Tuesday, June 11, 2013

How to Ask Effective Questions



We all ask questions of our social networks. For example, the other day I posted a question to Twitter looking for a hotel recommendation in Dublin for SIGIR 2013. When we ask questions, sometimes we get good answers, and sometimes we get bad answers. But the quality of the answers we get isn't completely random – it is something we, as question askers, can control. This post describes some of the tricks we have learned about how to ask effective questions online from our research.

In general, demographic factors we can't control (e.g., gender and age) appear to only have a small influence the responses we get. However, people with a lot of friends, who have been on Facebook a long time, and who update their status message frequently receive better responses to their questions along every quality metric we measure. The take away is that if you want to get good information from your network, take the time necessary to build up that network.

There also seems to be a relationship between how you chose to present yourself to your network via your profile picture and the responses you receive. If your picture is a close up of your face, chances are you will get a lot of responses to your questions and those responses will be more useful than if your picture shows you in the distance or does not include you at all. Social profile pictures also seem to net better results. If your picture contains more than one person, chances are you can expect a lot of responses.

The time of day that you decide to post a question to your social network can impact your replies, too. You will get more responses to questions you post in the afternoon, and they will arrive quickly, but you will get longer answers in the morning. Most users check Facebook toward the end of the day, resulting in more attention being given to afternoon posts. But the people who check in the morning have fewer new items in their News Feed, and can therefore devote more time to crafting high-quality answers to the messages they see.

But the easiest, most important thing for you to control when you ask your network a question is how you phrase the question. Questions that end with a question mark get better responses than those phrased as statements. Statements tend to look more like regular status updates, and this can make it hard for your friends to know you are looking for a response. Targeting your question to a particular group of your friends can also be an effective way to get great responses. For example, if you’re asking for restaurant recommendations, you may find it most effective to direct your question to your "foodie friends." Interestingly, while it is helpful to target questions, it does not seem to matter very much exactly who you target. The same improvements can be gained by just directing the question to "anyone." Finally, you should keep your questions short, so your friends don't have to read to much to figure out what you want to know. However, while long questions lead to fewer replies, extra context can change the quality of the replies by allowing people to provide more thoughtful responses. For example, long questions are less likely to receive requests for clarification.

In summary, to ask effective questions of your social network:
  • Build a strong network,
  • Use a profile picture that shows your face close up,
  • Include other people in your profile picture,
  • Ask in the afternoon,
  • Include a question mark,
  • Direct your question to "anyone" or a specific group, and
  • Keep the question short.

Try out these suggestions by posting an effective question to your network. Let me know how it goes in the Comments. In the next post I'll share the interesting approach my colleagues and I used to discover these tips.
 
Related papers:
J. Teevan, M.R. Morris and K. Panovich. "Does Anyone Know How to Get Good Answers?" How Social Network Questions Shape Replies. MSR-TR-2013-062.

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