FAQ usabilityPosted May 12th, 2009 by David Hamill
Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) are a very popular way of providing the answer to users’ questions. In this post I give you some tips to help you provide a better user experience with your FAQs.
Do you even need them?
All too often FAQs are used as an attempt to patch up flaws in bad content. Before you create an FAQ page, ask yourself why they should exist at all.
Your FAQs should support the site content, not repeat it. If your FAQ page is answering questions that the rest of the website should answer, then you have a problem with your site content. Sticking up an FAQ page is not an adequate solution.
People rarely go looking for the FAQs
The naming and positioning of your FAQs is what will make them findable. People rarely go looking for the FAQs (although some will), so they often need to stumble upon them instead.
Avoid saying FAQ
I use the term FAQ here because I assume that you are involved in making websites. You know what FAQ means, but normal people (who don’t spend their lives talking about websites) are a lot less likely to have encountered the term. Some have and some haven’t.
Avoid using the initialism FAQ on your site. Saying ‘Frequently asked questions’ or ‘Common questions’ is a lot clearer.
Exposing some questions
An even better way of making the FAQs findable is to expose a few of the most popular and link to the full set. The example below comes from the Eurosport Player.
The most common questions are revealed, so they act as triggers for users who have a question before subscribing to the service. The FAQs don’t support the content here. They are the content. All you can do is log-in, subscribe or read the FAQs. It’s an approach that works for this site. However the implementation beyond this screen is pretty gruesome.
Don’t hide them
If you hide your FAQs in some dark and dusty corner of your website, they may as well not be there. This isn’t to say that you need to prioritise them within your design. Just choose pertinent places to provide them where they will be helpful.
Your contact page is a good place to introduce the availability of your FAQs. If a user is looking for your phone number to ask a question, you can save money by answering it before they pick up the phone. Just don’t substitute your phone number with FAQs. By doing so, you’re telling your customers that you don’t want to talk to them.
They’re FAQs not QWWPTAs
A common problem with FAQs is that they are often not the most frequently asked questions. Instead they are the questions that the organisation would like you to ask (Questions We Want People To Ask). My advice is to actually track the questions that people are asking. So they truly are the ones most frequently asked.
If you have a customer service number, you should record the frequency of questions that people ask. If you can answer these questions clearly on your website then you’re likely to get less people calling you. This approach can also be applied to emailed questions.
When you are tracking these questions, you should also consider the best way to provide the answer on your website. Much of the time FAQs will not be the answer. If people are asking questions like ‘How much does it cost?’ then you have a problem with your website that FAQs are not the solution to. You may need to improve the rest of the content instead.
Writing the questions
You can help your users find the question they need by writing the questions the way your user would ask them. If you are tracking the questions that people ask then this is easy. If you aren’t, you should still write the questions in a way that the user would ask.
Here is an example. The FAQs page from the Eurosport Player includes the question ‘What is the required configuration?’ Unless they’re Mr Spock from Star Trek, nobody will ask the question like this. The answer may be the same, but their question is more likely to be ‘Will it work on my computer?’ So this is wording that should be used on the FAQ.
Writing the answers
It’s the brevity of FAQs that make them useful. People can access a straight answer to a simple question. Bare this in mind when writing the answers to your FAQs. Answer the question as quickly as possible before following up with any exceptions, conditions, or explanations. So if the answer to the question is yes, then the first word of the answer you write should be ‘yes’.
This example above from the National Galleries of Scotland website answers the question immediately. It then goes on to provide the reasons for the answer.
Finding questions quickly
Remember that your users will usually have only 1 question they need to answer. They don’t want to read through every question. Instead they want to quickly zone in on the one they need. You can help them to do this by presenting the questions in a way that makes them easy to find.
Hide the answers until they’re needed
One way of doing this is to hide the answers until the user has requested the one they want. It’s easier to choose from a list of questions than a list of questions with answers below them. There are a number of ways of handling this. But the most basic is to provide the questions as a list of bookmark links to answers lower down the page.
Break up long lists of questions
The questions themselves can be difficult to skim through. This is because they tend to begin with the same words. So it becomes hard to quickly identify the one you need. Long lists of questions will be easier to skim if they are broken up into groups. You can do this by putting the groups on separate pages or just breaking them up with sub-headers.
When the question isn’t there
You won’t be able to cover every possible question. So remember to provide options for people who have questions that are still unanswered.
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Tags: web writing