5 Tips for Posting on a Technology Forum

An online forum is a great place to ask questions and generally seek advice on what you want to do with technology. I spend a bit of time each day catching up on the latest discussions across maybe a half dozen or so technical fora. On some of them I am a heavy contributor, and on others I generally lurk, just gleaning insights and keeping up with the latest conversations. Having been involved with technical forums for the past thirty years or so I’ve seen plenty of good and bad practices, and in this post I am going to share five tips on what I think are valuable and practical considerations for posting queries to technical forums.

Tip #1 - Help Yourself Before Asking Others to Help You

Before you ask any questions, make sure that you have tried to resolve things yourself. Forums are not places to be spoon fed how to do things, and while asking basic questions is certainly never frowned upon, persistently asking over applying common sense is. I can’t count the number of times I have seen people ask about something where trying it themselves would have taken less time than they took to post the question or look up and read the documentation for a feature in the manual.

Spending a bit of time to familiarise yourself with solutions not only might resolve your current challenge but sets you up for longer term success. This at least means searching through any documentation, doing some online searches (including the forum explicitly - see below).

This also goes for responses too. You should have the expectation of needing to put in some effort to try things out. Saying you don’t have time to do something and you just want an answer will not win any friends on the forum - everyone is busy, and there is always a “teach someone to fish” approach in any tech-enthusiast community. If you don’t have the time to put into testing things, then what you probably need is a third party (e.g. a consultant) you can pay to do that testing on your behalf. Never mistake a forum for a free consultancy.

Tip #2 - Search the Forum ‘Properly’

Whenever you have a question or are looking for some advice, do search the forum you are thinking of posting to, to see if the information need has already been shared. This does not mean just doing one search for a phrase you think is probably the one that should be used. It means confirming the terminology you are using is correct, and carrying out a variety of searches.

For example:

  • Are you trying to “save” a file to an application’s native file format or are you trying to “export” to a file in another format?
  • You have added something to a folder, but is that grouping called something like a “group”, “set”, or “node” in a system’s terminology?

If you find things that seem relevant, but turn out not to be, consider including links and why they don’t fit to your needs alongside your question as this will show you have done your due diligence, stop others referring you to those posts, and provide a better understanding of what you need.

Tip #3 - Post a New Topic

Unless you find a topic that is talking about the exact query you have, but you need additional advice, post a new topic.

If something is similar, you can include a cross-reference back to the original topic.

By posting a new topic, you can refocus a conversation to your particular needs without derailing the original conversation. Trying to consume and interact with single topics which have multiple threads makes things complicated and difficult to find. Any time the conversation spurs a tangent, it is best to have it in its own topic.

Similarly, don’t be tempted to direct message people who have helped resolve an issue to get help with your issue. That’s typically the whole reason for a public forum. By posting a topic, you can get insights from multiple people which can help in reaching the best conclusion, as well as making it findable for anyone else who may also have the same question now or in the future.

Sometimes you might find a topic that is 99% about what you want to talk about, but the last time someone posted on it was months or years ago. The exact etiquette varied from forum to forum, with many forcibly closing and locking topics after three (or more) months of inactivity. But, some forums never lock their posts. This can lead to necroposting, where long dead topics are resurrected.

Don’t be a necroposter. Start a new topic and link to the old one. The original topics will often contain outdated information, and in many cases turn out to be unrelated to a more recent query.

There is one important exception to this that in my opinion does work, and that is for feature requests. If there is an up-vote option, simply use that, but if feature popularity is driven by the addition of posts to the topic, then that would be perfectly reasonable, in my opinion, to resurface a topic. However, if you have an alternative or modification of an old post, then once again, consider posting a new topic and cross referencing back to the original.

As well as knowing when to post to a new or existing topic, there is also knowing when not to post. Every forum I have ever seen has a code of conduct, and you should always adhere to this to the best of your abilities. As a general point, I would also recommend that in most technology-focused fora that one fairly subjective point also holds. If you post could be construed as “preaching”, then I would suggest you post it on your own blog and not a forum. I have seen several people banned from product forums when they take up a stance about how things are wrong (in blatantly unconstructive and egotistically phrased ways), and many other topics locked by moderators when people take up a contrarian position that comes across as trying to antagonise the community. Technology often involves dealing with fewer people and more than a few have a deficit of social skills that get amplified online (though some choose to be this way on purpose) - take care with how you phrase things and take a positive/constructive attitude otherwise you may find you don’t get as much support as you anticipated.

Tip #4 - Give Details Up Front

When you post, stick to the facts. You certainly don’t need to tell people if you are new or your level of experience with a particular system. The details in your post and your volume of prior posts on the forum will let people know. Most forum software also notes when a post is a user’s first post. When people are posting their responses, the general approach is to make it approachable to anyone of any level. Also new people can have insights and experienced people can have issues - everyone has something to bring and share.

The real key to getting an expedient and correct answer to a question is in the specifics and providing actionable detail.

Imagine calling up a mechanic about a problem with your car. You explain to them over the phone that it won’t start and that you want them to tell you what the problem is and how to fix it, over the phone. Could they guide you through it over the phone? Maybe … eventually. Without any details or being able to actually look at the car themselves, their hamstrung by the situation. Dealing with questions on a forum can be similarly limiting.

When you have a question, be precise about what you have.

  • For an issue, provide screenshots, the text of any error message, version/model numbers, copies of any code (or a link to an Apple Shortcut), step-by-step guidance on how to reproduce the issue, how things differ from your expectations, anything you have tried so far.
  • For how-to questions or advice, explain what you have got and have tried, what the constraints are, and any concerns or opportunities you have.

This might sound like a lot of up front effort, but if you think about it, this is going to cut out a lot of back and forth where people ask questions that you could have given them the information for up front. It will be a lot less frustrating and get you to your answer much quicker.

Having carried out support duties throughout my career, I can also say that this can be applied to your help desk submissions at work. No one wants to spend their time chasing colleagues up for details or being chased up for details. Just get all the detail in at the start and everything should run a lot smoother.

One final point to note is that anything you do share should be “sanitised”. When posting any content (script, text, image, screenshot), be mindful of what data you are sharing. Is there a name, e-mail address, telephone number, location, or secret code (e.g. API key, password) in what you are sharing? If there is, remove it and if necessary, replace it with some obviously dummy data.

Tip #5 - Close the Loop

As you review more and more forum posts, you may come to the realisation that while many questions are answered, it is often unclear if the answer was complete, appropriate, or provided the desired result. This is because many people who ask questions do not close the loop.

When you have an answer to your question, you are responsible on feeding back on the result and giving as much useful detail as you can. For example:

  • Did it work?
  • Was it 100% successful or some lower percentage?
  • Did you need to figure out anything else to get it to work?
  • Did it generate a new error, if so, what is it?

It is always worth adding in a little bit of narrative describing the result. If it was fully successful, and the forum software supports it, mark the post that “solved” the original posting as the solution. Even if it was not fully successful for you, it might be for someone else with a similar problem, so sharing details on your experience in this way can still help solve issues for others.

Try and thank the individual offering a solution or advice in your reply (even if it didn’t work) - on non-commercial product forums everyone is giving their time and advice for free, so a kind word goes a long way. Even on a commercial product forum, people give their time for free to support those products - particularly for small hardware companies, indie development houses, etc. If you can like a response or give kudos, do consider that too.

If someone has been particularly helpful and they accept micro-donations, then you can always consider buying them something like a virtual drink or dropping them a few patronage coins to support their activities. I joined Buy Me a Coffee some years back as people often asked me if they could somehow buy me a drink or something - now they can; I do so love my coffee!


As I noted at the start, these are based on my personal experience on fora. Hopefully, the reasoning behind them all make sense. I know that I have fallen afoul of some of these in the past. There have certainly been a few occasions where I haven’t searched or read documentation as well as I might.

Do these tips match your tips? What would you have instead or in addition to the above? Share the link to this post on social media and pop your additions in alongside. If you post on Mastodon, make sure to tag me (@sylumer@mastodon.social), I’d love to see what others think and what I can do to make my own forum posts better.

Author: Stephen Millard

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