The XY problem is a communication problem encountered in help desk and similar situations in which the real issue, X, of the person asking for help is obscured, because instead of asking directly about issue X, they ask how to solve a secondary issue, Y, which they believe will allow them to resolve issue X. However, resolving issue Y often does not resolve issue X, or is a poor way to resolve it, and the obscuring of the real issue and the introduction of the potentially strange secondary issue can lead to the person trying to help having unnecessary difficulties in communication and offering poor solutions.
The XY problem is commonly encountered in technical support or customer service environments where the end user has attempted to solve the problem on their own, and misunderstands the real nature of the problem, believing that their real problem X has already been solved, except for some small detail Y in their solution. The inability of the support personnel to resolve their real problem or to understand the nature of their enquiry may cause the end user to become frustrated. The situation can make itself clear if the end user asks about some seemingly inane detail which is disconnected from any useful end goal. The solution for the support personnel is to ask probing questions as to why the information is needed, in order to identify the root problem and redirect the end user away from an unproductive path of inquiry.
The term XY problem was implicitly coined by Eric S. Raymond in his text How To Ask Questions The Smart Way when adding "How can I use X to do Y?" to the "Questions Not To Ask" section (although note in this original version, the meanings of X and Y are swapped):
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.
The problem itself was known long before it received this name. In 1980's "Applied Management Science: A Quick and Dirty Approach", Gene Woolsey described a famous example of solving the wrong problem. Management was concerned about complaints that people had to wait too long for elevators, and so spent a lot of time and money researching how to schedule elevators to reduce the wait times. Woolsey pointed out that they were trying to solve the wrong problem. The real problem was that "people were complaining". The installation of large mirrors in the lobby gave people something to do, and the complaints were drastically reduced.
- Raymond, Eric Steven. "How To Ask Questions The Smart Way". Eric S. Raymond's Home Page. Eric Steven Raymond. Retrieved 14 June 2018.
- Hesse, Rick; Woolsey, Robert E.D. (1980). Applied Management Science: A Quick and Dirty Approach. Science Research Associates.