone asks you for help on a problem without any context, ask them if they asked the duck first. And if they don't understand what that means, explain the concept to them nicely.