Kill It With Fire! What To Do With Those Dreaded FAQs

In the mid-1640s, a man named Matthew Hopkins attempted to rid England of the devil’s influence, primarily by demanding payment for the service of tying women to chairs and tossing them into lakes.

Unsurprisingly, his methods garnered criticism. Hopkins defended himself in The Discovery of Witches in 1647, subtitled “Certaine Queries answered, which have been and are likely to be objected against MATTHEW HOPKINS, in his way of finding out Witches.”

Each “querie” was written in the voice of an imagined detractor, and answered in the voice of an imagined defender (always referring to himself as “the discoverer,” or “him”):

Quer. 14.

All that the witch-finder doth is to fleece the country of their money, and therefore rides and goes to townes to have imployment, and promiseth them faire promises, and it may be doth nothing for it, and possesseth many men that they have so many wizzards and so many witches in their towne, and so hartens them on to entertaine him.

Ans.

You doe him a great deale of wrong in every of these particulars.

Hopkins’ self-defense was an early modern English FAQ.

Digital beginnings

Question and answer formatting certainly isn’t new, and stretches back much further than witch-hunt days. But its most modern, most notorious, most reviled incarnation is the internet’s frequently asked questions page.

FAQs began showing up on pre-internet mailing lists as a way for list members to answer and pre-empt newcomers’ repetitive questions:

The presumption was that new users would download archived past messages through ftp. In practice, this rarely happened and the users tended to post questions to the mailing list instead of searching its archives. Repeating the “right” answers becomes tedious…

When all the users of a system can hear all the other users, FAQs make a lot of sense: the conversation needs to be managed and manageable. FAQs were a stopgap for the technological limitations of the time.

But the internet moved past mailing lists. Online information can be stored, searched, filtered, and muted; we choose and control our conversations. New users no longer rely on the established community to answer their questions for them.

And yet, FAQs are still around. They’re a content anti-pattern, replicated from site to site to solve a problem we no longer have.

What we hate when we hate FAQs

As someone who creates and structures online content – always with the goal of making that content as useful as possible to people – FAQs drive me absolutely batty. Almost universally, FAQs represent the opposite of useful. A brief list of their sins:

  1. Double trouble


    Duplicated content is practically a given with FAQs. They’re written as though they’ll be accessed in a vacuum – but search results, navigation patterns, and curiosity ensure that users will seek answers throughout the site. Is our goal to split their focus? To make them uncertain of where to look? To divert them to an isolated microcosm of the website? Duplicated content means user confusion (to say nothing of the duplicated workload for maintaining content).

  2. Leaving the job unfinished


    Many FAQs fail before they’re even out of the gate, presenting a list of questions that’s incomplete (too short and careless to be helpful) or irrelevant (avoiding users’ real concerns in favor of soundbites). Alternately, if the right questions are there, the answers may be convoluted, jargon-heavy, or otherwise difficult to understand.

  3. Long lists of not-my-question


    Getting a single answer often means sifting through a haystack of questions. For each potential question, the user must read, comprehend, assess, move on, rinse, repeat. That’s a lot of legwork for little reward – and a lot of opportunity for mistakes. Users may miss their question, or they may fail to recognize a differently worded version of their question, or they may not notice when their sought-after answer appears somewhere they didn’t expect.

  4. The ventriloquist act

    FAQs shift the point of view. While websites speak on behalf of the organization (“our products,” “our services,” “you can call us for assistance,” etc.), FAQs speak as the user – “I can’t find my password” or “How do I sign up?” Both voices are written from the first-person perspective, but speak for different entities, which is disorienting: it breaks the tone and messaging across the website. It’s also presumptuous: why do you get to speak for the user?

These all underscore FAQs’ fatal flaw: they are content without context, delivered without regard for the larger experience of the website. You can hear the absurdity in the name itself: if users are asking the same questions so frequently, then there is an obvious gulf between their needs and the site content. (And if not, then we have a labeling problem.)

Instead of sending users to a jumble of maybe-it’s-here-maybe-it’s-not questions, the answers to FAQs should be found naturally throughout a website. They are not separated, not isolated, not other. They are the content.

To present it otherwise is to create a runaround, and users know it. Jay Martel’s parody, “F.A.Q.s about F.A.Q.s” captures the silliness and frustration of such a system:

Q: Why are you so rude?

A: For that answer, you would have to consult an F.A.Q.s about F.A.Q.s about F.A.Q.s. But your time might be better served by simply abandoning your search for a magic answer and taking responsibility for your own profound ignorance.

FAQs aren’t magic answers. They don’t resolve a content dilemma or even help users. Yet they keep cropping up, defiant, weedy, impossible to eradicate.

Where are they all coming from?

Blame it on this: writing is hard. When generating content, most of us do whatever it takes to get some words on the screen. And the format of question and answer makes it easy: a reactionary first stab at content development.

After all, the point of website content is to answer users’ questions. So this – to give everyone credit – is a really good move. Content creators who think in terms of questions and answers are actually thinking of their users, particularly first-time users, trying to anticipate their needs and write towards them.

It’s a good start. But it’s scaffolding: writing that helps you get to the writing you’re supposed to be doing. It supports you while you write your way to the heart of your content. And once you get there, you have to look back and take the scaffolding down.

Leaving content in the Q&A format that helped you develop it is missing the point. You’re not there to build scaffolding. You have to see your content in its naked purpose and determine the best method for communicating that purpose – and it usually won’t be what got you there.

The goal (to borrow a lesson from content management systems) is to separate the content from its presentation, to let the meaning of the content inform its display.

This is, of course, a nice theory.

An occasionally necessary evil

I have a lot of clients who adore FAQs. They’ve developed their content over a long period of time. They’ve listened to the questions their users are asking. And they’ve answered them all on a page that I simply cannot get them to part with.

Which means I’ve had to consider that there may be occasions where an FAQ page is appropriate.

As an example: one of my clients is a financial office in a large institution. Because this office manages several third-party systems that serve a range of niche audiences, they had developed FAQs that addressed hyper-specific instances of dysfunction within systems for different users – à la “I’m a financial director and my employee submitted an expense report in such-and-such system and it returned such-and-such error. What do I do?”

Yes, this content could be removed from the question format and rewritten. But I’m not sure it would be an improvement. It won’t necessarily resolve concerns about length and searchability, and the different audiences may complicate the delivery. And since the work of rewriting it didn’t fit into the client workflow (small team, no writers, pressed for time), I didn’t recommend the change.

I’ve had to make peace with not being to torch all the FAQs on the internet. Some content, like troubleshooting information or complex procedures, may be better in that format. It may be the smartest way for a particular client to handle that particular information.

Of course, this has to be determined on a case-by-case basis, taking into account the amount of content, the subject matter, the skill levels of the content creators, the publishing workflow, and the search habits of the users.

If you determine that an FAQ page is the only way to go, ask yourself:

  • Is there a better label or more specific term for the page (support, troubleshooting, product concerns, etc.)?
  • Is there way to structure the page, categorize the questions, or otherwise make it easier for users to navigate quickly to the answer they need?
  • Is a question and answer format absolutely the best way to communicate this information?

Form follows function

Just as a question and answer format isn’t necessarily required to deliver the content, neither is it an inappropriate method in and of itself. Content professionals have developed a knee-jerk reaction: It’s an FAQ page! Quick, burn it! Buuuuurn it!

But there’s no inherent evil in questions and answers. Framing content in an interrogatory construct is no more a deal with the devil than subheads and paragraphs, or narrative arcs, or bullet points.

Yes, FAQs are riddled with communication snafus. They deserve, more often than not, to be tied to a chair and thrown into a lake. But that wouldn’t fix our content problems. FAQs are a shiny and obvious target for our frustration, but they’re not unique in their flaws. In any format, in any display, in any kind of page, weak content can rear its ugly, poorly written head.

It’s not the Q&A that’s to blame, it’s bad content. Content without context will always fail users. That’s the real witch in our midst.

About the author

Lisa Maria Martin is a content strategist, information architect, and writer in Washington, DC. In her previous lives, she’s been a copywriter, a designer, a journalist, and a lecturer at several universities, extolling the virtues of MLA citation and Oxford commas. When she isn’t making an honest living, her writing shows up in lit journals like Pleiades, Puerto del Sol, The Indiana Review, and others. You can read Lisa Maria’s every-blue-moon blog at thefutureislikepie.com, or follow her on Twitter @redsesame (but she mostly tweets about doges and Star Trek. Fair warning).

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