A few thoughts on frequently asked questions (FAQs)

Sarah Winters, , Opinion

I honestly think that if you are writing in a user-centred way, FAQs are at best pointless and redundant.

At worst, they are confusing… and still pointless.

Recently, Neil Williams sent me a link to Susan Farrell’s post about the worth of FAQs. As expected, an interesting Twitter conversation ensued.

Let’s see if I can convince you of their pointlessness.

A couple of Susan’s points

I’m only going to talk about a couple of Susan’s points. I’m aware it's Christmas Eve eve. I'm sure you want to get to the mince pies.

“Good websites don’t need FAQs; we already have search”

This point went on to say how search doesn’t always work and that sites use organisational vocabulary and not user vocabulary – that’s why we should have FAQs. I disagree.

If search isn’t working – fix search, don’t duplicate content to mask the problem.

If you write using the audience’s vocabulary (and if you aren’t doing that, what are you doing?) and use good content design principles, then you don’t need an FAQ to help you out.

“FAQs will expose our bugs and usability issues”

The supporting argument for this one was about showing that your organisation cares.

My first thought was: fix the problem instead of writing an FAQ about it. Of course, sometimes this isn’t practical. But an FAQ page?

What about an ‘our services’ page where you can constantly talk to people. Or use social media etc to address problems proactively. Or, if you are lucky enough to have a planned outage etc, communicate with your audience before it happens, or put it on the pages when it is necessary for the customer journey.

Not sure putting it in an FAQ says ‘we care’.

“Reading FAQs is cumbersome”

This one was saying FAQs are ok for scanning. So is having delivery information on a delivery page and well structured subheads.

You can’t front-load an FAQ.

By their very nature, those sentences start with a question. You are not getting your audience to the main point of your information quickly. Good content design will help scanning, you don’t need an FAQ for it.

“Set the tone of the organisation”

Your tone should be set from the search results. I appreciate, as the point made out, that having a conversation with your audience is important – it is – but you do that from every piece of copy, every tweet, every ad, every single thing you do. Your whole content strategy sets your tone, not one page.

Instagram has an FAQ page.

This is a jumble of questions. People will have to go through irrelevant information – because it goes through a variety of topics – to get to the one they want. And I’m not sure why some of it is here at all.

For example:

  1. What is instagram? That should be on the front page of the site, yes? And err… is.
  2. How much is your app? That should be on the front page of the site, yes? And err… is.
  3. Where does the name come from? and 4. How did the idea come about?

Interesting. Are questions 3 and 4 frequently asked? Well, how about getting rid of everything on the rest of the FAQ page and having it on the company page and make that work? Or a ‘history of Instagram’ or something.

That must be a great story. One people might want to know.

In fact, it’s on their press page and it’s really quite funky. People often put information on one page like this because ‘it’s easy to find’. Really? Let’s look at that.

Delivery times

As it’s Christmas, let’s look at a delivery FAQ page. This one is from Molton Brown.

So I understand that these questions are probably frequently asked. But why aren’t these answers on the delivery page?

Oh wait. They are.

To be fair, it’s been rewritten but it is confusing. To get everything, you might feel you’d have to read both pages. Why do that?

It’s all about the search

My main question about FAQs is: what did your audience enter as a search term to get to that page? Would a member of the public think ‘I’ll type delivery FAQs Molton Brown’? Unlikely. More like ‘Molton Brown delivery’ or something.

This is pointless. The organisation is fighting with itself for search rankings and giving the audience 2 results for essentially the same information. As a user, which one are you meant to choose?

Using FAQs as navigation

Why is your navigation not working? Don’t stick a plaster on it. Fix the underlying cause.

Mince pies

In summary, I haven’t found a single instance when FAQs couldn’t be done in a better, more findable, way. Have you? If so, please let me know and let’s take a look. If not, have a lovely Christmas, a wonderful 2015 and more mince pies and treats than is strictly good for you.

Happy festivities y’all. 😉

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