Just say no to FAQs

FAQs – frequently asked questions – are a common feature of many websites.

FAQs started life in Usenet newsgroups. The first FAQ was written by Mark Horton with answers to 18 questions commonly encountered in the newsgroups, such as ‘What does ‘foobar’ mean?’, and ‘What does “unix” stand for?’.

FAQs caught on quickly as a convenient way to answer basic questions asked by new users in a group or mailing list. FAQs stopped these questions clogging up the rest of the discussion.

At their best, FAQs do just what they say they do: present the answers to frequently asked questions in one convenient place, making it easier for audiences to find the information they need.

But at their worst, FAQs become a grab-bag – or indeed a dumping ground – of all sorts of bits of information. On many websites, they are added to over time and become a long list of questions and answers, often in no particular order. This buries information and makes it harder for audiences to find what they need.

Try IA, not FAQ

Websites are about information and communication. The key aim of any website should be to reach your target audience with the information they are looking for.

In a well-designed website with good information architecture (IA), information is presented under logical headings and pathways, rather than buried in a FAQ.

For example, on a commercial website, rather than putting information about ordering in a FAQ, it would be placed under a top-level heading of ‘Ordering’, with subheadings such as ‘Shipping’, ‘Returns’, and ‘Tracking’. On a health website, rather than directing readers to a FAQ about their disease, a regular heading structure can be designed that covers ‘Symptoms’, ‘Treatment’, ‘Potential complications’ and ‘Likely outcomes’.

FAQs are often a tempting way to present information, because writing questions and answers is quicker and easier than thinking through good IA. But making the effort to logically structure and design your website will help your audience to find information and achieve the aims of your site.

So, whether you are just drafting a site or redesigning your existing site, take another look at the FAQ, and see where the information could be better placed in good IA.