7 reasons why your FAQs aren’t working

Brand owner and UX team might disagree, but FAQs are necessary. Give them the right treatment, and they can even be helpful.

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It’s an unfashionable admission – and frankly, my copywriting licence may be rescinded just for entertaining the thought, but what the hell: I’m a big fan of FAQs. Informative, well-structured ones, that is.

Sure, the brand owner and the UX team are certain that all the answers should be there, on the regular product pages – not dumped into the radioactive pit that is the ‘help’ section. But with a bit of copywriting effort – OK, a lot of copywriting effort – your FAQs could turn into one of your most powerful digital assets.

1. They’re not questions

It’s not complicated – a frequently asked question should be, well, a question. You know – with a question mark and uptalking inflection at the end.

I see brands get this wrong all the time, like this little corker on Capital One’s UK credit card website:

Test it for naturalness, read it aloud: 'What should I do if I or my or my extra cardholder lose our card(s)?' See what I mean? It might be a little less arch if the question was “What happens if someone steals my identity?” or “I think my identity has been stolen – what should I do?”. The FAQ section of the website isn’t the place to overtly sell a service you offer, even if it’s a free one. Better to relate the guarantee back to real questions a customer might actually ask, and give them a pleasant surprise.

Then there’s one on the ASDA Direct website, which I can't screenshot because the page is mostly broken. But it goes like this:

Q. Price match policy with stores?
A. Prices online can be different to prices in store, and there is no price match policy.

It might seem pedantic, but why on earth didn’t the copywriter go with the question “Will you match online prices in stores?”

(Note to ASDA – the text on your answers renders as white-on-white on OSX Yosemite running Chrome and Safari. But that’s another story.)

2. Nobody asked them, or will ever ask them

This one has been around almost as long as the web copywriters have been wrestling with crazy FAQs briefs. In fact, the venerable Jakob Nielsen called this out in 2002

But still, brands are up to the old trick of asking questions they’d like the customer to ask, such as this little classic from the UK retail bank Barclays:

Now, this question feels too contrived and neat to be true. Maybe it’s just me, but surely most customers would ask something along the lines of “Someone from Barclays has called to ask for my PIN. Should I give it to them?” or “Your website is asking me to enter my PIN – should I?”.

Sure, that’s now two questions instead of one – but the copy now feels more natural. And while they’re at it, Barclays would probably want to create an in-depth security guide as a bit of related content for these questions.

The British Army makes a similar fudge here:

The question they pose is this: “What are the nationality/residency rules for joining?” The answer then goes on to explain that soldiers from across the Commonwealth and other countries can join the British Army.

Wouldn’t it be better to ask a different question: “Do I have to be British to join?”. Another question could be: “Do I need to live in Britain to join?”. The answer to both could probably be: “You can join even if you don’t live in Britain, or have British citizenship”. This gets to the point far more quickly, and sounds more like a question a real person would ask, and it’s taken hardly any copywriting effort to bash it into shape. As an aside, we'd be nervous about starting the answer with ‘no’ – it just feels a bit stark and out of place.

Of course, a bit of testing would help us to understand the user needs a bit more scrupulously. Here’s one last example – this time from Panasonic:

Q. My microwave says LOCK.
A. This is referring to the child lock. Please press the Stop/Cancel button three times to remove this.

Isn’t the real problem that the customer can’t use their microwave? The ‘LOCK’ display is one thing, but it’s not really at the heart of the issue. Better to rephrase this as a question: ‘”My microwave won’t work, and the display shows ‘LOCK’. How do I fix it?”

3. You could’ve answered ‘yes’, ‘no’ or ‘sorry’, but didn’t

Definite is good. Your customers are pushed for time, and just want a crisp, self-contained answer and they’ll be on their way through your checkout.
So why on earth do so many answers to FAQs reek of fudge and obfuscation? Let’s look at that ASDA Direct one again:

Q. Do you offer discounts or vouchers for students, armed forces, bulk or trade sales?
A. We don't offer any discounts or vouchers of this type.

Now, ASDA is a pretty straightforward, likeable brand. It’s a simple tweak to make the answer more definite, and yet stay the right side of friendly: “Sorry – we don’t offer any discounts or vouchers like this”.

4. They’re too long

Often, publicly accessible FAQs are used to describe processes that sit behind a login – internet banking is a good example. How often have you trudged through an enormously complex step-by-step answer on one website, only to have to work through those steps again on another (probably password-protected) site?

Much better to pull all the help content into the logged-in site.

I’ve also seen plenty of FAQs that simply ramble on, ignoring the user’s question after making a vague attempt to answer it. For example, the question ‘What are faster payments?’ only needs a couple of paragraphs and some links to related questions about setting up a payment and cancelling payments.

Instead, Nationwide decided to pull everyone into one place: with a page that’s packed with unstructured information at the top, making sure users begin the page feeling confused and annoyed. They then follow this content with four tabs. It’s just way too much for a single FAQ to cope with.

However, sometimes there’s just no getting away from the complexity, as the Financial Ombudsman's FAQs prove:

How can I find out:
– what types of financial complaints the ombudsman service covers; and
– if my complaint is one you can help with?

Now, I’m not convinced by the two-part question – it’s not something a user would naturally ask. However, the answer is pretty clear (if long), largely because the UK Government has made a bit of a mess when it comes to the Ombudsman’s responsibilities. The answer does a good job of explaining a pretty murky subject as quickly and honestly as possible.

5. They haven’t been reviewed in the last six months

How many FAQs still talk about the millennium bug, Netscape Navigator or dial-up modems? Too many – we see them all the time.

Make sure all of your FAQ content is scheduled for a quick review and polish every six months – and more regularly if it’s related to a service or product that changes all the time.

6. You’re ignoring your social media and telephony channels

Smart clients listen to their customers, and not just by asking users to score FAQs for helpfulness (although that’s a good start). It also makes sense to categorise and log all of your inbound enquiries – whether they come into your call centre or your social channels.

By monitoring customers’ questions in these channels, you can second-guess what they’d like to ask on your website – and often avoid frustrated users taking to Twitter because they can’t find the answers on your site.

7. You didn’t test to find the pinch points in your site – and generate FAQs to help

Sometimes, a question will go forever unasked. For example, during a credit card application, I might want to know if I'll get an instant response – Bank of Scotland handily tell me I'll get a response within five minutes as part of their ‘before you start’ copy.

Now, if a competitor card didn’t think to tell me about the instant online decision as part of their application process, I might look for an answer in their FAQs. If I don’t find the answer, what are the chances of the reason behind my abandoned application ever being noticed? The answer is ‘absolutely none’– I’m much more likely to simply ditch the application and head over to a competitor instead.

Which rams home the point that FAQs are important – and that good, user-centred copy throughout your site is absolutely vital.

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