Three reasons to avoid creating FAQs and what you can do about it

When we create designs and consider content, we need to keep our users in mind the same way we do with any other part of our design. Frequently asked questions, or FAQs, are often abused as easy ways to push a bunch of information to users. Often, they have become long lists of questions that often have a passing, or maybe no, relation to the information users are looking for. They become information you think they need to know.

Try this scenario. You are creating a website for a new product. Your marketing team creates a short overview of your product and what it does. Someone lists all of the questions that users might ask. Your content developers stick them on the FAQ page. You launch the product and move on to the next project. When do you come back to that list of questions and make updates? If this sounds familiar you’re not alone –too often this is the case.

Perhaps if you maintain your list of FAQs, they will eventually become an actual list of frequently asked questions. Maybe tech support takes over and it stays up to date, but there is a lot going on and often nobody gets back to maintaining the FAQ, and the content grows and grows until it becomes nearly impossible to find anything. At one point, I joined an organisation where they presented 5 FAQ questions. Shortly after I started, an update produced 5 pages of questions. Afraid of the next update producing 50 pages, I went back to the drawing board for a content and information architecture redesign.

Reasons to avoid FAQs

FAQs are a lazy way of presenting information

Presenting content in the best way for your users is a lot of work. I’ve seen many cases where users have to wade through the question to find out if the answer might be helpful. This is a lot of work for your users. I’ve even seen cases where the answer didn’t answer the associated question, so finding the correct answer becomes nearly impossible.

When it comes to FAQs, you, the author, don’t count

The same way we can’t test our own UX because we know our design process, we can’t judge whether the questions presented actually represent what our users want answers to. If it is not a question a real user has asked, then it is not frequently asked. FAQs should be questions that actual readers of your content want an answer to.

The questions that people ask change over time

If your FAQ is not maintained, what may have started with good intentions and may have been a list of frequently asked questions may no longer be helpful. How soon FAQ questions become out of date can depend on a lot of factors. Product updates bring new questions and old questions become out of date.

How to fix the ones you have

Make your questions scannable

People don’t actually read the web. They scan through. Encouraging and using good web writing skills when writing online is helpful. If you must create an FAQ, craft questions and answers the way you craft all your content — very carefully. Make it easy for your visitor to find what they are looking for by making your list of questions scannable, and make sure questions and answers are concise and that they are related to the question. Include metadata so that searching brings in the correct question and answer.

Provide a mechanism to allow users to elevate the most helpful

Allow users to provide feedback, so you can highlight what has been helpful to other users. Items like voting buttons or ranking allow you to identify what is helpful. You can then use that feedback to highlight common questions or elevate the most popular content to ensure users see what is relevant.

Craft your questions based on information from your user research

PWDR (people who do research) have tools and methods to collect information to ensure that your questions and answers are relevant to your users. Tools like user interviews and usability testing can highlight information that you will need to share. Ensuring that your marketing or communications team is involved in your user research will help them to write content that helps your users. Sharing research findings, and involving them ideation and discoveries help them to gain insights and you can collaboratively find better ways to present information.

If you must have an FAQ, be sure that it’s filled with questions actual users want answers to. If you can, consider other mechanisms such as a knowledge base where users can search for and flag the questions they are actually asking or find helpful. A mechanism to help you and others discover what users find useful can help you pull the highlights — perhaps the top 5 — based on your user’s responses. And the feedback might even help with your content maintenance.

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Feet in the clouds, Head on the ground … writing on user experience and leadership.

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Alexander McIlwraith, UXC

Alexander McIlwraith, UXC

Feet in the clouds, Head on the ground … writing on user experience and leadership.

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