FAQs Fail the User Test

frustration

Some web content creators like to employ Frequently Asked Questions lists as a conversational way to cover a lot of ground in a small space.

It's a great quick-and-dirty solution for us, and it feels handy for our visitors. 

We’ve Tried, Really Hard

Our team has implemented them on many academic sites over the past 15 years, varying all sorts of aspects to try to gain their adoption.

Yet examination of analytics kept revealing low traffic for most of these pages. Usability testing on the few FAQs that did seem to get pageviews revealed users turning to them when they couldn’t find basic info on the other pages of the site. What seemed evident was what usability experts from Jared Spool to Gerry McGovern have observed—that most users just don't seem to find them very usable.

Why FAQs Make Users Cry

There appear to be a number of reasons:

  • As Mr. McGovern notes, organizing info into a Questions category (or Resources or Tools) is an info creator's way of thinking. Users categorize information by topic (e.g., a user with the question "What are your rates?" will search all of your menu items for the term "Rates" before giving up and resorting to the FAQ).
  • When users see “FAQ” or “Frequently Asked Questions”, they tend to have somewhat magic expectations that their question will naturally appear in that list, and often that the FAQ will be a quicker version of the rest of the info on the site. These hopes are almost always dashed.
  • Most of the time, the questions are not those people have frequently asked but rather those the website owner wishes they'd ask or can't figure out where to place elsewhere on the site.
  • The full-sentence-in-question format of an FAQ is hard to scan visually, so it slows users way down when searching for info.
  • In our experience, the list tends to become longer over time (sometimes serving as the site’s "junk drawer"), further slowing this inefficient method of info-seeking.
  • It's possible, as some have suggested, that the term "FAQ" is not well known to everyone, though even where we spelled the acronym out, traffic numbers did not increase significantly.

Conceptually, an FAQ is sort of like an aisle in a home improvement store called “Frequently Looked-For Items”. It’s just generally not the way people want to search for things, and in our experience it tends not to result in satisfaction very often.

So What to Use Instead?

Instead of creating an FAQ, try this exercise:

  1. Pretend you are a first-time user to your site and brainstorm some questions you anticipate such a user might ask. What would they be interested in knowing when arriving at a site like yours?
  2. Then go back to your content pages and cover the topics there in a non-question format.
  3. Adjust your menus so that a first-time visitor asking these questions could use your menus to confidently find their way to each "answer."

That's what the menus and the content pages are for.

And If You Really Need Some Q&A?

Rarely, a part of a page really does call to be organized as question-and-answer. Don't colocate all such questions on a single page of Questions; rather, add questions to a page already discussing the topic to which the questions pertain.

If there are more than a few questions (best to avoid this), make them more visually scannable:

  • Break sets of questions into sections with headings.
  • Consider employing a toggle widget to initially show only the questions, hiding the noise of the answer from the user until they've found their target question. Be sure to provide a “show all” link to let the user see all answers at once if they choose.
  • If your site doesn't have toggle functionality, use in-page links to list the questions at the top of the section and link to the answers further down.

More Input

These two articles offer some useful insights:

FAQ Usability

Infrequently Asked Questions of FAQs

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