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Masterclass for Web Managers, incl. editable templates ($29.99)

FAQs (Frequently Asked Questions) were first used in Usenet discussion forums on the early internet.

Moderators invented them to avoid responding to the same queries over-and-over from new members.

Question: "Hey man, can I use Gandalf as my password?
Answer: "YES! Originality if not compulsory"

When the World Wide Web was born, FAQs were carried over. This is partly because of familiarity and partly because content volumes were so low, usability was not a problem.

But as content volumes and complexity have grown (in all but a handful of cases) FAQs have turned into a very ineffective way of presenting information to users.

Scent of information

When users visit your website, they almost always come pre-equipped with a set of words in their heads that define what they want to do.

These words have a huge influence on how they interact.

For example, say you want to buy new bin tags from your local council. The words in your head may include "bin", "rubbish collection", "tags" and a few others.

When you then go to your council's website, a common behaviour is to scan-read the homepage in a couple of seconds, searching for those words.

If you do not find them, you may instead latch on to some alternatives that you think fill the gap.

These may include "environment", "litter", waste" or similar. Although these words are not a perfect overlap, they may provide enough of a "scent of information" to make you think they point in the right direction.

Only after visiting these pages without satisfaction, will you consider a previously ignored link (Frequently asked questions) and wonder ...

"Well, I tried everywhere else. Maybe they put information about bin tags in there?!"

That's why FAQs don't work.

FAQs are almost always the absolute LAST place users choose to find information on a website - not the first. That's why you need to stop using them.

When are Frequently Asked Questions useful?

FAQs can sometimes work when limited to 2 or 3 highly targeted & time-limited queries.

They are particularly relevant in the context of a broken or poor service. In such cases, users may often be so angry or exercised that they ignore traditional navigation and go straight to "help" or "contact".

In that case, a couple of transient FAQs may help to serve an urgent need or quell an immediate fear.

Question: The Beyonce concert is tomorrow but my tickets has not arrived. What do I do?
Answer: Contact our tickets team as soon as possible at 01 555 1234.

I wrote a lot more about good ways to use FAQs in the telecoms sector in my blog post "Frustrated housewives seek satisfaction online" back in 2011.

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