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Are FAQs Still Relevant?

"Frequently Asked Questions" displays as typed on white paper in an old typewriter.

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Users have questions. Your content and website navigation can help them find answers, or potentially cause frustration. One tool for answering questions is up for debate: are FAQ sections still relevant in 2015, or are they a relic of bygone days?

Nielsen Norman Group recently published two articles arguing for the continued use and usefulness of FAQs: FAQs Still Deliver Great Value and An FAQs User Experience. In response, a counter opinion was released by Gerry McGovern: FAQs Are the Dinosaurs of Web Navigation.

Previously, the UK Digital Government Service published an article on their approach: FAQs: Why We Don’t Have Them.

Similarly, federal employees in the User Experience Community of Practice have varying views on FAQs. A recent listserv discussion touched on the reasons why some agencies still use FAQs (and why others avoid them). Below are selected comments and pieces of advice generated from the discussion.

FAQs For Content Delivery

The Consumer Financial Protenction Bureau (CFPB) has an extensive FAQ section, AskCFPB, with roughly 1,100 questions.

Ashley Gordon, Product Manager for AskCFPB, said that 10—15% of questions get the bulk of AskCFPB traffic. Her team is currently conducting an extensive content review.

“We are going through a three phased approach to determine why some questions get more traffic than others,” Gordon said. “Is it a content issue (things needing to be rewritten to be more digestible)? Is there something in the information architecture? We are also in the process of updating questions to ensure plain language. In addition, as relevant rules change, we have to audit our content. For example, we have 300 questions about mortgages, and many of them will need to be updated in the near future.”

Users are also able to submit questions to AskCFPB. If the team sees a notable number of inquiries on the same topic, they examine their existing content to see if a rewrite is needed. They collaborate with subject matter experts to write content. There is also a Spanish language version of AskCFPB.

Gordon said her team is also focused on increasing user engagement.

“As a new agency, we’re still working to get our name out to the public,” Gordon said. “We want them to know that we’re here, as a trusted source for information, to help them achieve their own financial goals and their own life goals.”

FAQs and Contact Centers

Stephanie Thum, Vice President of Customer Experience at the Export-Import Bank, said FAQs are a key tool for the Ex-Im Bank’s customer contact center. Agents use the FAQs to respond to routine phone calls, emails, and online chats. However, she acknowledged there can be difficulties.

“The nature of the work we do at our agency is so complex (we finance and insure exports toward the creation of U.S. jobs) that incoming inquiries can be very nuanced, such that FAQs don’t fully answer the customer’s question, which can be frustrating,” Thum said. “There is also the matter of a vernacular that is not shared. We may refer to a transaction or product in one way while the customer uses a different vernacular.”

DigitalGov previously covered how ExIm improved their contact centers to deliver better customer experience.

FAQ Maintenance Difficulties—And One Solution

The difficulty of maintaining FAQs was cited as a challenge: how can agencies ensure that the questions reflect what users are currently looking for?

Kevin Cropper, Manager in the Office of the Chief Information Officer at Peace Corps, said that FAQs are often set-up early in the project development process, and offices do not always take the time to post new questions or responses. Using other tools has helped Peace Corps evolve beyond a traditional FAQ.

“We use Yammer with our user community to allow them to ask questions, but we also post questions there that come in via email,” said Cropper. “It blurs the ‘FAQ’ structure (since other posts may be in the midst and there is not a set list of questions), but it gives us a dynamic venue that is searchable and allows for fellow-user answers, taking some of the load off program managers and developers to maintain it. Of course, it puts the load on the end user to go to yet another site to share information, although integrating Yammer and getting email updates is pretty simple.”

Avoiding FAQs Through User-Centered Design

Dana Chisnell, user experience researcher and consultant at the U.S. Digital Service, said the reports from the Nielsen Norman Group are thorough and generous, but rely on the assumption that sites won’t be able to throw out their FAQs. While that assumption is fair, Chisnell said, it does not absolve organizations from taking a critical eye towards FAQs.

“My personal opinion, after many years of designing and writing content on the web, is that FAQs are mainly an indicator that the organization behind the FAQs has not thought about their content as something that they must intentionally design,” Chisnell said. “FAQs are meant to fill in gaps or Band-Aid over problems that surface through questions or issues that users make known to the organization.”

For those starting a new site or implementing a redesign, Chisnell suggest doing user research from the beginning to understand what questions users have.

“Design your website to answer questions without having an FAQ page or section,” Chisnell said. “Instead, use the questions users have to drive the information architecture and the content strategy.”

Should FAQs be used, or are they a tired fad? Leave your thoughts and comments below!

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3 Enlightened Replies

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  1. Tegan Glasheen says:

    I agree FAQs for a website overall are a poor substitute for a proper design. The anticipation of needs should be done by the home page or navigation. FAQs still may have some use once a visitor is at the point of learning about a particular service, so they’re already more focused. But even then, subheads are likely the better option than actual questions, for scannability.

  2. Ryan Edelsteni says:

    On USA.gov and GobiernoUSA.gov, we’ve tried to tackle this by retiring our separate FAQ (Answers) section, refreshing that content, and then redesigning the site to reflect user preferences and expectations. Check us out on beta.usa.gov and beta.gobierno.usa.gov and let us know what you think of the progress we’ve made so far.

  3. Jo Marsicano says:

    I usually look at whether an FAQ section covers topics that are logically grouped and suggest a new title. I did this recently with an internal customer who had an FAQ section which we retitled “Program summary,” then reformatted the questions into declarative headings (echoing Tegan’s comment above). The challenge comes when items in the FAQ are not logically grouped, but represent disparate topics with no place else to live. The FAQ is a tempting “home” for such content. As a content creator, I don’t like FAQs. But as a user, I find myself searching for them when I can’t find what I’m looking for in other areas of a site. This article is very helpful in surfacing the debate.

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