Infrequently Asked Questions of FAQs

by R. Stephen Gracey

30 Reader Comments

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  1. Yes. Yes it was.

    My company’s planning a redesign of its corporate website, and we were just discussing the FAQ yesterday. Let’s just say I raised some concerns. This article addressed many of my misgivings. Thanks for the practical advice.

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  2. I’ve felt the same way for some time. Whenever putting together an FAQ I’ve felt it was somewhat a crutch for a lack of creativity and was only being created for either a sales tool or content filler. After reading this post I do believe that it has a purpose, but needs a bit more attention where it actually is used as either a “quick read” of the what, why, how much type; or a tool that actually identifies questions that are a) not being answered in the site content, or b) too hard to find in the site. Either way I think those that fall into the “what, why” category should only stay an FAQ until a point to where the question is addressed properly in the primary content of the site.

    In hindsight, maybe the faq should be a page that is dynamic and changing. One that is always being added to and trimmed. One that serves as sort of a to-do list for the webmaster?

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  3. OK this is blatant promotion, but at least it speaks directly to your topic.

    It amazes me that people still do static FAQs when they could actually be providing their customers with a place to ask questions and then rank those based on how frequently/recently they’ve been asked. They can also answer them – and the person who asked will be automatically notified by email.

    We’ve been offering this service for a while now, check it out at http://www.YouSaidIt.com and mention ALA to get a special discount because we are ALA fans.

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  4. I think your FAQ article is missing a basic tenant of FAQs: the audience isn’t you.

    http://yourhead.tumblr.com/post/484598556/frequently-not-you

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  5. I’ve heard FAQs referred to as QWWPWAs (questions we wish people would ask), which I think is their central failing point…they’re not actually trying to be useful.  Hopefully web Darwinism will weed these types of sites out.

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  6. Stephen,
    Great article. I almost always think of FAQs as an indicator of failing in other parts of your site. It’s usually a section devoted to information that should have been conveyed in context elsewhere.

    To be completely fair, some sites beg for FAQs. I love “TeuxDeux”:http://teuxdeux.com. They use their FAQ well. It’s an opportunity to answer some select questions & express some humanity.

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  7. Yes a good FAQ page actually does answer your questions but I do see a lot that are trying to buff up the service or it would seem the FAQ page is their just for pure SEO purposes which as you can image can be sprinkled with keywords through it quiet effectively.

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  8. True, most FAQ’s are usually useless. They either should consist of a few really frequently asked questions or be something more advanced to allow easier search, otherwise reading through a hundred questions list to find the one you need is pointless.

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  9. Been thinking similar things a while back.
    http://northernsuns.wordpress.com/2010/01/26/are-faqs-still-state-of-the-art/
    Like the idea of really including it into you content strategy instead of treating it as a must have.

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  10. Nice article Stephen. Sometimes i see some FAQ’s on some websites that first half is nothing but repetitive text. I think some people don’t really understand what FAQ’s should be like :)

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  11. This was just the FAQ-ing insight I’ve been looking for as I revise my FAQ page at
    http://elderforestpublishing.com/LSW/OWV/faq.html

    Thanks for the great contribution.

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  12. I’m so pleased you all found the article helpful. In response to a few of the comments:

    1. You’re not your audience: I agree, and if it didn’t come across clearly, that was entirely the point. A FAQ can’t be what WE want it to be, but what our AUDIENCE needs it to be—that’s why we pay attention to the questions they actually ask.

    2. Static vs. Dynamic FAQs: If one has a dynamic page where people submit and can review questions, more like a discussion forum, then it still should be a temporary catchment basin of the questions. Periodically, those questions should get the same thorough examination so that the insight can be plowed back into the overall content strategy.

    So now a question for all of you: Anyone been including the FAQ in your usability testing? What tasks have you used? How has the FAQ fared?

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  13. Nice article Stephen and I completely agree with all of your main points. If anything I might be even more harsh on the FAQ and say that its existence points to a failure of the website to communicate your core message. Its a lazy strategy thats more about saying you “have it” but without making it part of the real website.

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  14. Thanks, Chris—well, you know, the original draft of the article WAS rather harsher on FAQs, but I recognized the editors’ wisdom in softening it somewhat. :-)

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  15. The article and comments have covered most of my reasons for hating FAQs. But a couple of other points:

    1 People can’t even spell FAQs writing FAQ’s or even FAQ’S. At this appears ontheir home page.

    2 So many FAQs start with What, When, Why, How, How many or Where. This means that when I am faced with a longish list of FAQs I have to read the whole question. I have often come across this.
    However if the question is a useful heading in well written text, the important words would have jumped out at me as I scanned down the page.

    3 In my experience subject matter people say we just have 15 FAQs. Just a short list. Then it grew and grea and grew to 200. They then had to be classified into topics. This took so long. (Let’s face it the reason people want FAQs is that they don’t want to spend time breaking information down by topic.) That was over 7 years ago. Just a couple of months ago I discovered that some still exist because despite promises that they would be merged into policy documents this has not happened. In this case I believe that this could cause legal problems because official policy is so hard to locate.

    4 Questions in FAQs are often too closed. For example imagine you were writing about the rules for residents in an apartment block. People think differently when writing FAQs. In fact they want FAQs so that they can think simply and without wasting time with toomuch detail. Imagine if a resident had suddenly brought a pet goat into their apartment. People with a FAQ mentality would write. “May I keep a goat in my apartment?” Then next week another FAQ is needed: “May I keep a sheep in my apartment?’ and so on. The list could become quite long
    But someone writing intelligent documentation would instead have a heading “Keeping animals in your flat”. This will address the real question giving a more definite answer that covers foreseeable circumstances.

    5 Becasue in a long list of FAQs it is difficult to quickly see the exact topic, people are less likely to review existing ones before they add another one. Therefore I often see conflicting answers when a simialr question is added later. Instead of revising or adding to an existing answer (or question) another one is added that either duplicates, overlaps or conflicts with an existing one. This is less likely in text where there may be a contents list or at a glance headings to help locate existing content.

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  16. when mouse hover its can’t display list with ie6

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  17. I had FAQ’s as a main link on my website and then it slowly made itself onto the about us links section. It wasnt that i didnt like it, but space became the issue and based on importance, it just didnt make the list. i personally like them within websites, but normally only when i have to place an order for something and want to know about the refund and turn around time.

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  18. Well said. I get really annoyed with FAQs that never address my problem. It seems a lazy way out, especially for big companies – don’t provide a decent searchable database of problems, just put in a dozen questions they’d like you to ask. Aaargh!

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  19. I agree that FAQs can be obnoxious, and the content (and the design that facilitates it) should speak for itself. However, some people are truly too lazy to actually read real content and immediately go to FAQs in order to get quick answers to their questions. I’d call this a necessary evil.

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  20. Not my work but a good example of user submission for FAQs: (http://www.nissanusa.com/leaf-electric-car/details.jsp#/details)

    You mentioned offering users the opportunity to submit questions as opposed to offering canned FAQ’s. I think they really nailed it here with that big form box on every top level page and the category filtering. (Some real detailed tech specs somewhere on the site would be nice though).

    Anyway thank for the article, wouldn’t have thought much of this otherwise.

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  21. I found it humorous how your article seemed to mimic a FAQ. Just add some jump links above the content and you’re good to go.

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  22. Loved your premise, and had already decided to do just that on one of my quilting websites:
    http://tinyurl.com/y2gzs77
    Answers to frequently asked question gleaned from actual questions asked of me, and from those most often asked on a quilting list to which I belong.
    Thanks for the great info.

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  23. Irene: “FAQs, FAQ’s, or FAQ’S”—<sigh> It’s an endless war, isn’t it? “1960s, 1960’s, or 1960’S”—argh. I’m right with you on that, and I love your other points, too. Too many excellent additions to get specific; just consider them added to the article!

    Dallas: Exactly. If you have a specific case where people almost universally want the quick points, this can work well, whether phrased as questions and answers, or just clear headings and snippets.

    David: It’s the classic case of “Doing the right thing is often harder, so we do the easy thing.” So right you are!

    Melanie: Same response as to Dallas above. If you really can determine the quick answers people need, by all means, make it a quick list. As long as one has done the research based on the real content and the real users, create the structures that will best meet their needs!

    AMartin: Thanks for the link. Yes, I hope they also follow it up over time with working the Q/A back into their content.

    Christopher: It was one of those last second ideas. I’m glad you liked it!

    Jan: Coolness. I’d love to know how that works for you over time. Do people ask you these questions directly a little less frequently?

    Sorry for the lateness in responding—was on vacation for a bit. Thanks, everyone for reading!

    Stephen

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  24. I don’t like FAQs. To me, they point to a failure of content and contact. But my biggest problem with FAQs is that the very concept is now devalued beyond usefulness. Over the years, FAQs have been used so inappropriately that many users (myself included) don’t even bother clicking on them any more.

    As has been stated, they’re a lazy way out for organisations… and users too. Surprise, surprise. FAQs don’t answer my question!

    In my content strategy work I like using contextual (on-page) links to related content. Find out what your users are asking, and answer it in the content.

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  25. We’ve done some usability testing on sites with FAQs. This was in the realm of education financing (student loans).

    One interesting thing we saw was that some users will go directly to the FAQs, before looking at anything else on the site! They’ve learned that FAQs is where they will find the info they really need. So even if the site has the information elsewhere, some users will look for it in the FAQs.

    We tried to break up the questions into logical ‘chunks’ to match what users might be looking for.

    In addition to a main FAQs, each section had its own FAQs, with questions and answers relevant only to that section. Users loved it.
    Did we fail in not putting the info they needed elsewhere? Sometimes, but I saw other instances where users skimmed too fast and missed something, but found what they were looking for in the FAQs.

    We did talk to the customer service reps, and they had a lot of extremely valuable information.

    Thanks for the great article!

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  26. It has occurred to me that if a question is really frequently asked, then it should be covered by the content and navigation. There are all too often used to plug poor design. Some of the better FAQs are often items not directly covered and as such are ‘Infrequently but Otherwise Useful Asked Questions’. The question is how to implement them without seeming to repeat the navigation and causing unneccesary confusion. Any suggestions about the definition of an FAQ would be useful.

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  27. Thank you for the thoughtful article, particularly the section on improving your site’s content in response to frequently asked questions instead of simply throwing up a FAQ. That’s a much better way to go about it, IMO, although I guess I have just always taken FAQs for granted, personally.

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  28. I have been doing research on support sites and you really cut this problem to the quick. I cannot stand to navigate the prim-but-useless FAQ pages that mean to stand in for actual customer support. I have however seen several sites employ a page content rating buttons- for FAQ pages what more!- which can give immediate feedback as to the usefulness of a page.

    MindTouch has recently delved into the realm with this exact feature, amongst others, on their MindTouch 2010 software release, meant precisely for technical documentation. Useful for tech comms, and definately worth checking out if you think you are in the boat with those dishing out useless FAQs!

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  29. All I have to add is that was a very good article :)

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  30. People will look for FAQ’s on the page when they have a question. So you can link to them subtly, while focusing on a call to action. Another website conversion tip is to use the FAQ questions to guide the user back to a product or service page.

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