XY Problem – or when we don't know what we're asking about

XY Problem – or when we don't know what we're asking about

Certainly, everyone has faced the XY Problem at some point in their lives, perhaps even without realizing it. Some might even be "committing" it right now. The XY Problem happens when we seek a solution rather than discussing the issue itself. Why is this problematic?

XY Problem: A Scenario

I've been helping many people on various forums, chats, and discord servers for years, and I encounter the XY Problem almost daily. What does it typically look like?

  • Q: How can I use library Y to do X?

  • A1: (usually, there are ten different suggestions, each more complex than the last)

  • Q: Unfortunately, it doesn't work (then more problems arise)

  • A2: Why do you want to use library Y? It would be easier to achieve X this way.

  • Q: Thanks! It works.

Problem XY: The Mechanism

  1. The user wants to solve problem X.

  2. The user needs to figure out how to solve X but believes solving Y might be the key.

  3. The user doesn't know how to solve Y, either.

  4. The user asks for help with Y.

  5. Others attempt to assist but need clarification on the focus on Y.

  6. After much discussion and time lost, it's finally understood that the user is trying to solve the problem X, and Y is unrelated or unsuitable.

Problem XY: Examples

First Example

A user wants to get the file extension based on its name. Instead of asking this directly, they begin by trying to solve a problem that doesn't exist:

  • Q: How can I get the last three characters from a file name?

  • A1: filename.slice(-3);

  • Q: Thanks! But unfortunately, this doesn't work for jpeg files 😢

  • A2: Are you trying to get the file extension?

  • Q: Yes.

  • A2: filename.split('.').pop()

Example 2

A user is converting CSV to JSON using a specific library but isn't happy with the data format – it comes out as an array of rows, not an array of objects. Instead of asking how to use the library for CSV parsing, the user thinks they should change an array of arrays into an array of objects and asks only about that. They're focusing on a problem that doesn't exist:

  • Q: I have several arrays and want to turn each into an object using keys from the first array. For example, [['a', 'b'], [1,2], [3,4]] into [{a: 1, b: 2}, {a: 3, b: 4}]

  • A1: That may be tricky. You could use the lodash library, which has a function for this.

  • A2: Maybe Object.fromEntries(…) could work?

  • A3: You can use a simple loop for this; try this: (code example provided)

  • Q: Thanks, but that seems too complicated. I thought converting CSV to JSON was straightforward, but I keep hitting snags…

  • A4: Hold on. Are you converting CSV to JSON? What library are you using?

  • Q: PapaParser

  • A4: PapaParser has a headers: true option, giving you the objects you're looking for instead of an array of arrays. You don't need to do anything manually.

Where does it come from?

Several factors contribute to the XY Problem. First, the person asking the question is often too invested. They've spent so much time trying to solve problem Y that stepping back to consider problem X seems daunting. They might insist, "I already have the whole system; I just need this one small part," but as the CSV example shows, they might have built more than necessary.

Another reason is the desire to do things correctly. It might sound surprising, but our idealistic views on solving problems can blind us to simpler solutions.

Additionally, questioners sometimes feel guilty. They hesitate to ask about the broader issue X, opting instead to focus on solution Y. They believe this approach saves the time of those helping them, showing up with a specific problem in search of a specific solution, either out of politeness or guilt.

The XY Problem isn't just a tech issue; it's universal, affecting all areas of life, including medicine. Often, people visit doctors with a self-diagnosis, asking about that instead of explaining their actual symptoms.

The Issue of Understanding and Compassion in Replies

Some argue that what I've described isn't the heart of the XY Problem. They think the real issue lies with the person responding, not the one asking the question. I don't entirely agree, but it's worth mentioning. The XY Problem can lead to a lack of compassion and understanding in those who answer.

Imagine you're asking about a problem you believe is important. A few people attempt to help, but then someone tells you, "You don't actually have problem Y. What you're really asking about is X." How does that make you feel? This lack of compassion from the person answering might make you defensive. You might want to say, "I know what I'm talking about." That could be true, or maybe not, but the conversation will continue with feelings of guilt ("I'm wrong, they're right") or defensiveness ("they're wrong, I know what I was asking").

Another example occurs when the person responding sees themselves as an expert, disregards what the other person is looking for, and instead pushes their preferred solution. For instance, in programming, if you inquire about loops, someone will likely insist you have an XY problem, and you should instead try making your code more functional. It's not the XY Problem I mentioned earlier in the article — it's the responder's narcissism.

It's beneficial to offer different solutions when you want to help someone and think they might need help understanding their needs or are making errors. However, it's important to remember that the person asking is occasionally right.

The article Two Attitudes in Psychiatry further explores this contrast.

How to Ask Questions?

Eric S. Raymond, in his publication How To Ask Questions The Smart Way, discusses the XY problem with an example:

  • Q: How can I use X to do Y?

  • A: If what you want is to do Y, you should ask that question without pre-supposing the use of a method that may not be appropriate. Questions of this form often indicate a person who is not merely ignorant about X, but confused about what problem Y they are solving and too fixated on the details of their particular situation. It is generally best to ignore such people until they define their problem better.

My advice? Provide more context in your question.

Instead of asking, "How can I get the last three characters from a file name?" you should ask, "How can I get the last three characters from a file name? I need the file extension."

Instead of saying, "I have several arrays, and I want to convert each of them into an object whose keys come from the first array," you should clarify by saying, "I have several arrays, and I want to convert each of them into an object whose keys come from the first array. These arrays come from parsing CSV files using the PapaParse library."

Adding more detail can make things much easier for you and others. Often, there's a better, faster, and easier solution to your problems.

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