The question I frequently ask about frequently asked questions

A look at how challenging conventions can uncover better ways to make information easier to find on websites, and play a part in saving resources.

Something that has been on my mind for a while is whether or not we should use Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) pages on our websites. I was introduced to the idea that they are not a good thing by Gerry McGovern. It’s nearly ten years since he posted about the problem with FAQs. He’s written and talked about it a lot since then and his logic seems to be pretty solid.

He argues that they are patent nonsense because a person who arrives at a website doesn’t know if their question has been asked before, let alone how frequently it’s been asked. Therefore, the FAQs page is centred around the organisation who owns the website, not the user. He says that it’s lazy to dump all that information into one big blob and let the users sift through it themselves.

Seems straightforward, right? They’re a lazy idea that we should avoid.

But with 10 years of great advice to follow, ever-simpler ways to manage website content, and plenty of examples of good practice to imitate, why are FAQs pages still a thing?

With little effort, I found examples of FAQs pages on websites from the four tech titans:

That Amazon AWS example lists an entire directory of a further 72 pages of FAQs. That’s crazy! And, given what we know about Amazon’s relentless push to maximise the bottom line through frugality and efficiency, we can only assume that they exist because people use them. They must make business sense at some level.

You won’t be unaccustomed to this. You’ll have found yourself automatically looking for an FAQs page on a website because you just had a hunch that the kind of information you needed would be there.

So the best practice says “No to FAQs!” but real people who really manage websites and really consume them are seemingly happy to carry on muddling through. What’s the big deal?

# What time is the 3 o’clock parade?

FAQs came about because people who have the job of sharing information get fed up answering the same questions over and over. Whether the job is in retail, managing an office, calculating tax returns, developing software, or working at Disneyland: unless you are a saint, you will get frustrated by interruptions, especially when the cause is to keep giving out the same information.

When someone then asks you to then classify information about your business to publish it on a website, it is easy to understand what happens next. In your mind, you group the super-annoying questions that you are sick of answering. That list of questions and answers then gets published on the website. It makes sense... to you!

But we need to be careful. What that implicitly says to the person using your website is “here’s another one of those people who always asks one of those stupid questions”. If you think about it from the user’s point of view, this is probably the first time that they’ve been seeking this information. It’s not their fault that whatever-it-is isn’t obvious.

This is something that Brian Jones at Disney understands very well. In his post about the oft-mocked question “What time is the 3 o’clock parade?”, he points out the value in looking deeper. He explains that it pays to think a bit harder about what the customer needs rather than taking it face value.

In the world of managing a website that means thinking about how to label information and how to make it easier to find under its true name. It means the opposite of dumping every possible answer to every stupid question at the user’s feet and walking away.

The answer to “What time is the 3 o’clock parade?” isn’t a blunt “3 o’clock”, nor is it handing over a leaflet with the answer to every stupid question you’ve ever been asked. It is, “What do you really need to know? Because I’m going to help you find it.”.

# What is an FAQs page?

When you sit back and take a look at it, an FAQs page is a transcription of a fictional conversation between an idealised representative of an organisation and an idealised person seeking information. Just think about that for a second. It is an entirely forced concept. It allows the author to appear to answer questions transparently but it tightly controls how the question is both asked and answered. For an example of this at its worst, take a look at the ’Funding’ page on Harry and Meaghan’s website. (Okay, okay, it’s not an FAQs page but it’s a classic example of controlling the conversation).

On the plus side, it allows the author to clearly articulate their message but it can, and regularly does, side-step the information that the user wants to know. You’ll know that feeling of trying to find an answer to a tricky question, finding lots of information around the subject, but not finding a clear answer to your actual question.

That can be for different reasons:

  • The organisation doesn’t realise that there’s a specific piece of information that people are looking for (a frequently unanswered question, if you will!)
  • The organisation knows exactly what people are looking for but thinks they won’t like the answer so they choose to ignore it

As a user, you’ve been conditioned to use FAQs pages. But it is a learned behaviour. You click on the FAQs link because, like a monkey with a fruit machine, you play the odds. You look for it because you’ve learned that if you pull the lever there’s a decent chance that you’ll get the dopamine hit of the result you’re looking for.

# What happens if you don’t delete the FAQs page on your site?

If, as the author or manager of websites, you chose to go with the flow and keep using FAQs, the world won’t end. But it is a missed opportunity to serve your customers better. It is also a missed chance to learn more about your website, your business or your customers’ behaviour.

If you take the time to understand the content that you would want to put on an FAQs page, classify it and give it useful names then you can place it in its natural home. Questions about pricing would be answered on the Pricing page. Questions about product returns would be answered on the Returns page. Having one place to find that information will form one source of truth in the organisation. That, in itself, reduces confusion and has the practical benefit of reducing the overhead in maintaining the website.

When you remove the FAQs option from your navigation, people will drift towards navigation links that better describe what they are looking for. You’ll then be able to more accurately measure if people can complete the task they set out to do. You’ll start to see more clearly what information people want. You’ll ‘Marie Kondo’ your website and be able to remove and delete the content that no-one uses. (Which helps save the planet.)

People will always take the path of least resistance because, you know, human nature. It’s up to you as the advisor, author, practitioner, website owner or product manager to find a way to make the ‘better’ way easier to follow. If you want to divert the river, you have to build the dam and dig the new route.

The information stored within websites is already being repurposed to be made available via voice devices. The nature of voice interactions is such that scanning large amounts of text information can’t be done quickly. It takes at least twice as long for Alexa, Siri or Google Assistant to say something to you as it does to read it on a screen.

Natural language processing and voice interactions will improve in time but giving content meaningful labels related to their subject matter now will only help with that. That’s only thinking about the growing number of people who use voice computing through choice. What about those who have no other option but to rely on screen readers?

# Putting others first

This question of whether or not to be a stickler over something as seemingly innocuous as an FAQs page has bugged me for a long time. I’m wary of people who build the ivory tower of ‘best practice’ and get snobby about real people who work in the trenches of the web ‘not getting it’. I tend to think that most website managers will be doing their best in the circumstances they find themselves.

However, in this case, I think it is a detail worth considering and a discussion worth having. The underlying principle is one that puts users first. At its core, it is about accessibility. It seeks to make access to information easier for all.

To coin a phrase, and to borrow from Luke Wroblewski’s “Mobile First” concept, perhaps this is what we could maybe call the “Others First” web.