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What is it?

The XY problem is asking about your attempted solution rather than your actual problem. This leads to enormous amounts of wasted time and energy, both on the part of people asking for help, and on the part of those providing help.

  • User wants to do X.
  • User doesn’t know how to do X, but thinks they can fumble their way to a solution if they can just manage to do Y.
  • User doesn’t know how to do Y either.
  • User asks for help with Y.
  • Others try to help user with Y, but are confused because Y seems like a strange problem to want to solve.
  • After much interaction and wasted time, it finally becomes clear that the user really wants help with X, and that Y wasn’t even a suitable solution for X.

The problem occurs when people get stuck on what they believe is the solution and are unable step back and explain the issue in full.

What to do about it?

  1. Always include information about a broader picture along with any attempted solution.
  2. If someone asks for more information, do provide details.
  3. If there are other solutions you’ve already ruled out, share why you’ve ruled them out. This gives more information about your requirements.

Remember that if your diagnostic theories were accurate, you wouldn’t be asking for help right?