I frequently find myself searching tens of hours for products with certain specifications. In many cases, I have to order and return several products due to insufficient manufacturer information; in others, I find that no such product exists. Just to give you one example, I am looking for a printer which I can keep in my car during the hot summer months. According to the format for asking the "right" shopping questions in the FAQ, the answer to my question would be, I need something that:

  • Can print at least on at least 6"-wide paper

  • Can print off of a USB stick, or a memory card

  • Does not use InkJet technology, since ink dries up from the heat in the car.

  • Can run off of a battery. This battery must be either non-Lithium based, or there should be a way to monitor it to make sure it doesn't get more than 40% charged (since Lithium batteries charged more than 40% degrade quickly in the heat)

I could probably think of a couple more "desirable" qualities for a product that I need. The problem is, though, that no such product exists. In fact, if you remove any one of the four conditions above, still no such product exists. Or at least I spent more than 30 hours on searching for such a product -- through Dye Sublimation printers, Thermal Wax Transfer printers, Direct Thermal printers, Bar code printers, Photo booth printers, Instant camera printers, you name it. So obviously, some functionality has to be waived. For example, even though there might not be a battery indicator on the printer, if the battery doesn't have circuitry protection then I can check its charge level with a Voltmeter. Maybe 6" is not possible, but 5" might be close enough. And so on.

The thing is, I believe I'm not the only one interested in being able to print from my car. The main quibble of the FAQ against shopping questions is that, as new products come out, the "best" product tends to become obsolete. Therefore, what I would like to propose is, a way to ask these questions so their answers would not become obsolete as new products come out. So for example, the title would be: "Printing large images from the car.", and the body of the question would say:

  • Printer name?

  • Name of ink and paper used?

  • Black-and-white or color?

  • Maximum paper dimensions?

  • Number of seconds to print 1 page at maximum dimensions?

  • What print media does it accept? (PC/ Mac/ USB/ SD/ WiFi/ BlueTooth/ PicBridge)

  • What ink technology does it use?

  • What chemistry is the battery? (equivalently, how much volts is it when fully charged?)

  • Is the battery removeable and without circuitry protection? (equivalently, can you plug it in to a remote charging mechanism?)

If someone does not know, e.g., what a battery chemistry is, they can leave that part blank.

By not specifying the exact specs I am looking for, I am avoiding making this question specific to me, and therefore allowing it to be more useful for others. For example, I might need it to print without a computer; someone else might not mind carrying a laptop to be used with the printer. I don't care if it's color or black-and-white; someone else might. As a result:

  • By posting only the specs of the printers, we are avoiding being subjective (other than the subjective opinion that, this printer is practical for printing from a car).

  • As people find printers that work for them, they would vote for them, and therefore the "most useful printer for printing from a car" would have the most votes. If this does not work for someone (e.g. the #1 printer doesn't print in color), then they can scroll down until they find a printer that meets their needs.

  • By not specifying exact selection criteria, we are allowing a wider audience of people to benefit from this question. For example, the #1 choice might print 6-inch wide, but if all they need is 4-inch wide, as long as the cost per page is minimal, then they can quickly compare all available printers in one place, without having to "Ask on Amazon" for the cost per page for all these printers, and waiting to see if anyone knows.

  • By not specifying a "best" printer, we are keeping ourselves open, to where as new printers would come out they can be added to the list; as old ones become obsolete, people would stop voting for them until a newer printer emerges as the #1 choice. At most, it would only take a single comment, say, "The ink to this printer is no longer manufactured", to let the users know that this printer is now obsolete.

And whereas printing from the car is easy to ask on Amazon about, there are other issues that I ran into, which I don't expect anyone on Amazon to have a clue about. I still have at least five battery chargers, because as I would buy new ones, they would keep overcharging NiMH batteries, because their Delta V threshold value was too high. And the Delta V of a charger is one value which, a random "Amazon customer" who is not involved with batteries would have no clue about; however, it is nonetheless important, since overcharging NiMH batteries reduces their lifetime number of cycles on average by 60% (of course, depending on the battery, the amount of overcharge, etc.). It is my desire to share such inside information with others, so that they would not go through the same trial-and-error process that I had to go through.

With such a framework of asking questions, I believe this gets around the inherent problem with asking shopping questions, and therefore should be allowed. Especially when Software Recommendations has been able to find a set of additional question criteria, wherewith it has been successful in finding a way to ask the before-banned questions within the framework of StackExchange. If we set their framework as a template, we should be able to do it too. Quoting from that thread [text in brackets mine]:

The first key [reason for posting a question should be] to solve a problem. A question that asks “what's the best X” should be closed. A good recommendation question asks “how do I do X” — and if the answers are “use product Y”, that's fine.

Askers who don't know if what they need exists [or what's the closest thing to what they need] are asking good questions (=seeking to expand an empty set of good solutions). Answers who are trying to choose between multiple products they know are asking bad questions (Insert ATI vs Nvidia, Emacs vs Vi, etc.)

The person who [simply asks for] "the best" doesn't know his own needs.

Answers that just say “use this product” should be deleted on sight. [Every answer should have at least enough specs to convey to the readers, how is this product adequate at accomplishing the task at hand.]

I visited Software.SE, and it is functioning very much like what I was envisioning my proposal could function: but with software, rather than products. And its participants seem to have caught on to the additional question criteria pretty well, I found only about 6% of the questions being malphrased. However, after seeing a few people who already tried creating "product recommendations" sites and had their proposal closed, I am avoiding creating such a site, until I hear the opinion of some more experienced people.


It is a complicated proposal which really only scratches the surface of how a site for "future-proof" shopping recommendations might work… that's assuming everyone can lay out and agree (and incoming users all learn and follow) all the restrictions and nuances of what makes a good question (and answer) acceptable… before using this site.

Unfortunately, that is where the problem starts.

When a user expects a Stack Exchange Q&A to generally work like any other, it becomes a poor end-user experience (for everyone involved) when half their questions are either closed or deleted — because most incoming users are not privy to all the meta discussions and FAQs trying to work out the nuances of when soliciting a product recommendation is "acceptable". Endless RTFM.

We looked at this. A lot. We've entertained countless proposals from users trying to push Q&A in various ways to post other stuff. The logistics and arguments became increasingly complicated and unproductive, so we finally resolved that new proposals should continue to focus on specific areas of study or expertise; that is how the software was designed. I talk about this a bit in

Proposals soliciting reviews, recommendations, comparisons, etc.

Unfortunately, Stack Exchange simply was not designed for this. Without specific software support to properly guide and model this type of content, we are not interested in creating this site.

  • So I read your thread, and according to it, Hardware.SE is not faring well. I think I will start with participating in that site for a few months, to see if I can get a sense of what its problem might be, and to what degree this problem would recur in my proposal. If I remain of the same opinion, say, in 2019 -- should I leave another comment? Or edit my post? Or post an answer?
    – Alex
    Nov 9 '18 at 4:18

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