Do FAQs improve usability?

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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.

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?

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.” 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.”
  • Show you care. David Coyne says that users appreciate a well-constructed FAQ because it shows you care about their time.
  • 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.”

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.

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?

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?

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?

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?

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.

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