By Rahel Bailie published September 21, 2010

How to Create Useful FAQ Pages

If you think a FAQ page is where readers find handy information about their needs or a place where customers go to look for answers to frequently asked questions, think again.

In an informal survey  I conducted,  occasional to frequent Internet users generally agreed that FAQ pages were of little use in actually answering their questions. The feedback included comments such as:

  • The information is old.
  • It’s so basic that it answers nothing.
  • The information isn’t organized so I can find anything.
  • The links keep taking me around in circles.
  • It’s just recycled information from the site.
  • I don’t know whose questions they’re answering, but it’s never my question.
  • I stopped looking at FAQ pages because they’re useless.

FAQ pages have become the elephant graveyards of non-information, the equivalent of the “Miscellaneous” file folder, the place where information-we-didn’t-know-where-to-put was dumped. The impression a useless FAQ page leaves with readers is brand-damaging. Your FAQ page should not be where writers compensate for the shortcomings of your app interface or code.

The challenge, then, is to create a FAQ page that readers will find useful. This task has several aspects but can be accomplished with a lot of planning and a little strategic work. The following tips will give customers hope that your FAQs are usable and useful.

Find out what questions your customers are really asking

If you have a customer service department, support center or call center, find out what questions they regularly answer. Do you have a feedback form (one that works!) on your website where customers can pose questions? These are valuable sources of information, both for harvesting questions and providing answers. If you need to answer a question for one person, you can answer it for multiple people at the same time.

Include timely questions

Frankly, if you’re answering the same questions today as you were last year, your customer will likely assume that the problems your product or service had a year ago are the same ones it still has today. That’s an entirely different set of customer service problems.

Verify answer accuracy

Ensure the answer addresses the question accurately. If you want customers to use the online FAQ instead of clogging up your telephone support lines, check that the instructions actually work – especially after you’ve made code or product changes.

Recently, I tried to submit some information through a web app, which yielded an error code, which linked me to a FAQ page, which provided me with a phone number, which didn’t work. The entire exercise of sending me to their FAQ page only reinforced that the app developers were a group of bumblers who used FAQ pages to avoid fixing the user experience.

Be straightforward in your answers and clear in your writing

Resist the temptation to introduce marketing-speak into the answers. People are there to fix a problem, not be upsold.

Ensure the questions are written with a specific topic. “What about uploads?” is too vague to be of use to a customer with a burning need for an answer. Instead, re-word questions to be specific, such as “How do I upload an image?” or “Where do uploaded files get stored?”

Lastly, have the answers professionally written. Nothing will turn off your customers faster than getting a techno-geek answer when what they need is well-written, plain-language instructions.  When questions are written clearly and consistently, they are easier to scan, which makes it more likely that a customer will keep looking for an answer. Some customers will think of using the browser search function, but often not knowing the industry jargon prevents customers from figuring out what to search for.

Organize your FAQs so they are easy to search

If you have a lot of FAQs, pay special attention to how you organize them on your site. Here are three ideas to consider:

  • Sort your questions by audience type: Complex questions might be inappropriate for a FAQ page for beginners, but straightforward questions are definite candidates. For the techie customers, you might have a section called Questions for Advanced Users that isolates more complex and intimidating answers in one place.
  • List the questions alphabetically: There’s nothing more frustrating than having to search through a haystack of questions for the needle of an answer.
  • Group your FAQs by question type, and give each group a heading: This helps customers find their information faster.

Make your FAQs easy to find and search

It may be hard to get past the assumption that a FAQ page is a dust-covered museum of questions from the early 2000s. Just as FAQs change, so should your approaches to FAQ presentation. What works today may be obsolete in a year or two. That said, here are a couple of approaches that work in today’s Web world.

Extract top questions
Use a software utility to extract the top questions and list them as a sidebar. The faq.myspace.com page of MySpace and the Help Center of Facebook do an excellent job of presenting information in a way that reassures customers that the information is current and accurate.

Call the FAQ page something different
Don’t call the FAQ a FAQ. If you have lots of questions, consider a more useful name that tells customers what the questions are about. For instance:

  • If your questions supplement your support, call it a Support Center, as AVG does.
  • If your questions are all about how to set up an account, call your page Getting Started.

Provide a printable version
Make the FAQs easily printable. Particularly when an instruction calls for a system reboot, it’s handy for the customer to be able to refer to printed instructions and to return to the URL once they are back online.

Reference the FAQ page throughout your site
Refer to the FAQ page from elsewhere. For example, if you have a FAQ section on Return Policies that limits returns on certain clothing types, you can link to it from those types of clothing. This indicates to customers that you respect their time enough to point out important information before they buy.

Encourage readers to ask questions
Include a link so that customers can ask questions that don’t yet exist in your FAQ repertoire.

Go social
Create opportunities for readers to add to the topics, answer other readers’ questions, or rate an answer.

Checking a company’s FAQ page is a little like peeking into a family’s kitchen during a dinner party. It reveals the personality of the household: smooth and organized or neglected and disheveled. A dynamic FAQ page can be a valuable part of your Web site, particularly if it’s considered a knowledge asset and maintained with the same care as the rest of the material on the site.

What other tips do you have for effective FAQ pages?

Author: Rahel Bailie

Rahel Anne Bailie is a content strategist with a skill set encompassing content management, business analysis, information architecture, and communications. She operates Intentional Design, helping clients analyze their business requirements and spectrum of content to get the right fit for their content development and management needs, and facilitates transitions to new business processes, content models, and technology implementations. Follow her on Twitter @rahelab.

Other posts by Rahel Bailie

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  • http://thecontentbuffet.com/ John White

    Huh. I hadn’t thought about it, but I guess that FAQ is indeed fading in importance and relevance.

    In the blogosphere, perhaps the FAQ has been nudged out of the way by the list-post: “9 Things You Need to Know about Bad Hair,” or “13 Ways to Get Over the Heartbreak of Psoriasis.”

  • http://doriantaylor.com/ Dorian Taylor

    It would be nice if content was highly-addressable enough for FAQs to be placed where they are generated (e.g. a “what’s this?” link, which would incidentally inform which questions were most popular). Have a concentration of FAQs as well but only as a secondary resource.

    Although, I can’t help but thinking however that an FAQ represents a failure to supply people preemptively with information. An FAQ is a question that has been asked so many times you’ve written the answer down and now direct people to it instead of telling them piecemeal. It’s reasonable to do this, since customer support is expensive. But what would indicate a successfully-resolved FAQ (for one reason or other) is the fact that people don’t ask it anymore.

    Semantically, an FAQ is a lot like a bug. In fact it would almost make sense for the FAQs to be tracked in the same place as software bugs. FAQs represent bugs as well—bugs in business process and communication. Leveraging the infrastructure of a bug database would make a person accountable for every FAQ, such that it was accurate, relevant, and that an obvious answer had not yet been woven into the fabric of the system.

    • http://twitter.com/rahelab Rahel Anne Bailie

      Dorian, think of how entrenched the QWERTY keyboard is (its original purpose was to slow down typists who would otherwise jam the typewriter keyboard) – a gigantic bug that got entrenched because of convention. FAQ pages are a little like that. They’re there because decision-makers don’t get that they don’t need to be there any more. And once it’s there, you need to fill it with *something*, and the cycle is perpetuated. And no one has it in their performance plan to maintain the FAQ page, so it gets neglected.

      • http://doriantaylor.com/ Dorian Taylor

        I agree completely. A collection of FAQs all in one place is still a useful resource. I’m suggesting an additional consideration of where the content for the FAQs comes from, other ways it can be applied, who owns it and how to establish its life cycle.

        (N.B. I also didn’t suggest anything that wasn’t readily achievable with existing technology.)

      • http://doriantaylor.com/ Dorian Taylor

        Going over this again I’m seeing some room for misinterpretation. What I meant was that an individual, specific question that customers and users keep asking over and over, that is a bug in business process in communication. I’m not trying to suggest that FAQ pages are bugs, and yes they are analogous to the QWERTY keyboard in some ways.