Tuesday, 23 September 2014

Frequently asked questions (FAQs): not frequent and never asked

If your client asks you to create a frequently asked questions (FAQs) section on their website, think carefully before you put finger to keyboard.

Why? Well, if an organisation has worked out a proper plan and structure for its content (a content strategy and information architecture), essential information should exist already and have a proper home. There should be no need for an FAQs page.

An example: delivery costs

If you find yourself adding delivery cost - essential information - to an FAQs page surely there's something wrong with the design of your shopping pages?

Surely delivery cost should be integrated into the product page and check-out process? And yet one of Clarks shoes' FAQs is ''What are your delivery charges?'

Myth: FAQs are frequently asked  

In practice, many FAQs are not frequently asked. Take this example from a London museum:
"I have soft fruit in my bag. Can I check my bag into the museum's cloakroom?'

This FAQ was suggested by cloakroom staff who found a squashed banana in a carrier bag. OK, bananas make a sticky mess but it only ever happened once.

The right thing to do was put up a warning notice in the cloakroom about the kinds of item you can't check in.

Some FAQs are never asked

Some FAQs are never asked. For example, when you're filling in your tax return on the HM Revenue and Customs website, do you ever wonder: "What else can I do online?"

Publishing answers to questions you wish people will ask was cited as in Nielsen Norman Group's top 10 design mistakes in 2002.

FAQs are a lazy cop-out

Recently, a government agency found its audience couldn't understand its guidelines on a certain topic. The agency's reaction was to add a page of FAQs to try and clarify.

But adding FAQs:
  • duplicates existing information
  • confuses search results - you'll have 2 similar pages and people won't know which to choose
If people find your content confusing, it's far better to rewrite the original content than add FAQs.

My favourite FAQ

My fondest FAQ was from Cardiff University several years ago: 'What can I do if my question has not been answered by the FAQs'?

And today many of Cardiff uni's FAQs are not even questions:

  • I forgot to print my enrolment confirmation?
  • I am unsure of the information I am being asked to provide online?
  • My module registrations are wrong?


Client still wants FAQs?


If your client insists on having FAQs, I guess you'll have to produce them but you can make them a whole lot better. Divide the information into groups of related items to make them scannable.

This is what EasyJet does, with headings like 'Baggage', 'Check-in', 'Special assistance'.

FAQ wars

Content strategist Gerry McGovern thinks FAQs are the dinosaur of web navigation. While the Nielsen Norman group says FAQs add value. You can make up your own mind but I'm with Gerry.

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