To FAQ or not to FAQ, that is the question?

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Frequently asked questions or FAQs are a fictitious back-and-forth conversation with an ‘inexperienced’ person and a ‘knowledgeable’ person. They now sit tucked away on websites while it’s often assumed they are solving those niggly little issues for our users without us having to worry. They’re a promise to answer real questions and once upon a time they did. But, are they still relevant and are we really serving our customers with what they want?

“What are FAQs? FAQs are a way to show you’ve thought about what your users should know but haven’t thought about your users.”

— James Hupps, Content Designer via Twitter post

FAQs: how we got here

Leftover from the world of ListServ and forums, FAQs were created so moderators/customer service agents didn’t have to answer the same questions repeatedly with the goal being to stop people from calling or emailing with the same questions. They worked well, people got used to them and were simple to create so businesses started using them on their websites.

Specialised software emerged to create, manage and deliver FAQ content in an integrated knowledge base. Customer service teams were normally responsible for them and created knowledge items based on frequent calls about the same topic.

Unfortunately, the specialised software was expensive and often not used properly so many businesses removed it. The result? The FAQ content was dumped into the help section on the websites and just left there.

What are companies still doing wrong

As an accepted and familiar type of content I see businesses use FAQs out of habit rather than ensuring they’re the right fit. Too often they are based on anticipated questions put together by the business rather than based on real questions, asked by real people and:

  • They’re generated by internal teams before a product or service goes to market

  • They’re published and forgotten so every FAQ ever created remains live, relevant or not

  • They often contain marketing speak and business jargon and can become a dumping ground for information so the self-service content box can be ticked

  • FAQs are often not included in the content strategy, UX or CX design so they inevitably lack direction and focus

As an industry expert, I find FAQs are still not categorised and displayed correctly. They’re difficult to scan and read and people find questions harder to comprehend than headings. Important and trivial problems are lumped together. There’s often duplication and contradictory information in multiple help channels causing confusion that actually generate more calls, or live chats.

When to use FAQs

Despite the issues and frustrations raised above, there are times when FAQs should be used:

  • They’re focused on a specific task, event or problem

  • To help guide people into a task or more detailed information

  • When people need to access information about completing transactions, for example, shipments, payments, refunds, and returns

  • To provide quick answers to a few, simple questions

  • To reassure people their questions are normal

How to create effective FAQ content

Use this checklist to upgrade your FAQ content and make it work better for your customers:

  • Show you care and that you’ve listened to your customers by using real frequently asked questions rather than anticipated ones

  • Have a clear understanding of how FAQ content can help achieve user and business goals

  • Define the role they play in your customer self-service journey

  • Create clear categorisations, display and search for FAQ content

  • Include FAQs in user testing along with the rest of your digital content

  • Keep FAQ content short and simple using plain English

  • Collect, track, and analyse users’ real FAQs

  • Include the ability to gather feedback by asking questions like “Didn’t find your question here? What would you like to know?”

  • Look for recurring questions and patterns to help people’s decision-making process

  • Gather insights to improve content or processes in other digital channels or reorganise content that is hard to find

“Think of FAQ content as insurance. There if your users need it, but hopefully they never will”

— R. Stephen Gracey, Web Content Manager, 2010

Key takeaways

To summarise, follow these four rules and make sure your business is serving only useful and helpful FAQs to your customers:

1: Create FAQs from real-time customer feedback and questions

2: FAQs should be monitored regularly to ensure they’re answering people’s questions

3: FAQ’s that are no longer relevant or used by people should be archived

4: Most importantly, don’t turn customer feedback and questions into FAQ content. This should be used to improve your digital content and product offerings overall. Then customers won’t have to contact you and ask questions in the first place.

The main thing to remember is that when customers are asking the same questions frequently – something, somewhere needs to be fixed.

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