After volunteering on the support forums for a bit, one question keeps coming to my mind. “How long should my answer reply be?”

Because if need be I can be really, really verbose. I can explain how a question can be answered, and then add that the solution is not effective anyway and then add a better alternative, and then some. I can answer a question, then add a list of canned answers about future issues that might be asked, that might or might not be happened, but just in case, here are the answers anyway.

Or I can just say hi and then write a link to a particular documentation page and leave.

What is the sweet spot on this?

If the main objective is speed, then logically single line replies are best. Just write an answer that directly solves the question. Bam. It’s quick, the person who asks is satisfied, and I don’t have to waste time crafting long answers, time that can be better used answering others.

But this can’t be ideal in many situations. Oftentimes the question itself is suspect. Someone wanted to do something, but she didn’t know that doing so could bring an issue to her site. Trying to upload a really garish background image that will make the entire site unreadable, for instance. A single line reply can show her how to do that, but it’s better to understand first what she’s trying to do, and then explain why it’s a bad idea, and finally give a better alternative for what she’s trying to do (“Maybe get another background image? Here’s a link to a site that offers cool, subtle background images”).

So we can conclude that trying to understand what someone tries to do is more important than just giving him what he asks for. The downside is that it takes more time. This means that if we do this, we’re essentially sacrificing other users. To give you a good help, you will have to wait a little bit for it.

But perhaps, perhaps, waiting is not a bad thing. Unless it is an emergency, then a user probably does not mind waiting. Surely it is better to wait a little bit more for an answer that’s thoughtful and well-crafted, instead of an answer that’s quick but misleading?

Finally, what to do in case of emergency? Surely it needs to be solved fast, but first of all it’s important to be sure that the issue is indeed an emergency. Some users will say that all their issues are urgent, but those issues will of course have to be understood objectively first before an emergency action is done. And that understanding can be part of the phase where we try to understand what someone tries to do, two paragraphs before this.

Aside from all that, there are two other cases that I’ve found that can be used as a consideration.

The first is when someone mentioned that they’re trying to learn something. Like CSS customization, for example. In that case, it’s a good idea to not just provide an answer, but also adds a few things that can help her learn things better. I’ve explained how ‘!important’ works in a CSS thread, for example. That wasn’t necessary to solve the problem, but would be good to know for the person who asked.

The second case is when a question seems to be something that will be Googled a lot in the future, or it’s a unique issue with multiple facets of solution. Something that can be explained simply to normal users, but with technical gotchas that you might want to include for more advanced users. In this case, I will try to be quite verbose. I’ll add something like “you don’t have to read this, but just in case someone is interested…”, then include plenty of keywords, code snippets, anything to aid searchability and to actually explain the finer details.

That is the cool thing about forums, by the way. When you answer someone, you are also potentially answering someone else in the future. Someone might Google it and arrive at your answer, and then leave with a solution. It’s a good thing to keep in mind, whether you might have something to say to other people in the future with the same question.

So the rough algorithm will be like this:

Read the question, truly try to understand what happened and what the user is trying to achieve. Never write an answer before getting this understanding.

If turns out it’s an emergency, be quick to answer and put more importance on this.

If it isn’t, then see if the solution if harmful. If yes, take the time to explain and offer better alternatives. Mailchimp’s Voice and Tone site has good suggestions with regards to failure message, which to me is close to how an emergency situation should be handled.

If the question is harmless and can be solved quickly without the need of any extraneous info, then write a concise answer and keep it from being too verbose.

Additionally, if it sounds like the user is trying to learn something, it doesn’t hurt to add a bit more explanation to help her understand thing.

Finally, if the issue has multiple aspects to its answer that are not relevant to the current user who asks, but might be relevant to others in the future, be sure to include that.