How to Write FAQs: Don’t

A lot of early trends in Web communication—blinking, bold text; cutesy link names like “Behind the Magic” instead of “About Us”; Flash splash pages—have faded, but frustrating and unhelpful Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) remain. It’s time to retire them, or seriously reform them.

My Issues with FAQs

Frequently Asked? Really?

It’s hard to believe the questions in most FAQs are asked frequently. Often, they are so obscure or detailed I can’t imagine who would ask them.

If Asked So Frequently, Give the Answers Better Locations

If they truly are questions visitors frequently ask, why hide them in a FAQ? Answer those questions in obvious places. Put shipping information on the ordering page. Talk about a product’s history on a sub-page for that product.

Unusable, Self-Defeating Pages

Often, FAQs contains scores of Q&As answering every possible question. Linked questions at the top of the page go down to the answers. Trouble is, by forcing a visitor to read through so many questions, they’re likely to give up, defeating the page’s purpose of providing information.

However, a reader may hit CTRL+F and search the page for a keyword. But again, too much information might drive a visitor away. If I find the first 10 results for “Shipping” don’t answer my question—even though I’m only a 1/3 of the way through the page—I’m leaving.

For external search engines, a long FAQ can serve as (unintentional) search bait and your site’s top ranked page. If I go looking for product info but find the FAQ, I’m going to the next site in the search results.

Today, You Probably Don’t Need a FAQ

FAQs began when the Web was young, trying to provide exhaustive information in a publish-only world. Today, technology and mature Web communications practices make this approach unnecessary.

Tools & Technology

  • Site Search: Rather than writing a FAQ, break content into levels of detail—basic information, supporting information a layer deeper, details technical specs a layer below that. Then, use something like Google Site Search so users can zero-in on information they’re looking for.
  • Wikis & Forums: There are many free, open source wikis and forums where customers and staff can interact to provide answers to questions. These tools allow previously asked questions and answers to searchable, reducing the need for them to be asked again, plus provide the opportunity to engage customers directly.

80/20 Rule

For Web communications, the 80/20 rule is: 80% of customer questions can be answered by 20% of your knowledge.

Put another way, most questions will deal with (what to you is) simple and basic issues, and they will be asked repeatedly. Questions about very specific and detailed knowledge are rarely asked.

So, if detailed question are rare, why expend the effort to guess what they are, write and edit the text, and post it online? Better to provide basic information and put up a forum, wiki or “Contact Us” form to deal with those rarely-asked, detailed question.

But You Might Need One

That said, if your site covers a complex topic where the needs of every user might be unique (customizable software, doing your taxes), a FAQ might be needed.

So what to do? Develop your Q&As, but integrate links to them throughout the site:

When completing form #1234, you must fill in “family history” and provide your ABC# for the appropriate time period.

The three links might go to their own Q&A, which in turn has links to more information (including other Q&As), letting the user follow a path until he/she finds the needed information.

What’s Can We Learn from FAQs?

Though I’m not a fan of FAQs, a good lesson is their question and answer format. As I’ve done in this section, using a question as a heading tells the user an answer will follow. Often, a question is shorter and easier to digest than trying to summarize an entire section. For Web writing, this is vital for someone scanning a page.

Closing Thought: Rename FAQs?

Though I’ve spent this post dissecting FAQs, perhaps we’ve reached a point where the term FAQ has become a word in its own right.

Consider we have “KFC” instead of “Kentucky Fried Chicken” because they don’t want to use the word “fried” (and it might not be chicken). Or “R&B” is no longer “rhythm and blues” but a form of pop/dance music.

Similarly, perhaps FAQs no longer contain frequently asked questions, but a page on the site to convey information too detailed or obscure to put anywhere else.

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