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A lot of time when I want to ask a question on a SE site I'm in a position something along the lines of:

I've got an idea how to solve a problem but it would require a component with specific properties. I don't know if such components are manufactured and haven't been able find anything from the searches that I can think of.

What I want to do is ask "If such a thing exists, what is it called?" so that I can go do my own homework. However questions of that form are generally incorrectly assumed to be a request for a specific part recommendation (which are off topic for reasons I'm not going to dispute).

  • Should "what are parts that do X called? questions be on-topic?
  • Are there any conventions for how to ask such questions without being mistaken for the other kind of question?
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    \$\begingroup\$ In the title you ask whether it should be off-topic, and in the question if it should be on-topic. In Meta, poll-like questions are often answered with up/down voting. Please change your post so that both questions ask the same. \$\endgroup\$
    – Velvet
    Mar 4, 2023 at 9:06
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Velvel I've "Reversed the Polarity" ;0) \$\endgroup\$
    – BCS
    Mar 5, 2023 at 2:05

4 Answers 4

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It should be on-topic if the design focus is clear (as opposed to the shopping focus).

One example from my own questions is here, where an experienced user remarked that it was borderline on-topic.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ What about when when the focus is pre-design ? -- "Marketing wants to know what kind of specs we could offer at price point X. What categories of parts exist that I should be investigating that could fit into region Y of the design space?". Say a question where the answer might be of a form similar to "Look into CPUs, FPGAs and custom ASICs". \$\endgroup\$
    – BCS
    Mar 5, 2023 at 2:24
  • \$\begingroup\$ @BCS Sounds a bit broad to me but you could always try. Nothing bad will happen if a question of yours is closed. Make kt as focused as possible, i.e. deliver a clear description of the problem and solution attempts/ideas. \$\endgroup\$
    – tobalt
    Mar 5, 2023 at 2:28
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    \$\begingroup\$ Unfortunately, most of the recent times I've asked question on SE (any of them) they are of the form I described (if I can figure out what to search for, I generally don't need to ask in the first place) and they are interpreted as a request for specific recommendation and closed, which makes me not want to ask at all. \$\endgroup\$
    – BCS
    Mar 5, 2023 at 2:32
  • \$\begingroup\$ @BCS I guess the cost aspect of that question triggers people here. Ask something without relating to cost explicitly. People here are aware of costs and like to suggest sensible solutions. If you get a couple of answers, it will be easy for you to compare costs afterwards. \$\endgroup\$
    – tobalt
    Mar 5, 2023 at 2:40
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Figuring out what components are available to purchase (and how their specs might combine to make a complete solution) is a big part of my initial circuit design work; this involves a bunch of time browsing on digikey or mouser. Knowing what to search for there is a big part of how much time that will take.

For example, I once needed to implement a switching regulator for several amps of power, but integrated "regulator ICs" top out at 1-2A. Once I found out that "switching regulator controller" ICs (with a separate external mosfet) were a thing, I found the right category of parts and the rest was easy - but I wasted hours before getting to that point. Understanding what section of the catalog to even open up feels like a very reasonable question to me, that doesn't require folks to do your direct part selection for you. As an amateur I don't have the breadth of familiarity to do this easily myself all the time and it is very helpful to lean on the expertise of others here.

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If you read the history of "shopping is off topic", you will see that decision was made to prevent specific abuses and specific content problems, neither of which actually turned out to be big problems.

And "shopping" is, of course, a real engineering problem, with real engineering solutions.

To protect the community, questions which invite or imply the answer "this week buy XXXX -- it will be different next week/month/year" or "I'm paid to shill this product" or "promotion for a particular supplier" are "shopping" questions, and are off-topic.

On the other hand, questions like "what product should I use" are often questions about physics -- conductivity, heat failure, or about packaging, or capability. The answers (when permitted) aren't going to be out of date this decade, aren't limited to specific suppliers, and aren't matters of (non-engineering) opinion.

The decision to declare a question "off topic" as "shopping", should always be made in the least restrictive way possible, allowing the most generous interpretation. Not as a matter of principle, simply because that's going to be the correct decision.

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In the past I have treated "Should "what are parts that do X called?" as legitimate questions as they are not shopping questions. That being said those who write this question sometimes include an additional shopping question.

Are there any conventions for how to ask such questions without being mistaken for the other kind of question?

Don't ask for a specific product. Typically people ask for a product or say can you help me find this thing in this price range with these specs, we don't do any of that, the questions are not good questions.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Interesting, maybe my issue is that I usually try to preempt "why would anyone want that?!" reactions by giving the motivation (which tends to include things like specs and prices: "this kind of part, if it exists at all, would be a cheaper way to get [requirements] than the obvious alternative"). That said, I think I've also had people demand that exact motivation on the bases that "your clearly looking for the wrong solution, what are you really trying to do?". \$\endgroup\$
    – BCS
    Mar 14, 2023 at 23:32
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    \$\begingroup\$ Actually, when you get right down to it, what I'd really like is for "shopping" questions (or questions people think are shopping question) to not be closed, but answered with "the kind of parts you are looking for can be found by searching for [name]. You can figure out the rest yourself." -- That would render irrelevant the difference between "shopping" and "if you don't even know BJT's and MOSFET's exist, how can you know what specs change which class of device you should be searching in?". \$\endgroup\$
    – BCS
    Mar 14, 2023 at 23:44
  • \$\begingroup\$ Jeff Atwood (founder of SE) specifically said that shopping questions are not for SE but the main reason is that those questions are not super useful for other people to read about it, nobody wants to know what their neighbors buy at the supermarket \$\endgroup\$
    – Voltage Spike Mod
    Mar 15, 2023 at 6:32
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    \$\begingroup\$ One of the remaining unsolved hard problems in search is finding things when you don't know what to call them. From that direction, questions mapping "yet another set of terms describing something" to good search terms for it could be argued as one do the more valuable questions. ... Even if it's not generally useful for everyone who's looking for that thing, the more different ones are out there, the more likely it is I'll fine at least one of them. \$\endgroup\$
    – BCS
    Mar 15, 2023 at 13:04
  • \$\begingroup\$ @VoltageSpike I'd say that review questions (like PCB layout review which is on-topic on this stack, or code review which has an entire stack dedicated to it) suffer from the limited future reader relevance problem even more severely, but they still generally find a home somewhere on the network. Sufficiently broad shopping questions might have surprising utility to future readers - I'm very happy when I search "name for the chip that does such-and-such" and see a stackexchange link in the results. \$\endgroup\$
    – Willa
    Mar 15, 2023 at 21:27
  • \$\begingroup\$ @john you can see Atwood's reasons in the link \$\endgroup\$
    – Voltage Spike Mod
    Mar 15, 2023 at 21:31

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