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Throw away your frequently asked questions

Amy Grinstead
Amy Grinstead
Senior digital PR and content manager 8 Nov 20186 minutes read

It's the most wonderful time of the year: World Usability Day. We'll help you make the world a better place by banishing FAQs.

Happy World Usability Day! All over the world on 8 November, people and businesses are pledging to make technology, products and services easier to use. 

According to the organisers of World Usability Day, ’No one should have to suffer through products and services that get in their way. People should not be made to feel stupid by technology.’

And that’s true. At Etch, we put a lot of time and effort into testing the digital products we develop for our clients. We do this because everything we create is built for humans, so it has to work well for humans without bringing extra stress into their lives.

Make things right with your words

I’m not a visual designer and I’m not a developer. I can’t draw for all the money in the world (no, really, I’m embarrassingly bad), and outside of the most basic HTML I used to make my Myspace profile look good back in 2005, I can’t code. 

But I am a writer and I can design content. My job is to help people find the information they need, when they need it, in the best form for them. It’s usability in its purest form, but still very tricky.

If there’s one thing I’ll ask you to take on board this World Usability Day: it’s to consider getting rid of your FAQ section and start making your content more purposeful.

If you have a frequently asked questions section on your website, or any digital product you manage, take a minute and think about why that is. 

Where have these questions come from? 

Have your FAQs come from real users and customers; people who are interacting with your business every day?

If the answer is yes, think about how you could get this information in front of your readers in a way that makes much more sense to their user journey. The New Zealand government has this nailed. Its public Govt.nz style guide states:

Simple as that. Talk to people across the different areas of your business and find out what questions they’re hearing from customers - particularly those in the team who are speaking to them on the phone every day.

Have your FAQs come from people in your team, who think these are things you should be telling people? 

If you’re saying yes to this, then it’s time to get these questions validated. Talk to your customer-facing colleagues and find out what your users are asking on a regular basis.

Is this information they even need to know? If no one’s asking it, why are you making them think about it? If it’s a genuine question for users then, again, figure out where it should sit in their journey and get your content updated to be fit for purpose. 

If your FAQs sit in their own section of your site, why is that? What is the traffic like on that page?

The chances are, you’re either totally distracting users because they can’t find the information they need, or you’re making them work harder to trawl through a list of FAQs filled with other information that doesn’t apply to them. 

Gerry McGovern, digital customer experience extraordinaire, summed it up by saying:

‘The FAQ is an organisation-centric form of navigation. It makes life easier for the writers than for the customers.’

Okay genius, so what’s the answer?

The answer to finding out how usable your content is, is what you might expect but might not want to hear: test, test and test again.

Only through validating user needs and testing journeys on real users will you find out if your content hits the mark. If you took away the FAQs, would people still find what they were looking for or complete the action you want them to?

If you changed up the content on other pages and added more information where people would expect to find it, what happens then?  

If you’re going to a new dentist, you’ve probably got some questions. How early should you turn up for your appointment? Where can you park? And, let’s be honest, do they look like nice people who won’t inflict horrible pain on your mouth? All this information shouldn’t be tucked away in frequently asked questions.

This need-to-know information should be right where your customer expects to see it. You can still header it, if you like, with something that you might say to someone in person. Something like ‘before you get here’ or ‘things to know’. Think about how you talk to people, real people, face-to-face.

The exceptions to the rule

I’ll admit that there might be the odd occasion when you simply can’t get around a set of FAQs. But if you need to use this model, try making it a temporary measure. If your content exists only for a short amount of time, it might be necessary to have a list of information to signpost users to.

But if your FAQs start becoming a part of the furniture on your site, it’s time to review your content and find a proper home for your information.

Good UX vs. evil UX

The theme for this year’s World Usability Day looks at how ‘good UX causes delight and bad UX causes problems’. 

99 times out of 100, FAQs sit squarely in the bad camp. 

Make it easy for your users to find what they need. Don’t make them feel stupid by trawling through a list of FAQs.

If you need help reviewing the FAQs on your site, get in touch - and together we’ll make the world a better place through usable content. Happy World Usability Day, everyone!