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

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  1. Thomas Yung

    I think the point of the article is that FAQs should not be a training manual for the product or site in question. If it is, then the failure lies in the design of the product/site. FAQs have their place, but NOT as a training manual or a replacement for bad design.

  2. Gary

    So, the ultimate evil would be an FAQ in an accordion-type list that hides the answers (the actual content) behind a click. I’ve admittedly made those in the past.

    I like describing an FAQ as a framework for content, instead of content itself.

    If you’re writing an FAQ for a new drink at a coffee establishment, a typical FAQ might be:

    Q: Are your beans grown ethically?
    A: All our beans are grown in fair-trade ethical methods, including our state-of-the-art roasting factory in New Mexico.

    Q: Where are your beans produced?
    A: All our beans are produced in ethically run family farms in Cuba and shipped up to our state-of-the-art roasting factory in New Mexico.

    OR…. you could make that part of your main selling features in your marketing copy…

    Try our new mocha-crappa-cino. It made from the finest Cuban beans, ethically produced in family-run farms and then shipped to our state-of-the-art roasting facility in New Mexico.

    Those kind of FAQs are the ones that you want to avoid. Focus on good content and you want need to worry about those kinds of FAQs.

  3. Pie

    Shaun, the point is that the FAQ shouldn’t be the default answer. Sure, if you have a site whose primary purpose is to assist people with problems, an FAQ may make sense. If the site is part of a community, maybe a briefing page for new members would work better. If you are providing/selling training, the need for a FAQ shows the complete failure of the design throughout the rest of the site.

    Lisa Maria didn’t say that FAQs NEVER make sense. She appears to point out that we need to think before using FAQs and make sure that there is a valid reason and that it isn’t out of lazy habit.

    -Pie

  4. Tricia

    I feel like we might be missing a bit of context here, ironically enough. If you’re building a marketing website, with the primary purpose of being a place to consume content, you probably are doing something wrong if you depend on FAQs. The idea that FAQs are an intermittent step to get to the real writing is accurate in this case. Actually, getting a client to generate FAQs might be a good way to start them thinking about the information they need to convey.

    However, if you’re talking about something like SaaS with high levels of interaction and user learning happening at every turn, that’s a different story. A list of not-my-question isn’t the right answer, nor is throwing your users into a dreaded forum where maybe they’ll find something useful… or maybe they’ll immediately leave because forums are usually insane places.

    “Bad design” can be the result of any number of constraints (budget, company priorities, legal requirements, nutty CEOs) and we should always strive to solve the root of a problem. But just because we’re not there yet doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try to provide support for users in other ways.

    The idea of simply re-labeling your FAQs to “support” really skirts the deeper issue. If you still have a page of Q&A that ignores user experience, how is that label really any better?

    Help content has been drastically overlooked, and content strategists that simply say “burn the FAQs!” haven’t been helping. The reality is that users need support, and smart self-service help content can be the most economical and effective option for many companies.

    I think the biggest issue with FAQs is not the information itself, but the fact that we don’t take the time and care to craft an experience around how users might find, consume, and use knowledge—and the potential for really positive experiences as a result (e.g., I was trying to solve a specific problem, did that, then found a way to kick it up a notch with a related feature or hack).

    We need to think about how users are searching for information and answers, their level of expertise with technology and the product, what next steps will be relevant for them (and what steps are erroneous), etc. We need to be selective in what information we show at any given time to provide a curated, helpful experience instead of a tidal wave of quasi-relevant information.

    Speaking of which, have you seen MailChimp’s self-support? This knowledge base inspired me to my current position (working as a help content strategist), and I think there’s a lot to learn here about how to turn users with problems into users who are deeply engaged and sometimes in love with a product.

  5. Shawn

    I still don’t see the problem with FAQs. So what if there is another option to find content? People are smart, they know what FAQs are. They are not confused because content is duplicated or the voice has changed, they understand how they work. There is hardly any downside to having one.

  6. Rich Malley

    I’ve written a ton of FAQs in my day. I think they can be useful in many situations. The problem is, most of this content is created BEFORE the experience goes live. So they aren’t “Frequently Asked Questions>” No, they’re “Answers to Questions We Expect Will Be Frequently Asked But Haven’t Been Yet.” And that’s a recipe for a poor Help experience. If the sites and apps that use FAQs would actively iterate them to reflect the REAL user problems and questions they encounter most often (while eliminating the FAQs that no one really asks), FAQs would be a more useful tool.

  7. Chris Lawson

    See, I was around when all those first FAQs were done up, as concatenated messages, dumped in a directory.

    They were done precisely because the list maintainers didn’t want to be bothered explaining anything about the list culture and rules and if a user didn’t slog through the FAQ it was officially their own fault. My other favourite acronym from the time was RTFM.

    Part of not wanting to be bothered was not wanting to bother organizing the information.

    But the FAQs did have critical information in them.

    Fast forward to the website where the critical information might still be trussed up and hidden in the FAQs. Of those sites where it is, though shouldn’t that beg the question “So what’s all that other stuff you call content, then?”

    FAQs are a crutch for people who don’t or won’t organize their content.

  8. Scott

    I personally don’t see the problem with a well maintained and useful set of FAQs.
    Like any content, if they’re shoddily written and poorly maintained then they’re useless. But if that’s the case, the rest of the content on the site is likely to be useless too.

  9. Brenna

    FAQs can be extremely helpful when used in context and well maintained. The “shift in point of view” has never bothered me when using an FAQ page. It’s expected…in my opinion.

    “…if users are asking the same questions so frequently, then there is an obvious gulf between their needs and the site content.” Definitely if you’re talking about questions such as, “How do I contact customer service?” Contact information should be easy to find. But more detailed or technical questions about a product or service that isn’t managed on the website itself, can be a perfect fit for an FAQ page.

    To be honest, I don’t see FAQs as inherently bad. Like all web content, if it’s useful and current, great. If not, lose it. Of course, then someone will need to make that determination!

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