Thursday 21 March 2013

The question I’m most frequently asked

What is it? An FAQ
In some circles I have a reputation for hating FAQs (frequently asked questions). This is why.

FAQs often creep in because people are too lazy to write proper web pages or are too scared to say no when departments say they want them. HR and IT people are particularly fond of them.

And there’s no need. They are easily re-written. Just change the questions to headings.

e.g. “How do I book a course?” becomes “Book a course”. 

FAQs are bad for many, many reasons. Some of the main ones are:

  • They don’t front-load the keywords that you want people to see – your eye is drawn to the What, Why and How in the question, rather than the important words (e.g. in the above example, you want people to see the word “Book”). People scan rather than reading every word online, and this format doesn’t help them find the information they want quickly.
  • They are often repetitive. The same answer is given to multiple questions.
    e.g. “How do I do thing x ? Contact person y. 
    How do I do thing z? Contact person y."
    Instead, just have a clear heading at the top or bottom – “Contacts”.
  • They create grammatical headaches. Should it be “How do I…” or “How do you…” ? They are hard to write well, and also hard to read, because the user is distracted, thinking about what is meant by “I” and “you”.
  • They don’t lend themselves to a logical layout. Due to the endemic laziness of the format, you often find them listed by date issued, rather than grouped together by subject. There may also be multiple answers to the same questions, issued on different dates. It is better to have a simple heading and the correct, current, information under it.
  • There are lots of extra words when you try to write in Q&A format. But online, less is more. People won’t read long sentences and paragraphs online. Be less chatty and more direct.
  • They often end up as a single, very long page – again, really hard to read. Better to break the information into logical sections and multiple pages.
  • FAQs aren’t good for SEO (search engine optimisation) either. There is unlikely to be a good summary of the content at the top of the page if the key information is scattered throughout a number of answers.
  • They’re old-fashioned. This doesn't reflect well on the rest of your website.

The general rule is that if you need FAQs, the rest of your content is structured badly. I grinned when the lady running my recent GDS style training said something similar. It's worth noting that FAQs are banned on and these guys base their style guide not only on theoretical best practice, but on user feedback and testing.

What have I missed?

1 comment:

  1. I was going to ask you this very thing so thanks for this! At one stage, I envisaged a whole series of books entitled "Just the FAQs" about various subjects.. thank goodness you've saved me from the whole thing. Hoorah!