Infrequently Asked Questions of FAQs
Issue № 303

Infrequently Asked Questions of FAQs

Call me a heretic, but I hate FAQs. I understand that the FAQ has become de rigueur for websites, and I get that users expect them as a conventional content type. I even acknowledge that the FAQ has a venerable history. I don’t find them helpful, however: no one ever seems to ask my questions.

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So I have questions about FAQs: Do they really work, or are they just a snake oil remedy for poor content? What does it mean when I can’t find my question in the FAQ? What do I do when the FAQ fails?

Do FAQS improve usability?#section1

FAQs often read like a catechism, a fictitious back-and-forth conversation between the eager, inexperienced user and the wise, venerable expert, covering all the basics from the beginning, and urging purchase at every step:

Q: What is this product?
A: It’s a widget. It’s the best widget you’ll ever find. You should buy one.

Q: Is it hard to use?
A: NO! It’s the easiest widget on the market. You should buy one…

On the whole, FAQs like these patronize users. (Incidentally, the Greek root of catechism means, literally, to “talk down” to someone.)

While there isn’t much research supporting the usability of FAQs, they are a frequent topic among experts. Their advice includes:

  • Include real frequently asked questions. Jakob Nielsen addressed FAQs as one of the “biggest usability mistakes of 2002.” [1] He said, “Too many websites have FAQs that list questions the company wished users would ask. No good.” Most FAQs seem to constitute a basic instruction manual or else call attention to selling features, making them only marginally useful to users with real questions.
  • Make sure you really need a FAQ. David Hamill offers a variety of tips, but cautions against having a FAQ for FAQ’s sake. “If your FAQ page is answering questions that the rest of the website should answer, then you have a problem with your site content.” [2]
  • Show you care. David Coyne says that users appreciate a well-constructed FAQ because it shows you care about their time. [3]
  • Keep it short and simple. Many other authors offer FAQ pitfalls and how-tos, and they are generally in agreement: Organize your FAQs in sections; make them simple, skimmable, and prominent; and ensure that they reflect the questions your users really do ask frequently. Feedback Army sums up their FAQ approach like this: “The trick is to make it easy to skim, keep it short, follow the right format, and stock it with questions people ask.” [4]

The best case I’ve found for FAQs comes from Jonathan and Lisa Price in their book, Hot Text: Web Writing That Works:

When guests get stuck they most often turn to the FAQ, because the style seems friendlier than the average help system, and the genre promises answers to real questions from users, rather than a stonewalling corporate pile of documentation. [5]

They surmise that the form originated in the pre-web world of the ListServ. Regular participants, weary of answering the same questions again and again from newcomers, would put their collective wisdom into FAQs and then admonish the uninitiated: “Yo, Noob! Read the FAQ before you post!”

I see their point. FAQs work on ListServs and Forums because their content comprises a spaghetti stream of topical, threaded conversations. A website—or any redacted document, for that matter—is different. The content on a website is composed, planned, and edited. If it doesn’t answer people’s questions, then it has only itself to blame.

Are FAQS still in my future?#section2

A good FAQ is like insurance for your users: There when they need it, but hopefully they never will. If you decide that FAQs have a place in your content strategy, then I suggest the following:

  • Collect, track, and analyze your users’ real frequently asked questions. You need a way to gather your users’ questions and comments, so that you can sort through them and look for patterns.
  • Sales inquiries: When people call to ask questions about your products or your website, document precisely what they ask. Not only will this suggest content areas that are missing or unclear, but you’ll better understand your users’ decision-making process.
  • Support requests: Troubleshooting and frustrations give you a rich field of user feedback. If you have a call center, listen to recorded calls and ask your customer service representatives to pay attention to recurring questions. If you have a support request system on the web, study your support tickets.
  • Ask directly: If you do have a FAQ on your website, include a form that says, “Didn’t find your question here? What would you like to know?” Doing this creates a record of the questions you aren’t answering, as well as additional opportunities to follow up on with your users.

Use that insight to improve your site’s content. Having gathered these questions, look for patterns. Are there, in fact, any questions users ask frequently? Don’t just add them to your FAQ in the name of completeness. Sort the questions into piles. Look for common words. Count the frequency of occurrences. As soon as you see a pattern, look for ways to address it elsewhere in your content. Are users confused? Clarify the wording of the section that was originally intended to answer those questions. Are users looking for content that isn’t there? Create it. Are users looking for love in all the “wrong” places on your site? Reorganize it.

Never build your content strategy on the FAQ. Even if you create your FAQ from questions people actually ask, you should only use it to supplement your overall content strategy. Carefully consider your reasons for including a FAQ and your goals for supporting your users.

Are FAQs ever appropriate?#section3

There are occasions when a FAQ is exactly the right way to go.

To answer the one question users ask before reading further. If you discover that a significant part of your target audience is looking for a quick answer to a few, simple questions, then it can help to pull them out so they don’t have to spend a lot of time digging around. If customers absolutely need a service to synchronize Outlook files, use the FAQ to tell them whether your service is right for them.

To demonstrate that you really have listened to your users’ questions. If you have completed exhaustive, authentic research into your users’ needs and preferences, you can use the FAQ to demonstrate to users that you understand their concerns. Such a FAQ could be used in response to a public relations crisis, for example. Just make sure that you’ve done your research: people will see right through a phony FAQ.

To reassure users that their questions are normal. Likewise, you could use your FAQ to show users that other people are asking the same questions as they are. This technique works especially well for health concerns: “Everything you ever wanted to know about [blank], but were afraid to ask….”

Is my FAQ doing what it should?#section4

Whatever you do, make sure you subject your FAQs to the same rigorous usability testing as the rest of your site. Since you have already considered your reasons and strategy for including a FAQ, you can now test whether it achieves the goals you set out for it.

What have I concluded?#section5

FAQs are ubiquitous and familiar and occasionally helpful. They have a place in your content strategy, but use them carefully: if your users are asking the same questions frequently, consider how you can improve your content before reaching for a FAQ.

Which works have I cited?#section6

[1] Nielsen, Jakob. 2002. Top Ten Web-Design Mistakes of 2002. “http://www.useit.com/alertbox/20021223.html”:http://www.useit.com/alertbox/20021223.html (accessed March 4, 2010).

[2] Hamill, David. 2009. Good Usability >> FAQ Usability. “http://www.goodusability.co.uk/2009/05/faq-usability/”:http://www.goodusability.co.uk/2009/05/faq-usability/ (accessed March 4, 2010).

[3] Coyne, David. How to Write an Effective FAQ Page. “http://webhostinggeeks.com/articles/web-design/19990.php”:http://webhostinggeeks.com/articles/web-design/19990.php (accessed March 4, 2010).

[4] Feedback Army. 2010. Six Tips For a Killer FAQ Page. “http://blog.feedbackarmy.com/usability-testing/six-tips-for-a-killer-faq-page/”:http://blog.feedbackarmy.com/usability-testing/six-tips-for-a-killer-faq-page/ (accessed March 4, 2010).

[5] Price, Jonathan and Lisa Price. 2002. Hot Text: Web Writing That Works. Berkeley: New Riders.

30 Reader Comments

  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.

  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?

  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.

  4. 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.

  5. 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.

  6. 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.

  7. 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.

  8. 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 🙂

  9. 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?

  10. 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.

  11. 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.

  12. 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.

  13. 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!

  14. 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.

  15. 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.

  16. 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.

  17. 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.

  18. Irene: “FAQs, FAQ’s, or FAQ’S”– 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

  19. 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.

  20. 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!

  21. 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.

  22. 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.

  23. 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!

  24. 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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