Three reasons why frequently asked questions (FAQs) are not effective

Magneto is working on a new and exciting product and I happened to draft some help articles for it. I was about to draft an FAQs section but my co-founder Ellen Beldner advised against it and claimed they are much harder to parse. When I went back to my desk and looked at some of them I realize she was right: FAQs are not effective.

Why would you waste your header on a question vs. the answer? Instead of asking: Can I connect more than one calendar? Just state: Magneto lets you connect more than one calendar. This way your reader can get the answer at a glance and can read more if she likes. (by the way, imagine newspapers will change their headlines to questions: Did Obama Win The Elections? How annoying will it be?)

People search, they don’t browse. Long gone the days of reading the manual. When people have a question, they go to the help section and hit search. When the search results return answers vs. questions, users can scan them quickly and find the best article without the need to read it.

Statements advertise your product strength. When your users scan your help section, use the opportunity to educate them, so they can learn about features and benefits on the way to find an answer. Think of a user that got to your help section and read the following:

  • Magneto is free!
  • Magneto can connect to both Google and Exchange calendars.
  • Magneto encrypts your data in rest and in motion.

Now compare it to someone that scanned the following questions:

  • How much Magneto cost?
  • Which calendars can I connect to Magneto?
  • Is Magneto safe and secure?

The first three provided 90% of the content in just few words. The later require reading more and most users would not do that.

You can’t think of all the questions your users have, so don’t send them searching. There is no way you can come with a list of every question a user might have, and write it the way your user would have asked. Sending people to a limited list of questions, where they are not likely to find their question (or recognize it the way you have written it) is a recipe for frustration.

Enough theory… Here is an example:

Are FAQs useful?

No. They require the user to read both the question and than the answer to get the full information.

VS.

FAQs are not useful!

Create statements that provide most of the information, and provide additional details in the article that follows, just like you’d do in a newspaper.

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Three reasons why frequently asked questions (FAQs) are not effective

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