Making Unclear Requests

I came across this example of a request on Ned Batchelder’s weblog (along with some advice on asking for help.)

Hey, I’m in a hurry, so this isn’t going to tell too much. I was having problems with your cursors pygame code. See if you can see what’s wrong/fix it. I need to leave the office, see you later.

I think this qualifies as an unclear request.

Presumably Ned knows who the speaker is, and Ned is the recipient.

We can assume that both Ned and the requester share some understanding of “cursors pygame code.”

But that’s about all that’s clear.

What action will satisfy the requester?

What time frame is the requester assuming?

Ned is left to guess at:

  • The behavior of the software that leads the requester to think there’s a problem.
  • What steps the requester has taken to solve the problem or work around the problem.
  • Why the behavior is a problem for the requester.
  • What a successful solution would look like.
  • When a solution is needed.
  • What — if anything — the requester is will to do to aid Ned in finding a solution.

    (This reminds me of many bug reports I’ve read over the years.)

    When I received a request like this face-to-face, it’s easy to ask questions to get the answers to the questions above.

    But when I receive a written request like this (or a voicemail), I feel annoyed:

    … so what am I supposed to do? Start looking through 10,000 lines of code trying to find problems and maybe I’ll find the one you were thinking of? Right!

    And that’s where the viral effect comes in.

    If I take up this request, I may feel annoyed or put upon. I may not want to help the requester. I may make judgments about the requester (What a jerk! Does he think I’m a mind reader? Does he think I have all day to guess what his problem is?)

    When this sort of breakdown in communication happens repeatedly, relationships suffer.

    As a requester, make sure you include all the elements of a request. Include:

  • information to create a shared understanding
  • what you want action will satisfy you
  • when you need it.

    As the recipient of an unclear request, ask for clarification on these elements.

    And if someone repeatedly makes unclear requests, make a request of your own: request that the speaker include specific information that will help assess the request.