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The Community Team is nearing the private beta evaluations to decide whether to move this site forward, but I've hit a few snags expressing purpose and the scope of this site.

I am confident we are on the right track regarding what "hardware" will include. But in a discussion yesterday (where I defined "recommendations" as questions seeking specific hardware products), the issue came up of allowing "pre-purchase" questions too. That sounds reasonable enough, but comments about how we're here because Super User moderation sucks and SoftwareRecs does not work have clouded up the issues of why we created this site.

Let's see if we can clear things up.

Hardware Recommendations in a Nutshell

  • Definitive Requirements → Explicit Product Recommendations
  • Pre-Purchase Questions → Assurance You're Making an Informed Decision

The purpose of this site (as I see it) is to help folks in making purchase decisions, whether it is in finding the right product given a definitive set of requirements, or (updated) to ask what you should consider to help assure your purchase will work for you. Fair enough? (That's not a rhetorical question)

So what differentiates a <quote> "pre-purchase question" from a general hardware and computing question? This is not a general computing site and we need to stay focused on helping users make purchase decisions. That is why this site was created. So where do we draw that line?

Then it occurred to me…

It's all about the requirements

We already require that questions seeking hardware recommendations must include a specific set of requirements to help assure it can be answered definitively — and so it should be with any pre-purchase questions. If a question does not include a strong component of what is driving the purchasing decision specifically (i.e. what problem are you trying to solve? and why wouldn't any random product search suffice?), that question has probably crossed that line between "we can help you make an informed purchase decision" and general questions about computing and hardware.

Admittedly, we are talking about a really small sample set — the questions below may not be rock-solid — but hopefully these example will help illustrate the point:

Questions that "work":

I won't vouch for their quality specifically, but in the context staying within the intentions of this site, questions like these can be made to work. I closed these at one point, but when working through these issues, these questions do seem to fit the general purpose of this site.

Questions that should be closed:

Why indeed? Why do you ask? Yes, we can assume the author was asking to help them make a purchasing decision, but let's not get caught up in this XY problem where you're asking about the solution rather than your actual problem you are facing. This site was created to look at your requirements and come up with solutions that will help you specifically.

We don't need to hash out every exacting detail of the edge cases to define the purpose of creating this site, but are we willing to move forward with this basic premise?

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    I'd be willing to move forward with this. Basically my vision for the site written in a comprehensible way. – Undo Sep 17 '15 at 22:42
  • I think that this is closely related (maybe a restate of) to my answer to the other question: meta.hardwarerecs.stackexchange.com/a/136/128 – Zizouz212 Sep 17 '15 at 23:51
  • Now to combine this information with more about what types of hardware are within the scope in a community post. – Adam Sep 18 '15 at 0:16
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    @Adam We haven't decided what types of hardware are in-scope yet. Deciding these things from concrete examples is what the early beta is about. – Gilles 'SO- stop being evil' Sep 18 '15 at 1:12
  • @Gilles I know. I'm noting for the future that something needs to be done because the recent discussions aren't convincing. – Adam Sep 18 '15 at 1:58
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What's our scope?

The purpose of this site (as I see it) is to help folks in making purchase decisions, whether it is in finding the right product given a definitive set of requirements, or (updated) to ask what you should consider to help assure your purchase will work for you. Fair enough?

That's adequate. I'm not saying it's optimal, but it makes sense.

So what differentiates a "pre-purchase question" from a general hardware and computing question? This is not a general computing site and we need to stay focused on helping users make purchase decisions. That is why this site was created. So where do we draw that line?

This is assuredly not a general computing site: it's clear that it's only about hardware. (Not that software won't creep in, because “has drivers for my OS” is one of the common choice criteria, but how to make the hardware work with the OS is clearly not going to be on-topic here.)

We don't need to be focused on questions that focus on the last step of defining what hardware to purchase. “Helping users make purchase decisions” is also a valid scope — and not exactly the same as the one you proposed in your first paragraph. Questions like Aside from aesthetics, is there a benefit to PC water cooling?, What are the differences between monitors inputs (HDMI, Display Port, DVI, VGA)?, etc. fit squarely under “helping users make purchase decisions”, but they have a different format: they focus on a specific criterion rather than focusing on a specific use case.

Who's our audience?

A big part of what makes Stack Exchange sites work is that they tend to be about a topic and for an audience.

Having a clear topic but not a well-defined audience can cause friction and may lead to separation. Example: Stack Overflow, about programming (including in Mathematica), for professional or amateur programmers; Mathematica, about Mathematica (which includes a good deal of programming) — but for people who use Mathematica, who for the most part aren't primarily programmers. Example: Super User and Server Fault, both about (certain kinds of) computers, but for different audiences: end-users vs professional system administrators. These are a priori the same topics — though different kinds of computers often end up being discussed — but different audiences that can't live under the same roof. Example: Unix & Linux and Ask Ubuntu, with pretty much 100% overlap on the AU side, yet different audiences, visible in that answers on the two sites tend to be different (you'll find few screenshots on U&L, and a default assumption that everybody uses the command line).

Having a well-defined audience but no clear topic fails to federate a site. Prime example: the original “Not Programming Related”, which had an audience of programmers but failed to find a topic. A partial example: Super User, for computer users but with an oddly delimited scope, which led to mostly-spinoffs such as Ask Different and Unix & Linux, which couldn't exist as subcommunities on SU.

Having neither a well-delimited topic nor a well-delimited audience is problematic. An example of that is Software Recommendations: the topic is extremely broad (any software), and the experts are all over the place (end-users for general purpose software, programmers for libraries, just about everyone who uses a computer for their job for specialized software). Restricting the site on the basis of the type of questions makes it hard to form a community. What defines SR is not the way it produces good content, but the way it keeps bad content out. So it's no surprise that SR has the lowest ratio of answered questions on the Stack Exchange network.

It's possible to make a successful site around a specific question format — witness Code Review and Programming Puzzles and Code Golf. But these two sites cater to a well-defined audience (programmers).

So, what's our topic then?

Ideally, Stack Exchange should have a site about computing hardware. A clear scope (hopefully we'll manage to find a simple, sensible definition of “computing hardware”), for a reasonably clear audience (people who use computers and tinker with the hardware or at least pay some attention to what's inside).

Unfortunately, it's clear that the legacy of the existence of Super User won't let that happen. We have to find a scope that's compatible with this legacy.

A sensible scope would be “purchasing decision about computing hardware”, or “pre-purchase questions about computing hardware”. This includes questions like

  1. Does this particular model fit this use case?
  2. What model would best fit this use case?
  3. What criteria are important for this use case?
  4. What benefit does this characteristic offer?
  5. In this class of scenarios, when does this characteristic matter?

It seems that you're trying to exclude types 4 and 5, but not coming up with a reason why they should be excluded.¹

Experience on Stack Exchange (and not just on Software Recommendations) does show that type-4 questions are prone to being low-quality: they're often too broad. But that can happen on any site — too broad is a predefined close reason after all. There's no reason to exclude this type of question as a whole.

Software Recommendations focuses on type 2 and excludes the other types. That is largely due to why SR came onto the scene — it was an experiment to see if questions of type 2 could work with a general audience². The moderation succeeded³, but the site isn't doing so well on the original goal of Stack Exchange, namely building a library of answers. So we shouldn't blindly follow the SR mindset.

I think that we should go with “pre-purchase questions about computing hardware” as the scope.

This makes all your examples (What should I consider when buying a (gaming) monitor?, RAM recommendation for Android Development, What are the differences between monitors inputs (HDMI, Display Port, DVI, VGA)?, Aside from aesthetics, is there a benefit to PC water cooling?, https://hardwarerecs.stackexchange.com/q/24) on-topic. (Quality is a different matter. But according to this scope, they're on-topic.)

¹ Other than “they're on topic on SU”, which is both incorrect and harmful.
² Not to see if they could work on SE: that had been demonstrated on sites such as U&L, which has never had a problem with software recommendations.
³ Disclaimer: I'm a moderator on SR.

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This is very nice that you have referred to your own answer and feedback from users has not been ignored.

In the case of disputed questions, it is worthwhile to ask the author for clarification before it is removed. Of course it does not apply to questions which are completely beyond the scope of this site.

If we are talking about the questions that should be closed...

I completely agree that What are the differences between monitors inputs (HDMI, Display Port, DVI, VGA)? and https://hardwarerecs.stackexchange.com/q/24/214 are out of the scope

but Aside from aesthetics, is there a benefit to PC water cooling? could be okay if the author would like to show what type of hardware was he checking and created a question based on a comparison rather than general consideration.

In many cases, the boundary is quite smooth.

  • I agree that we should allow questions asking about a difference between things or the benefit of something only if a question about recommendation is formed from it in the end. – Adam Sep 17 '15 at 23:17

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