Sam Williams | February 18, 2021
The frequently asked questions, or FAQs, page is a website staple. They’re still pretty common, but FAQs have become contentious — the United Kingdom’s Government Digital Service, the United States’ Government 18F Content Guide, and Aotearoa New Zealand’s digital.govt.nz guidelines have all spurned them.
We agree that FAQs aren’t the best way to answer your users’ questions. Here’s why, and what you can do instead.
Having an FAQ section to supplement your main content often results in either repeating or splitting information across your website. Repeating your content will confuse your users, especially if they’re looking for something on your website using the search field and find identical content on different pages. Splitting your content will send your users bouncing across your website to find everything they need, and it increases the chance they’ll miss a vital piece of information.
While it’s easy to drop every common question into an FAQ section, this approach can quickly get out of hand. I’ve seen FAQs so sprawling they’ve essentially become websites of their own, complete with subsections and subpages. Users struggle to navigate them, and website owners struggle to maintain them. The typical FAQ structure uses a list of questions, which look dense and repetitive, with no logical order — even when the section isn’t long.
FAQs also make it harder for your users to find what they need. Even if different users are looking for the same information, they’re unlikely to all have identical questions in mind. Lisa Wright gives a good example in her in-depth takedown of FAQs on the A List Apart website:
Consider the FAQ-formatted ‘Can I pay my bill with Venmo?’ (which limits the answer to one payment type that only some users may recognize). Rewriting the question to ‘How can I pay my bill online?’ and updating the content improves the odds that users will read the answer and be able to complete their task. However, an even better approach is to create purposeful content under the more direct and concise heading ‘Online payment options,’ which is broad enough to cover all payment services.
The question format essentially locks your content off until your users start asking the right questions.
In a 2014 article for researchers Nielsen Norman Group, Susan Farrell described all the ways an FAQ section could ‘…still deliver great value’. Reading the article today, it doesn’t describe any benefits that you couldn’t also get from a website that was well written and structured in the first place. Except one.
Farrell points out that ‘…many people already know to look for an FAQ when they need a fast answer’. Keep this in mind as you create your website. It’s not enough to just do away with FAQs — your website must be clear and easy to navigate without them.
An FAQ section is often a band-aid over deeper problems in the way a website delivers information. If you’re getting so many questions about something that you feel you need to write an FAQ, ask yourself why your customers are struggling to find that information.
As New Zealand’s digital government guidance says,
If you get frequently asked questions, it means:
- content is missing on your site
- content is not where people expect to find it
- your content needs to be restructured to meet your users’ needs.
Getting lots of questions about how to redeem a gift card in your online store? Instead of explaining how in an FAQ, make the gift card field more prominent on your checkout page.
Much like website analytics and user-testing, customer questions can help you understand how people use your website, and what they expect from it. So instead of writing an FAQ, take the opportunity to improve your website for your users.
Our blog also has plenty of tips to help your web writing.