E-commerce Link: Smart Questions
There are several standard pages that worm their way into most organizations' websites simply because that's the way it's always been: About Us, News & Press, Advanced Search and FAQs, to name just a few. While I could argue the merits of each of these pages, for the purpose of this column I want to focus on the FAQ alone. My hope is to convince marketers to be discriminating when it comes to the (all-too-frequently included) Frequently Asked Questions page on their companies' websites.
My Beef With the FAQ
We've all been victims of a long, scrolling FAQ page. The worst of these offenders feature a list of text-heavy questions and answers plopped on the page in no immediately apparent order. Each question begins with one of the same handful of question words and phrases: where, what, why and how do I, which render scanning for meaningful keywords nearly impossible. Instead, users have to take the time to read the full page start to finish. A user's question might be first on the list, it might be last, or it might not appear at all. For some reason, it always feels like the longer the list, the less likely I am to find the information I'm looking for.
As for the questions themselves, FAQs tend to be the questions organizations want their users to ask, paired, of course, with the answers they want customers to hear. These FAQs are stuffed to the gills with organization-centric marketing speak. The questions are overly simplistic, topics too narrow and the answers not even close to candid.
My biggest concern with FAQs is that they are generally an indication of a larger content strategy problem. The mere fact that a question is frequently asked points to the reality that a significant number of users are seeking similar information and can't find the information in the place they expect it to appear on the website. Instead of adding this desired content to a laundry list of other FAQs, site owners should focus on making desired content easier to find and understand within the main portion of their websites.
Content should be grouped with other content of a similar topic in a place on the site where it is contextually relevant and appropriately labeled. We, as users, prefer to browse for information by topic or task to be completed. So classification of information by content type is rarely the most useable solution. Just as users wouldn't want to navigate with top level links like "tools," "resources," "graphics" or "miscellaneous articles," neither do they want to navigate by "questions."
Who Does Use the FAQ?
Users who do use FAQs tend to be less technically savvy or even slightly intimidated by the Web. They see the Q&A format as friendly and approachable. These users are more comfortable with reaching out to an expert to find an answer than they are spending time clicking around and going it alone. Savvier users generally ignore the FAQ section altogether in favor of browsing a website using the main navigation links or turning to a search tool to find the content they're looking for.
Marketers—and all of those responsible for online content—shouldn't ignore the needs of those who are less comfortable with the Web. However, even the users who do go to an FAQ page are generally skeptical in doing so. With no strong information scent, there is nothing indicating that the information a user is looking for will be included there.
So where does this leave us? Consider the following best practices:
1. Critically assess whether you need an FAQ section of your website before including it by default. Try to work your FAQ content into your main site structure. Group and prioritize this content where it makes the most sense contextually. Classify information by topic and not by content type. After doing this, if you still feel that your users would benefit from an FAQ page, then make sure it acts as support for the content in the main portion of your website. The FAQ should never be a crutch for failing information architecture or content strategy.
2. Make sure your FAQs are actually frequently asked and not just open real estate for marketing fluff. Mine call centers, customer service emails and your site search logs as input resources for your question list. This isn't a section of your website you can set and forget. Like the rest of your key content, FAQs should be timely and fresh. This is the best way to ensure your FAQs are meaningful and relevant to your end users, even as their needs change over time.
3. Keep your FAQ list short and easy to scan. This list shouldn't be divided across multiple pages, nor should it need a navigation system unto itself. Edit your list down to a manageable number. Also, based on eyetracking studies, most users read websites in an F-shaped pattern—looking first across the top of the page and then reading the first few words of each line down the left side. By front-loading your FAQ questions—skipping the question words and strategically placing meaningful keywords at the start of each line—you'll maximize scanability for your users. Being purposeful about your keywords also may help your organic search rankings.
4. Offer a Web form or other feedback mechanism at the bottom of your FAQ page in case your user's question isn't part of the list. Set expectations for when users will see a return phone call or email, should they choose to contact you with this Web form. Build confidence that you're taking their questions and concerns seriously and they're not writing to a black box never to hear from you again.
5. Usability test. I've advocated for usability evaluation in previous articles and I'll do so again here. While it's probably not necessary to devote an entire study to your FAQ page, you might want to include a task or two in a more general site study that will take your participant to the FAQ. Figure out at what point in a browsing session a user might refer to your FAQ section and gauge their expectations for what might appear there.yy