Stop the FAQ Page Bandage

Nov 19 2010 by Jason Gross | 14 Comments

Stop the FAQ Page Bandage

The evolution of the web and the way in which we design for it has brought around all kinds of patterns, standards and best practices. Sites have a relatively uniform information structure: We always start with a home page (also known as the front page or index page) as the default page, and we’ll have common pages such as a contact page, an about page, and so forth.

A lot of sites will have a web page dedicated to problem-solving, giving answers to frequently asked questions (FAQ). In a time where interactivity between the site operator and site visitors is at the forefront, and a time where site analytics allow us to know more about user behavior than ever before — has the FAQ page, been left behind?

Listing out questions you think someone is likely to have, and then providing the listed questions with canned answers sure seems like an old and inefficient way of going about problem-solving and helping users.

Stop the FAQ Page Bandage

Ideally, we would like to address every user problem with a personalized, human response. However, for sites that deal with high volumes of traffic, this can be a pretty unfeasible (and rather expensive) approach.

Using an FAQ page to filter out common questions and problems before escalating to personal interaction seems like a good intermediate step to take. But are we really taking advantage of what an FAQ page can do for us, or are we using it as a bandage for a problem we could solve?

Where Did the FAQ Page Come From?

We can look at the FAQ page as one of the early and rudimentary conceptualizations of user-centered websites. The FAQ page was the webmaster’s (that’s what they called themselves back in the day) only way to address the needs of the masses. Before Twitter, Facebook, or even contact forms, users who had questions about a site or a piece of information were simply and sadly out of luck.

The only thing that stood between them and giving up was a list of questions sites always seemed to have; and maybe, just maybe, their question would be included in the list.

In the days of the early web, the FAQ page was a powerful tool for keeping site visitors happy. And while the web has certainly evolved since then, for the most part, the FAQ page has not.

Solving Problems vs. Providing Answers

Too often, the FAQ page is constructed in a lazy fashion. Clients don’t want to generate content for it and web designers don’t want to waste precious time on it. FAQ pages are an afterthought. Many use it as site content filler; other sites have it, mine should have one too.

We would love to just get rid of the FAQ page, but we still need it, don’t we? If the FAQ is left out, we will certainly regret it when emails with simple and basic questions such as What is this RSS feed thingie that you keep telling me to subscribe to? start coming in.

It can be impossible to predict all of the problems users might have with your shiny new site, and when they start having these problems, the FAQ page is the first thing they are going to look for. As a web designer or site owner, we need to be ready to listen to these user problems — and not just listen, but also act on them. An even better approach: How can we resolve users problems before they experience it?

A well-constructed FAQ page relies on user input from the beginning. The great thing about modern technology is that we don’t need to rely on users having a huge problem before we can solve it. Analytics apps and data-driven design decisions such as split testing will help a web designer realize that their users are taking the wrong path to a product page or not responding to a call to action.

Are your users spending too much time on your site bumbling around for the information they are seeking? Do they take the wrong steps to get to a product page? Or are they landing in the wrong areas and getting frustrated with your site and leaving? All of this is information that we could use to build a helpful FAQ page — but it’s not the only thing we should do.

An FAQ page provides answers, not solutions. And while answering user questions is the right thing to do, an even better thing to do is take this information and build a solution so that the next user never has that question to begin with.

When you address a design problem or bug using your FAQ, I call this FAQ bandaging. Instead of solving design issues, you make your users do the work by giving them help documentation. This is why old-school GUIs have 1,000-page user manuals — let’s put the burden of making the product work properly on the users, not us.

If people aren’t able to figure out how something works, don’t just give them step-by-step instructions on your FAQ page. Make design changes that fix the issue and provide inline help text. If users can’t find your contact web form, think about ways to highlight it better rather than creating an FAQ entry on how to find the web form. If users continually see old content because of your buggy Ajax script, don’t create an FAQ that tells them to refresh their browser when this happens, fix your buggy Ajax script or replace it with another method.

The Problem of FAQ Bandaging

Providing an answer instead of building a solution can quickly become the default thing to do because the alternative — which is to rework and iterate on your design — is costly and hard.

Sooner or later, though, your FAQ is going to get pretty bulky because of all these unresolved issues. Every web designer knows that a good site requires regular tweaking and modification in order to continue serving its customers the best way possible.

The Problem of FAQ Bandaging

The goal, then, is to have the shortest FAQ page possible. If it doesn’t have a lot of questions, the design is intuitive and user-friendly. A site with an FAQ page spanning multiple pages, on the other hand, needs to evaluate their design.

Action Is Better Than Reaction

It’s unreasonable to think that site owners would be able to solve every problem any of their users might happen to have on their website. However, it is within reason to believe that a high-traffic site could build a complex environment in such an efficient way that it would be able to solve its users’ problems on a personalized level. The trick is to know as much as you can about the users that come to your site.

We can safely assume certain instincts and behaviors that dictate the way our users will interact with our site, allowing us to make solid design decisions before a site is even live. It is the knowledge of fundamental user interaction principles, along with persistent monitoring and testing of our website, that allows us to run a skinny FAQ page.

Action Is Better Than Reaction

Answering the Right Questions: The Importance of User Feedback

So you promise to look at your FAQ and see what solutions you can build in order to eliminate questions to begin with, right? Good! I am really proud of you; we all are.

But your work isn’t done: user feedback remains important. Naturally, the bigger your site gets, the more types of problems you’re going to have. Things that weren’t problems will be problems when your site is visited by many different types of people. Whether you decide to go FAQ-free or not, it is still very important that you encourage your users to submit questions to you if they have them.

Don’t you hate it when you walk into a retail store and immediately get asked by a super-enthusiastic employee if you need help finding something? Like your plan for the entire afternoon was actually to walk into a random department store with no pre-determined thought on what you might need there. It kind of bugs me when people ask if I need help when I don’t need it. However, it bugs me even more when I do need help and no one is around to help me.

Websites that don’t allow users to submit feedback of some sort tend to be the same way. Make sure that your website incorporates an easy way for users to get in touch with someone at any point of their experience. Most often, this can be a simple link to a contact web form or an email address. If you anticipate (or want) more user contact, even a small web form on the footer or sidebar of your site template could be a good way to go. Other ways are keeping up with social networks and responding to tweets and Facebook comments, as well as creating a culture where site users feel comfortable contacting you without feeling like they’re an annoyance.

Answering the Right Questions: The Importance of User Feedback

Pulling It All Together

The main idea to take away here is that your FAQ page should never be an afterthought. It should be functional. It shouldn’t be something you tack on at the last minute. If you don’t need an FAQ, don’t have one.

Another thing you should keep in mind is that you shouldn’t use your FAQ page as a crutch to poor design, interaction, and usability. Don’t use FAQs to bandage failures in a web design. If people are constantly having trouble with a particular aspect of your website, fix it. Don’t bandage it with an FAQ entry.

Allowing user feedback to shape your web design is a fantastic way to build a user-centered and responsive site. Ask users what’s wrong, iterate, repeat. Give users the opportunity to share their ideas and suggestions with you.

It is important to take user questions and suggestions seriously. Thank your users for providing you with their input because they certainly aren’t forced to do so. More importantly, act on what they have to say if many other people are also saying it. Nothing says Thank you more to a user than actually solving their problem and making them feel they have contributed to the improvement of the site.

The FAQ page has a tendency to be overlooked, but it can be a very powerful tool under the right circumstances.

What has your experience been with the FAQ page? Are you guilty of overlooking this area or have you built some creative solutions to user problems?

Related Content

Jason Gross is a freelance web designer focused on creating clean and user friendly websites. Jason currently lives in Indiana and can be found on Twitter as @JasonAGross or on the web at his personal blog and portfolio.

14 Comments

kumbi

November 19th, 2010

apart from tackling problems arising from things like crappy navigation, buggy forms, and misleading information architecture,another way to make the FAQ page skinnier and more efficient is by writing good copy to mitigate against the “Where can i get a copy?” or “How do i get in touch?”-type of ‘FAQ’. letting your site content say/describe the exact information the users should be getting about the product in the first place could lead to FAQ-less sites in some cases -provided you are able to capture the problem issues through tools you’ve mentioned.. like comment forms, split testing, analytics and so forth.

great article, and i agree with a lot of the ideas and the logic behind it!

Michael

November 19th, 2010

I’m managing a small FOSS-project.
The project could never get by without the FAQ page, – erhm…pageS (there are many).

Although there’s a forum as well where users can post “things” in various sections related to specific topics, the FAQ is a *must*.

Besides linking to a specifc FAQ-page when a user question in the forum can be answered using information from the FAQ, the FAQ also serves as a kind of “online manual” for any user who downloads and installs my script, since there are multiple links to the FAQ pages within the script (aka. “context sensitive help”, to use BS-terms).

The FAQ the _the_ source for information asked in a “What’s the parameter/menu/item/setting…. used for” question by anyone.

Also saves a lot of time repeating myself in the forum and/or by email, since the FAQ is composed of structured, relevant, how-to-do information.

I did originally start off offering “just” a forum where users could ask questions in relation to my script (or use email), but found out soon enough that it was just a case of repeating myself over and over again.

FAQ, documentation, manual, whatever. The more “static” information about anything related to your products/script/offering the can be put online (and “active” using SEO), the better: saves time for everyone involved..

Just my 2 cents.

//Michael.

Tanya

November 19th, 2010

Another issue with FAQ page is that it can be hidden.
I had bought an ebook and only after I had paid and wanted to read it I discovered that it is some special epub format readable on iphone (or ipod?) only. I had no this device and was not going to buy it because of this ebook. On the website where I bought the book this small detail was not mentioned. FAQ page was absent. So, being upset I sat down to write a seller that I had to cancel the deal as the book turned be useless for me. And only after having clicked the Contact I discovered a kind of mockery: “Have you read our FAQ ? If you did not find an answer, than fill in the form with your question.”
To hide FAQ page is a bad practice. I: 1) was upset that I could not read the book 2) had to prepare myself to long explanations and extra message why I had to cancel the deal 3) had to wait until money would be refunded (if so).
Luckily, they do have FAQ page with explanations that this format is readable also with some Adobe application, so my problem was resolved, but to waste my nerves making FAQ page invisible until entering Contact page is not normal.

Snabbkrediter

November 20th, 2010

Updating FAQ page is certainly essential. Don’t let it do all the work. A personalized approach regarding the effectiveness of this dedicated page will strengthen the foundation of your business.

Michael D

November 21st, 2010

It’s nice to sometimes share articles by email to my colleagues. Hope you guys incorporate that soon.

Bob

November 21st, 2010

FAQs are an integral part of many website but they need to be maintained. many look like just an afterthought and usually they are full of outdated information

dave

November 21st, 2010

Good post. FAQs definitely need to be maintained and updated regularly.

Sachin Gupta

November 22nd, 2010

That’s true most of the website are not use FAQ page as good as they must be. While it is most important part for understanding the services and support for users.

Paula

November 22nd, 2010

If you think FAQs are important you really should check out Sunbeam Softwares Answer Center. Its a dynamic FAQ system. Really easy to use and keeps our FAQs nice and organized.

Josh

November 22nd, 2010

I guess integration’s the name of the game. The usual FAQ page I guess was once thought to be the best touchpoint with users experiencing issues–but I strongly agree with the point made that such information should be put to good use in correcting design flaws. Never really thought of that before. :)

Angry Zebra

November 24th, 2010

If you are having FAQs you need to write your content to address those questions. Using FAQs is just lazy writing.

For example, my employer routinely launches new programs with FAQs. There is no way anybody could know FAQS yet, but they are written. That way the program content never needs to be rewritten.

Over the summer my employer was mandated by its regulatory body to introduce its customers to new pricing requirements. It was written in a FAQ format. It was revised daily for 3-4 weeks. Hardly a model of efficiency or addressing customers’ concerns. The underlying problem is customer confusion and fear over rising rates. We finally implemented a slider widget allowing comparisons between the old price and the new rates and the customer backlash abated. However, I had to deal with people who had no idea how customer interaction happens in the online environment and had to endure their constant revisions before they would listen to an alternative solution.

Bob

November 26th, 2010

>Using FAQs is just lazy writing.
I agree with this but only in part. If a question is asked very frequently it should show up somewhere more prominently on your website. Most times you don’t know up front which questions will be asked the most which is why it is a good practice to create your FAQs and then monitor them to see which ones get the most views. You are monitoring your FAQs are’nt you? There are tools that make this easy.

Angry Zebra

November 26th, 2010

Bob: then put the FAQs in the right area and bring them out in the copy more effectively.

The issue is people not knowing how the online world works deciding what is best by fiat. You can show them all the data in the world, but if they don’t care, the problem won’t be solved.

Sarah Lynn

November 28th, 2010

I have recently redesigned my website and included a simple FAQ page. It addresses a lot of questions I typically receive via email about working with us. Let me know what you guys think! I’d love some feedback.

http://www.sarahlynndesign.com/faq.html

Leave a Comment

Subscribe to the comments on this article.