The question of frequently asked questions (FAQs)

Lucy Miller, 24 March 2023 - Content design

Why FAQs are bad news and how we can improve content in other ways.

Why you may look to FAQs to solve your problems

You may want to write website content as frequently asked questions if you:

  • are preparing new content to explain an upcoming change that may cause disruption
  • have had feedback about an existing page being difficult to understand

The theory is that if you put yourself in your user's shoes, you can write out every question that they would ever want to ask and directly answer it in your content.

In reality, using FAQs shows that you haven’t really thought about the user, and this is why…

They overcomplicate the simplest of text

When drafting FAQs it's tempting to try and mirror all the questions that anyone may ever want to ask.

This often leads to writing 1 question 3 different ways or simply writing too much.

Example: Bin collection day FAQs

How will the change affect me?

Your bin will now be collected on a Friday instead of a Wednesday.

Will this affect me?

This will only affect you if your bin collection day is currently a Wednesday.

When will this change start?

Your bin day will change week commencing Monday 1 March.

Example: A shorter way of writing out the text

If your bin is currently collected on a Wednesday, this will change to a Friday from the week commencing Monday 1 March.

They duplicate existing content

You may want a set of FAQs to accompany your existing content. The argument for this is often that ‘users can scan for their answer quickly’.

This is duplication, even if it’s written in a different form.

If you had written the content clearly enough, the user wouldn’t need to ask any more questions.

The Government Digital Service (GDS) were spot on in their 2013 blog ‘FAQs: Why we don’t have them’ when they said:

"That problem really shows in search, where you will end up with duplicate results competing for attention. You are fighting with your own content. That can’t be efficient for you or for users."

They take longer to read

FAQs structure each heading as a question.

Headings should be front-loaded with the most important information so you can quickly and easily scan the page for the information you need.

Are they actually frequently asked?

Frequently asked questions may not have been researched.

How do we know what users are asking? How do we know which questions are frequent?

This is most evident when a project is new. Where users haven’t been presented with this information before, how can we possibly anticipate what questions they would have?

Improve your content without the dreaded FAQs

We aren't suggesting that users don't come to a website with a whole host of questions that need answering. We just don't think this is the best way to answer them.

If your content isn't answering users' questions, revisit it.

Gather all the feedback and data that you can to try and find out what people are struggling to understand or missing.

If there is a question that you know for a fact is frequently asked, explore other ways of surfacing the answer to that question.

You could:

  • break out chunks of text with clear headings that summarise the themes
  • write more concise sentences that get the point across quickly
  • front load your sentences and headings with popular search terms
  • consider whether users really need to know all of it

Contact the Digital Team

If you're looking to draft new content or improve your existing website content, contact our Digital Team via our internal ServiceNow form for support.