The evolution of FAQs
Q. What is an FAQ?
A. An FAQ is a dumping ground for random information, forced into a set of questions and answers because the writer lacked the creativity to put the content into a more useful format — like a flyer or article (or in some cases, a glossary). The result is a list of questions that have never been asked even once, let alone frequently. FAQs usually begin with the question, “What is…?” It’s a pointless question that should already be answered in the primary marketing flyer, dictionary or glossary.
Q. Where did FAQs come from?
A. Once upon a time, companies got smart and decided to organize incoming phone calls in a way that handled of 80% of the work with 20% of the effort. These companies developed a sorting program to handle the most frequent callers for them. Instead of callers reaching an operator, who screened the questions and connected callers to the appropriate business department, callers would instead get: Press 1 for this department, Press 2 for that department, and so on. Only “all other calls” were sent to the operator for sorting.
FAQs on websites were a similar response to such technology — handling 80% of the questions with 20% of the effort. Websites included Frequently Asked Questions to help site visitors find their answers. Then, they discovered better navigation. But, by that time, it was too late. FAQs had become a habit.
My opinion of FAQs
Q. What is your opinion of FAQs?
A. My opinion? I’m glad you asked (so frequently). I believe FAQs are a highly over-rated and sorely abused format of providing useful (and often not-so-useful) information to an assumed audience. Show me an FAQ and I’ll show you a lazy writer (except this one, which was done facetiously).
Q. Why are FAQs the sign of a lazy writer?
A. As a corporate editor, I have seen hundreds of FAQs, if not thousands. Almost every time, I am able to take the random topics and organize a more informative — and better organized —flyer out of the content. It only takes a little bit more effort to construct a flyer than an FAQ. I think anyone who deliberately writes an FAQ isn’t aiming high enough for quality or craftsmanship.
Public demand for FAQs
Q. What if my client demands an FAQ?
A. This has happened to me, too, so I do understand. As a writer, we can’t always be short-order cooks. Sometimes we need to be nutritionists. Show your client a better way. Effective organization and good use of headers and subheads in a flyer or brochure will take care of it. In many cases, the brochures and flyers are already done. Just show your client that all the same information is on the flyer so you don’t need the FAQ. If it’s not already in a flyer or brochure, then show them how it can be.
If your client still insists on an FAQ, and you really don’t want to refuse the job, then make it a useful FAQ. (See below.)
Q. Why do website templates have FAQ pages built right into them?
A. Web developers merely think FAQs are important because no one has told them otherwise. They are responding to old habits. Yes, it’s possible they are also responding to the number of hits that FAQ pages get, but hits to a page do not tell you WHY a site visitor went there. Perhaps they couldn’t find what they wanted in a more obvious place. Just because a developer built an FAQ page in a website doesn’t make it correct. Think about the all the correctly spelled words that Microsoft underlines with a red squiggle (cowriter, for one). That doesn’t mean it is spelled wrong. It just means that no one has informed the technical geeks at Microsoft that the word does not need a hyphen.
If you have a well-organized and informative website, you shouldn’t need an FAQ page. If you DO have an FAQ page, it could be a sign you need to clean up the other parts of your website.
Useful FAQs vs. Poor FAQs
Q. What is a useful FAQ?
A. (If I must…) A useful FAQ is one that contains five to eight questions. A useful FAQ groups the questions into categories and separates them with a subhead so readers can scan and more easily find the information they need. A useful FAQ limits the question to a single line and puts the keyword of the question near the beginning so the reader can decipher the topic fast.
Q. What is a poor FAQ
A poor FAQ has long-winded questions, no organization, no grouping and includes too many questions.
A poor FAQ includes questions that have actually been asked — frequently. If customers really do have so many questions about a particular topic, wouldn’t it be better to fix the problem that’s causing the questions rather than to post it as an FAQ? In this case, it might not be the writer who’s lazy. It could be the product engineer. FAQs of that type are an alert to me that the product may be troublesome or confusing since it prompts so many questions. Consider the kernel of the question and think about how to get fewer people to ask it.