You’ve probably seen FAQs (Frequently Asked Questions) on about a million websites. In fact, you might have created your own FAQ section from time to time - a convenient closet for content without structure. The problem is, FAQs are a terrible idea.
The FAQ had an innocuous enough start. In the early- to mid-80s, the FAQ was developed as a way to prevent users of mailing lists from asking the same questions, over and over. As new users would join the lists, they’d ask the same questions as the users who joined last week, going against netiquette that was developing at the time. Users were expected to join the list, and download the archives via FTP to catch up. Naturally, this rarely happened.
As a result, the FAQ quickly because a way to email out commonly asked questions and the correct answers on a periodic basis, as a way to make the use of the list more pleasant for all involved.
Through the 90s, as the web matured, the notion of FAQs migrated (naturally, some might say) to the web, with sites using the same technique to help answer questions that their users commonly held, and preventing the need to repeat these answers via support or otherwise. In this era - the mid 90s - our understanding of information architecture and the way to structure content on the web was, admittedly, a bit immature (although, quickly progressing).
That brings us to today. And the problem.
The problem is, we know a lot more about how to effectively structure content on the web. We know a lot more about how to think about the information architecture of websites and craft a narrative that naturally answers the questions our users have.
But, alas, the FAQ still exists. Today, the FAQ is used as a dumping ground, a place to toss content that the organization creates, but doesn’t have a suitable structure or strategy for. This is a red flag for content immaturity, showing areas where the organization either creates content without regard to a larger strategy, or doesn’t take the time to think about their content as a structured narrative, and organize things appropriately.
As an example, FAQ questions like “What does it cost?” or “How do I install it?”, are questions that should naturally be answered in the course of content consumption on the site, via product explanations and the like. There are myriad different types of FAQ questions, and in almost all cases, that content is far better suited to live in a structure that is more intentionally crafted.
The problems with the FAQ aren’t limited to simply a symptom of organizational content strategy immaturity. From a practical standpoint, FAQs are virtually devoid of meaning on their own, leaving them as a worthless component of wayfinding on a website. Good information architecture demands that we take care to consider each label we use, each path to content. Slapping FAQs in the navigation creates an empty hole with virtually no information scent about what a user can expect to find behind that label. (By the way, the word “Resources” is the same thing, and frankly, is just as bad as FAQs)
So, as you’re putting together the structure of your site or app, consider this: all content you publish should be part of a larger strategy and narrative, and the labels you use to describe sections or pages of your site should carry meaning about what the user can find behind that label. Don’t use “FAQs” as a crutch for poor information architecture discipline.