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FAQs: A Content Strategy Smackdown

At a rate of around once a fortnight, I find myself trying to convince clients, friends or people I’ve just met on a bus that FAQs (frequently asked questions) on websites are BAD and WRONG.

I’m not alone in thinking this. Earlier this year, R. Stephen Gracey wrote a great piece about FAQs for A List Apart. And he was following on from stalwart Jakob Nielsen who talked about “infrequently asked questions” in an end-of-year summary of web mistakes on useit.com.

Both Nielsen and Gracey reflect on big problems with FAQs, but both also concede that they’re sometimes necessary. I’m not convinced. I think they’re a scourge.

So why are FAQs bad?
As a content strategist, a hefty part of my day is spent thinking about content. Not content floating on its own in the ether in a writerly, poetical kinda way. Content in situ.

Good website content (and, indeed, good content anywhere) is best when it fits (space, tone, context) and when it’s found (i.e. it is where you either expect it or need it to be).

Sitemaps, page structure, design and words…all of these things should combine online to create an intuitive, comprehensible experience for website visitors. Content should be structured (and labelled) in a way that enables visitors to see it, and to click with confidence. This is the fundamental job of content strategy and user experience folks.

FAQs = fail. They’re a generic spot where businesses and site writers lump stuff, out of context. Any stat you have that shows a user moving from any other page of your site into your FAQs is a mark of failure.

Content should be clear and in context. No room for it on the page where a user might expect to see it? Make room!

Questions are OK….sometimes
I’m not saying that question-and-answer sections are, in themselves, bad. Usually they are, but sometimes they’re the best way to communicate information, and have the advantage of forcing site writers to actually try to think like a site visitor.

If I’m selling t-shirts, it makes great sense to have a “Questions about our t-shirts” area, where I might pre-empt queries such as:

  • How do I choose the right size?
  • Are there special washing instructions?
  • Where are the t-shirts made?
  • What if my t-shirt doesn’t fit?

If I’m feeling radical, I might even keep track of questions people actually do ask, and use these on the site. Crazy, sure. But it might be just crazy enough to work.

I could link to these questions from every specific t-shirt product page (actually, I’d probably recommend listing the questions on each of these pages and linking to answers or showing them in hover windows).

I might also have a section containing info about shipping and returns. And I’d call it “Shipping and returns”. If I wanted, I could present these as a Q&A. But what’s the benefit? Might as well present my information clearly under friendly, easy-to-scan headings such as:

  • Shipping options and costs
  • Tracking and delivery times
  • Customs
  • Multiple items
  • T-shirt returns

…and anything else I needed to tell people about the fine art of mailing a t-shirt to someone.

In both of these examples, it would be a mistake – a terrible, lazy mistake – to put this important info into a generic FAQ.

Why?

When did you last look at FAQs? Was it up-front when you first arrived on a new site? Did you load the site thinking, “Oh golly, I just can’t wait to feast my eyes on them FAQs!”?

Probably not.

Most likely, you were looking for information that you couldn’t find elsewhere. Your search around the site probably wasn’t exhaustive, but you figured, well, there’s the FAQs in the navigation. Maybe I’ll take a look there.

And did you find what you needed?

Probably not.

Terrible.

(As others have pointed out, FAQs are rarely actually questions people ask frequently. They’re more likely to be details the site owners want to tell people, but they couldn’t think of a better place to put them.)

Or maybe you landed in the FAQs from a search of the site. Good news – you probably got the information you needed. Shame it wasn’t placed in its logical site context, where you probably would have found it without needing to search.

Lazy.

Content strategy is about putting the right content in the right place at the right time. It’s about creating positive experiences for users. It’s about making sure the content is there when and where they need it.

FAQs fail every one of these objectives. Site designers, UX practitioners and lovers of content need to work harder. FAQs must die!

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Date: Friday, 29. October 2010 11:54
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Subject area: Being bad, User focus, Web dev
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