It’s common practice today for websites to include Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs). Companies believe that sales increase when users fully comprehend the product. But the question is whether FAQs are helpful. Do they improve usability, or do they backfire and cause people to abandon the site in frustration?
Origin of FAQs
FAQs originated in the world of ListServ, where participants in forums kept answering recurring questions again and again because newcomers found it challenging to search the archives for previous answers. Since storage was expensive and repetition was tedious, regular participants collected common questions and wrote standardized answers. Then they were able to refer newcomers to those specific responses. This was desirable for forums which consisted of constant streams of conversation and referred to specific problems. However, it’s not necessarily appropriate for websites, which are composed of organized, selected and edited text. When writing content for the Web, the writer should consider possible user questions and include the answers as part of the content before releasing the text online.
At first, companies produced hard copy, printed instruction manuals to accompany their product. As technology developed (and ecologically-minded people wanted to save the trees), those manuals went online. Later, a minimalist philosophy developed in which shorter online manuals were actually preferred. This allowed average users to pinpoint a topic they wanted to explore and go directly to the information they needed. Users learned about the product while actively engaged. Once users felt a sense of control and autonomy with the product, they were inspired to continue learning, so companies developed FAQs to help guide customers through more difficult tasks. While this was appropriate for products which involved step-by-step instructions (such as simple payment and tracking information), many websites adopted the popular FAQ format for a broader range of information.
The Problem with FAQs
Many users enjoy the friendly help style of FAQs. If composed correctly, users can locate a specific answer to their problem without having to waste valuable time scrolling and skimming through a complete online instruction manual. However, often FAQs just replace poor content. The same information could have been included within the content instead. Also, many companies use FAQs as advertisement blurbs to continue promoting their product or emphasize certain features. Finally, many companies include questions in their FAQs that they wish users would ask instead of actual user queries. As a result, users don’t find answers to their questions and feel patronized.
While many companies find the FAQs inexpensive and simple to produce, there are often contradictions between the main text and the FAQs that could cause user confusion. Information can get out-of-sync easily, especially if there are multiple authors on the site who aren’t all knowledgeable about the specific product. There are numerous examples where allergy information for food products sold online isn’t mentioned in the main text, yet it’s mentioned in the FAQ section. This inconsistent information can mislead customers if they don’t read the entire site. Additionally, it’s difficult to organize the information into an understandable order using question-answer format. Moreover, the wording of the question is often too specific, so that users don’t feel that the answer is relevant to them.
When FAQs are Appropriate
There are some instances where FAQs are necessary on a website:
- When there’s a question that needs to be answered before continuing on with the content. For example, if a person needs to judge whether the product is appropriate before expending time and effort reading about its advantages.
- When you want to show users you did authentic research to understand their concerns or updated certain aspects of the product according to user preferences.
- To reassure users that their questions are normal when they are embarrassed to ask directly. This is appropriate when referring to health issues because it reassures users that other people also have similar concerns. For example, “Everything you want to know about….but were afraid to ask.”
Transactional activities (such as payment, returns and refunds) and instructions (such as filling in forms or building do-it-yourself furniture) are good topics for FAQs. Make sure to word these sections clearly, using specific titles, and focus on one particular task at a time. Avoid marketing language or company history.
How to Create Helpful FAQs
Before deciding to include FAQs on your website, look for ways to address users’ concerns directly within the content. Clarify unclear wording, reorganize the content, or reformat the text. If you decide to proceed with FAQs nevertheless, keep in mind that the FAQ section should be edited as thoroughly as the content itself.
- Include real questions users ask. Track questions from call centers and look for patterns or recurring problems. Ask users for feedback if the responses were helpful and if they would like to know more about a particular topic.
- Organize the FAQs by topic and include headings or bullet points to enable users to easily locate answers to their questions without having to scroll down the entire list. Use keywords or clear categories.
- Keep the responses short and simple. Answer the specific questions without adding additional information.
- Place the FAQ section in a noticeable location on the website and update it regularly to reflect changes.
Alternative Solution: Content Management Strategy (CMS)
As opposed to unstructured FAQs, companies are now investing in information architects to build comprehensive management strategy (CMS), specifically designed to promote their product based on the company’s goals and its intended users. The content is purposeful throughout the site and meets users’ needs. In fact, within a single website, different areas could be aimed at different users for different purposes. For example, if the company’s goal is to show the advantages of their product over a competitor’s, there should be a general information section with a list the product’s features. Alternatively, if the company’s goal is to guide users who already own the product resolve troubleshooting issues, there should be a section with specific, detailed instructions. Wording and organizing each section differently, builds user trust and encourages the company’s brand loyalty.
In order to build content strategy, the information architect needs to define the company’s goals, access what the users will need to accomplish them, and organize the information accordingly with appropriate language. For example, if the company’s goal is to help a user pay a bill or purchase an item, then the information should be written clearly and concisely in sequential steps. Whereas, if the company’s goal is to convince someone to adopt an idea or political platform, the text should be structured logically, building up to the final argument, and perhaps using charts and graphs as well.
With CMS, linked information refers users back to the original location so there’s no chance for duplicate or contradictory information. The company can easily update information on the website or remove topics by just preserving the links. Furthermore, information is arranged by general topics using as concise language as possible so users can easily find the answers they need.
If users have specific questions that are not covered by general FAQs, they have the option of contacting a help forum directly.
There are numerous volunteer help forums, such as Bleeping Computer, that offer technical help to anyone with a technical problem. Techies might choose to volunteer on a help forum as casual volunteers, or to take on a longer commitment that involves intense training, in order to gain experience in the field.
These forums insist that the volunteers abide by a strict set of guidelines. The help forum Tech Support Guy quotes, “We also ask that everyone use proper forum etiquette when posting. This means that you should always be polite and respectful of others.” It’s hard to know if the volunteer information is reliable, yet the forums insist that all technical support be publicly visible, so as to offer the opportunity for peer-review and correct potentially harmful advice.
In addition, there is a growing trend for techies to willingly volunteer their time for causes they feel passionate about. Sites such as catchafire.org or hashtag charity match up a volunteer’s skill set with an organization’s needs. Similarly, Microsoft and Intel have developed outreach programs where they encourage their employees to volunteer for non-profit organizations.
Microsoft’s program Tech Talent for Good offers that for every hour an employee volunteers, Microsoft donates an additional $25 to the non-profit organization. In 2014 Microsoft employees raised over $117 million dollars for nonprofits around the world.
In conclusion, while under certain circumstances, FAQs can be effective; generally, alternative strategies for obtaining help are more useful than FAQs. Content management strategies, built by information architects, replace the need for FAQs by creating purposeful content; while help forums answer users’ questions more directly.
© Bonnie Weinberg, 2019. All rights reserved.