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Illustration: A parrot offers advice and answers to all the best questions into a nearby microphone.

Illustration by Dougal MacPherson

The FAQ as Advice Column

Dear A List Apart,

I have a problem that may be harming my content strategy career. In my current position, no one likes FAQs … except for me. The question-and-answer format is satisfying and efficient. Whenever I mention adding an FAQ section to a website, though, I receive numerous suggestions that I should wean myself off FAQs one question at a time or go cold turkey.

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Perhaps that is overdoing it, but sometimes I feel like defending FAQs by pen, sword, or Dothraki horde. Should I keep my addiction to myself, or should I embrace this oddity and champion a format I believe in?

Signed,
FAQ Fanatic

Dear FAQ Fanatic,

You’re not wrong: FAQs are as out of vogue as a fat footer. You’re also not alone. As an aspiring advice columnist, I’ve been wondering why the format is so unpopular even though it remains on many websites. In fact, in a recent A List Apart piece, Richard Rabil, Jr. listed the FAQ as one of many legitimate patterns of organization that you can use when writing.

To address your query properly, I propose some soul-searching through a series of FAQs about FAQs. Let’s tackle the toughest question first.

Can I trust FAQs?

If you are a content strategist or information architect, chances are good you’ve been burned. Lisa Wright nails every single reason why the FAQ can be bad news. It is a poor excuse for a proper content strategy that would generate “purposeful information” across a website. For example, if you see an FAQ, you know right away that the website is duplicating content, which often leads to discrepancies.

FAQs may also lead to a bigger design issue: accordion abuse. The typical FAQ design involves expand-and-collapse features. In theory, this makes it easier for users to scan to find what they need. But in a content migration or consolidation, I’ve seen desperate freelancers or webmasters shove entire web pages under a question just to make an old page fit a new design. If a user is coming to an FAQ for a quick-hit answer, as is often the case, imagine how horrifying it can be to expand a question and see an answer the length of David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest tucked underneath.

Example of long text displaying in an expanded accordion within an FAQ.
How many times have you opened an FAQ accordion and been overwhelmed by the novella beneath?

Can the FAQ and I still be friends?

Ah, you must be a content author. If you’re a content author on a budget, under a deadline, or both, the FAQ will become your bestie—whether you planned on it or not. In my experience, teams bust out the FAQs not because they are lazy but because they find them to be a reliable way to structure content.

When I worked at an agency, a few of my projects were microsites that weren’t so “micro.” Some clients wanted a small site on a minimal CMS within an even more minimal timeline, but the content kept ballooning, leaving no time for true content modeling. The only way to build the content on time was to use the FAQ as a content model or spine.

Like you, I now work with people who avoid FAQs. Since my current agency specializes in site redesigns for higher-ed clients, it’s expected that the information has more structure to begin with—and it usually does. Plus, my particular agency gives information architects and content strategists more time than the norm. From the get-go, our sitemaps, wireframes, and patterns serve as a stable foundation for the content.

Sometimes, though, even the most stable foundations won’t prevent the appearance of an FAQ. If a content team doesn’t get enough time to inventory their content, they’ll probably encounter numerous FAQs. They’ll need to figure out a way to get that content over to the new site somehow … which means those FAQs aren’t going anywhere.

So, do I have to quit FAQs cold turkey?

No. The FAQ structure has held up for so long because it is a brilliant pattern. Think the Socratic method. Or the catechism. Or Usenet. Or “F.A.Q.s about F.A.Q.s.” Or—you guessed it—“Dear Prudence,” “Dear Sugar,” or any other popular advice column. Users will always have questions, and they will always want answers.

What makes FAQs troublesome is incorrect or lazy use. Lisa Wright has already shared what not to do, but perhaps the best way to start an FAQ is to choose each question with great care. For example, advice columnists spend plenty of time selecting what questions they will answer each week. In general, listeners want to hear the advice columnist flexing their mental muscles to resolve the most complicated situations.

If you’re using FAQs correctly, start with the best content possible, and align that content with what both content authors and content consumers want. Content authors can rely on the Q&A structure to deliver quality content on a regular basis while reassuring content consumers that they are receiving the best answers.

FAQ-appropriate content

What is the best content for an FAQ? Thus far, I’ve discussed choosing your questions wisely and keeping your answers short (and, yes, shorter than the answers of a typical advice columnist). Since I’ve worked in higher ed, I’ve had the chance to speak with people who support admissions and enrollment, and they spend most of their time answering frequently asked questions from students and parents.

In one stakeholder interview session with the staff of a community college, it became clear that the questions the staff handled fell into two camps: the questions people ask over and over and the head-scratching edge cases. For example, questions about transcripts or financial aid awards are timeless. As for the edge cases, a full-time student might ask if he or she can get a discount if they want to take a yoga class through a community education program.

For the common content, FAQs shouldn’t repeat what’s already on the website, but they are called “frequently asked questions” for a reason. As long as you provide the content only twice—once in the FAQ and once on a relevant content page—you’re fine. Your authors shouldn’t have to manage anything past that.

With an edge case, the question might be so specific that the answer wouldn’t have a clear home on any page—in my example, the yoga class question would straddle full-time registration and community education. Therefore, even though the off-the-wall question isn’t “frequently asked,” it can still live in the FAQ, and if the edge cases pile up (as they can in the world of higher ed), then you could shift these questions to a blog, which could provide a source of fresh content.

I wouldn’t have known about the full-time student who wants to take a community ed class if it hadn’t emerged during the stakeholder interview. For that reason, you want to talk to customers or students and ask them what questions they’ve had in the past. If you don’t have time for that, read over user research to find out what users typically ask.

Or use Google Search Console to look at the search queries that lead to your site, and figure out how well your site answers those questions. You may find that many of the queries leading to your site are written as questions. In fact, according to a study by Moz and Jumpshot, questions make up approximately 8% of search queries, so this research may help you populate your FAQ. And if you’re looking for inspiration, you could try a tool like Answer the Public (free to access UK data; a monthly payment required for other regions). Type in a keyword like “college applications,” and the tool will serve up a range of questions people have asked in their search queries.

The final way to articulate what works for an FAQ is to describe what doesn’t work. If your answer begins to spin into a narrative instead of a straightforward answer, you might need to add a separate page of content to your sitemap. And if your answer starts to sound too much like marketing copy, then it belongs elsewhere on the site. FAQs exist for those who are further along in the sales process or those who are already sold. Continuing to sell to that audience in an FAQ will only annoy them.

When you know which questions you’re going to cover, you can start to refine the language for your main audiences: authors and consumers.

FAQs for content authors: your in-house reference desk

A clever content author can use an FAQ as a core research document. Armed with a CMS that has a decent back-end search, a content author will have a much easier time keeping content aligned and fact-checked if the FAQ itself is treated as a trustworthy source of information.

For that reason, what Wright calls “documentation-by-FAQ” might not be the worst situation in the world, depending on how much content you’re working with. If you actually have someone tending the FAQ like a garden, your content will always change, but you can be sure of its accuracy.

To convince your more skeptical peers of the value of maintaining your FAQ page or database, tell them that the FAQ is a content opportunity that may save them time. Think of how delightful it is when you get your “Dear Prudence” newsletter or a podcast notification for the latest Han and Matt Know It All. Whenever you add a new question or update a new fact, spread the word among your users. These updates can help feed the social-media-marketing content beast while proving that you want to keep users informed and engaged.

FAQs for content consumers: give them power

Speaking of keeping users informed and engaged, a good FAQ can help the audience even more than it helps content authors. The best way to ensure that the FAQ works for the audience is to give them more control over the questions and answers they see.

Most FAQs, including those on higher-ed sites, chunk up the FAQs by content category, tuck answers into accordions, and stop right there. More effective FAQs, though, provide other forms of interaction. Some allow users to refine information through filters, searches, and tags so the user isn’t stuck opening and closing accordion windows.

For example, the website for Columbia Undergraduate Admissions has a fairly standard format, but the FAQ answers are tagged, so users have another option for navigating through the information. Other higher-ed services, like the syndicated financial aid web channel FATV, answer common FAQs with videos. Changing up the format and providing text, video, and audio options help prospective students feel like they are receiving more personal attention.

Beyond higher-ed FAQs, Amazon encourages users to vote FAQs up and down, Reddit-style, which can lead to fun interactions and enables the users to rate the quality—or humor—of the information they receive.

Amazon’s customer questions and answers feature, which includes the ability to search and vote on answers.
Amazon’s more interactive FAQ model, in which users can vote on answers and search for questions.

You can also remind skeptics that FAQs aren’t always what they expect. The FAQ format has experienced a renaissance in the form of our newly beloved voice gadgets. Some content creators are even using their existing FAQs as the foundation for their Alexa skills. For example, georgia.gov created an Alexa skill by transforming its “Popular Topics” FAQ database, working with Acquia to structure the Q&A format so Alexa can answer common questions from Georgia residents. When describing the project, user experience designer Rachel Hart writes:

If you say “No” to an FAQ question, Alexa skips to the next FAQ, and the next, until you say something sounds helpful or Alexa runs out of questions.

When the user chooses what they want to hear, they need to know exactly what they’re committing to. We need to make sure that our [labeling]—for both titles and FAQs—is clear.

Read that again, dear FAQ fanatic. The complications for Alexa skills arise in the labeling, not in the FAQ itself. In fact, it’s the FAQ content that makes Alexa skills like the one for georgia.gov possible.

So I can make peace with my quirky love of the FAQ?

Indeed. Let your FAQ flag fly. FAQs—or dialogues that convey information—will always exist in some way, shape, or form. As for the accordion, though, the jury is out.

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