Can any software recommendation question be made on-topic by simply asking "how"?

E.g., if the question asks "I am looking for a program that can do X", does rephrasing it as "how can I do X" makes it on-topic?

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    Relevant: meta.superuser.com/questions/5372/… May 17, 2017 at 3:36
  • @MichaelFrank Thanks. I went through the page but I don't know whether the answer is yes or no. May 17, 2017 at 3:39
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    After running into this problem myself lately, thank you for saying this. It's nothing but a puritanical, myopic interpretation of the rules. If a question is "made on topic" by simply adding the word "how" to it, it was always on-topic and closing it as being off-topic - as my last two questions were - is nothing but overbearing moderation. Mar 7, 2020 at 18:19

3 Answers 3


If the question is about solving a specific problem, it can usually be rewritten to focus on the problem. But not every software rec question can be turned around that way. Just off the top of my head:

  • "What's your favorite browser?" can't be fixed (opinion).
  • "What text editors can do regex?" could be reworded but shouldn't be (answering the original intent will just produce a list).
  • Some questions can be rewritten to focus on a problem, but the result would be extremely broad (endless options or approaches, or brainstorming). That would still not be a good question (too broad).
  • Requests for troubleshooting software might be able to be rewritten to "How can I diagnose X?". But a good answer would likely be out of scope if extensive knowledge or procedural information is required, or there are endless possible underlying problems. So rewriting could just result in closure for a different reason.

To the specific example in the question, "I am looking for a program that can do X": even on the Software Rec site, a lot of additional information is required to make it a good question--platform, criteria, constraints, etc. It needs enough qualifying information so that it doesn't attract an endless list, and there is a way to judge what is a good solution. Expressing something here in the form of a problem should have similar specificity.

"How can I do X" needs more meat to ensure that "Use program XYZ" is not an answer. It needs to be worded to attract an actionable solution, which can include a recommended product as part of that.

In terms of being too broad, that can be somewhat contextual. If it attracted 10 detailed solutions, each substantially different, and each using a different recommended product, that probably wouldn't be a bad thing. But generic problems that can be solved using dozens of tools are more likely to be considered too broad than ones where one or two tools dominate. It may mean that the person hasn't done a simple Google search yet, or the question needs more specificity.

Journeyman Geek's answer talks about software requirements vs. problem requirements. There could be overlap. But the key point there is that one addresses "meta issues" about the software, like how you want the UI to work, or the ability to customize things. The other addresses the problem you need to solve and the constraint imposed by the problem.

  • Thanks. ok for opinion (your first point) and too broad/specialized (your third and fourth points). Regarding your second point, aside from being too broad, rephrasing it as a "how" question would make it on-topic I believe, since it would solve some issue. So basically if a software recommendation question isn't too subjective, broad or specialized, then one can rephrase it to make it on-topic? May 17, 2017 at 23:28
  • @FranckDernoncourt, I expanded the answer to try to address that better.
    – fixer1234
    May 17, 2017 at 23:46

A good software recommendation question on SU isn't about the product; it's about the process. Implicitly you're expected to give a fair bit more information, and in some cases, the answer might not require additional software at all.

Contrast this with software recommendations where you're looking at a list of requirements for software - we'd rather focus on the process and workflow. It's not as simple as just rephrasing, but it's a start.

  • Can't one rephrase a list of requirements as how to do X under constraints Y? May 17, 2017 at 3:40
  • "A good software recommendation question on SU isn't about the product; it's about the process. ..." - That's a good way to frame it.
    – jww
    May 29, 2017 at 9:50

You often can rephrase a question seeking a software recommendation into one that asks about how to accomplish a goal, but as fixer1234 discussed, there are many cases where it isn't quite that simple.

By asking "how do I solve Problem X?" (for some sufficiently well-defined value of X), any good answer that suggests a tool will automatically have to discuss how to use that tool to accomplish the stated objective. The answer might still suggest a tool, but it will have to go beyond this. Different people can also suggest different tools, but each needs to discuss how to use that tool; it's even possible that what you are trying to do can be accomplished with widely installed tools shipped with the OS, so no extra tools are necessary.

An answer to such a question that simply states "Use Tool Y" will almost certainly be a case of Your answer is in another castle: when is an answer not an answer?, but an answer that says "Use Tool Y; if you use it like this, then it will solve your problem" (for some sufficiently well-defined value of "like this") will be an answer. Not only can the meat of the answer (the process) be applied to other programs as well to accomplish similar goals, but it also requires that whoever writes an answer actually tailors that answer to the specific problem.

Even the Software Recommendations SE has extensive guidelines on what is required for a question to contain "enough information" to be able to produce a reasonable set of answers.

  • I see. I guess it means that any question that is on-topic on the software recommendation website is also on topic here, provided it is rephrased as how? May 18, 2017 at 14:00
  • @FranckDernoncourt If you can ask about how to solve a given problem as opposed to what software to use to solve a given problem then it might be on topic on Super User. For example, "what software can I use to browse the web from my iPhone?" is off topic because it is (a) asking for software recommendations, and (b) asking about a smartphone in a way that isn't about it interacting with your computer. Changing this to "how can I browse the web from my iPhone?" solves (a) but leaves (b), so it's still off topic. See What topics can I ask about here?
    – user
    May 18, 2017 at 14:07
  • I guess it means that any question that is on-topic on the software recommendation website is also on topic here, provided it is rephrased as how and about interacting with computers? May 18, 2017 at 14:08
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    @FranckDernoncourt "I guess it means that any question that is on-topic on the software recommendation website is also on topic here, provided it is rephrased as how and about interacting with computers?" No. Read the help center article that I linked to previously: far from everything about computers is on topic on Super User.
    – user
    May 18, 2017 at 14:20
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    For instance, and to clarify, there is no meaningful way that a computer can or should be involved in a process of browsing the web from an iPhone. Yes, the question can be not about a software recommendation, but the use of a computer in that process would at best be distantly tangential. There would be a situation where you are trying to access the internet on a mobile device through a hotspot or other connection form provided through a computer, but that is a different question. May 25, 2017 at 18:58

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