FAQs: If you have to do one, do it well

How can I write the FAQs when users haven't seen the application let alone asked questions about it?

Anyone who has worked closely with me during my internal communications career will know how I feel about Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs). I formed the opinion fairly early on as I pondered on the reason for their popularity.

What I observed is that people were writing FAQs for new content, in some cases the FAQ was very nearly the only content. I asked myself, and I asked the writers, ‘How can you have a section of Frequently Asked Questions when no questions have actually been asked?’. The response to my question (which I ask frequently) would generally be a blank stare and after fruitless discussion I would begrudgingly publish another FAQ because the writer didn’t have time to, or didn’t want to rewrite.

Before I say something that may potentially insult FAQ fans I implore you to hear me out as being insulting is not my intent (it just happens a lot). At best I believe most FAQs are a writer’s attempt to logically organise their content for lack of a more apparent structure. At worst it is lazy writing, a dumping ground for miscellaneous content or even something to appease a management request.

Even FAQs that are actually born of frequent questions are guilty of a fundamental readability issue in that by nature they are a question so begin with words like how, what, where, who, my and I. So as a reader you scan the page looking for keywords down the left hand side and are forced to read each sentence to find what you might be looking for.

As a user, FAQs are a last resort for me. They are the place I go when I can’t find what I want in navigation or search and is often my frustrated exit point from a site. If your navigation is sound and you have a solid search supported by well written content I feel that FAQs can be avoided.

Knowing that there are always exceptions or situations when the writer just wants to stick with an FAQ here are my hot tips for if you absolutely HAVE to have one (let’s assume that content, navigation and search are great):

  1. They should be frequently asked
  2. Not for new content, or if you have to do the research
  3. Start with a keyword, then introduce the question
  4. Group and sort alphanumeric for easy discovery
  5. Short and snappy is best, link back to your main content for detail
  6. Put contact details on the page, in case they don’t find the answer they were looking for
  7. Update them regularly

I did a bit of a Google and came across an FAQ that I actually think is well structured. As of the time that I published this article the Australian Red Cross Blood Service has what I think is a nicely structured FAQ. Most of the other results I clicked on were what I expected, long lists of questions which were unstructured and difficult to scan read.

Australian Red Cross Blood Service's Frequently Asked Questions
A screenshot of the Australian Red Cross Blood Service’s Frequently Asked Questions page

My focus is mostly from a web perspective, however I think the same can be said for if the content is intended for print medium. I would hope that a well-structured document or handout would trump an FAQ any day.

What are your thoughts on Frequently Asked Questions? I’d love to hear what you think, or if you have any tips on how FAQs can be improved.

4 Responses

  1. I agree completely! #1 and #7 in your list are, to me, the most important, though.

    I actually like FAQs — but then I also take great care to maintain a really good set of them. I think they’re particularly useful when they let you explain specific things in more detail – detail that people do want to know (which is why you’re being asked those questions so frequently) but detail that otherwise interrupts the flow of your website’s main copy. In other words, FAQs can be incredibly useful footnotes :)

    They also let you word things differently from the main copy, based on the wording your customers use when they ask you those questions. Having that alternative wording also makes your website search more useful.

    Finally, I think FAQs are most useful when they answer just one, specific (frequently asked) question.

    I’ve recently started developing a bunch of annotated-screenshot based FAQs in my current job, by the way. Our social media customer service team wanted these because they get asked those questions a lot and, if you don’t use annotated screenshots in your answer, your answer takes 2-3 paragraphs — which really doesn’t work on Facebook and Twitter! Let me know what you think: https://secure.flickr.com/photos/jetstarairways/sets/72157634355600390/

    • Love the Jetstar screenshot FAQs Ameel. I know from experience that Jetstar has a very responsive social media team and could see these being really effective when sent via a tweet or FB message. I look forward to seeing the completed ones and hearing how customers respond.

  2. I agree – how do you know they are frequently asked when its new???? frustrates me as well. Didn’t think about the keyword though – great idea – love what ARCBS have done. Thanks Rebecca

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