Yes, you read that right. One of the most frequently asked questions we get at the Digital Transformation Office is whether FAQs are an acceptable way of presenting web content.

Our answer, almost always, is no, FAQs are not effective so please don’t make them!

Clear paths lead to task success

Instead of being an intuitive navigation tool, FAQs tend to become a dumping ground for messaging the organization wants to push. They make your job easy - all the stuff people probably want to know lumped on one page. But they make your user’s journey more difficult.

Gerry McGovern, acclaimed expert in digital customer experience, calls FAQs “one of the laziest and least useful forms of navigation that grows like a weed on the Web.” He refers to them as “one of the worst examples of organization-centric thinking.” (Design navigation for clarity and fidelity)

This is because FAQs make your users sift through wordy collections of questions you think they may have, or worse, questions you want them to have. Some of these questions may be relevant to their task. Many of them are not.

When you design navigation from the perspective of your audience, you consider the tasks that they are trying to complete. Instead of lumping diverse concepts or details together in a single spot, you create clear paths to actionable answers. You identify the top tasks your audience wants to accomplish. Then you organize your website navigation in a simple and logical way to help them succeed.

Effective headings are answers

Besides making people sift through content that isn’t relevant to their task, FAQs needlessly inflate your headings, and make them less effective.

Anyone who has seen a heat map of how people read a web page will be familiar with the F pattern that the scanning eye often follows. People’s eyes travel across a page less and less as they scan down.

Heat map from an eye tracking study that shows how the eyes moved across and then down the page in a basic F pattern

This user behaviour is the source of some of the most basic content design guidance around page and heading structure. “Front-loading” headings, by placing the most important words at the beginning, takes advantage of this known behaviour. (F-Shaped Pattern of Reading on the Web, First 2 Words: A Signal for the Scanning Eye)

When you turn your headings into questions, you end up placing useless words in the most powerful position for the scanning eye.

Consider these two heading options:

  • What are the sources of traffic-related air pollution?
  • Sources of traffic-related air pollution

In the first option, you have 3 useless words in the most powerful position. Changing it into the “answer” means that the keywords are further to the left, where the scanning eye is more likely to notice them.

One positive use case for FAQs

During the COVID-19 crisis, we did find one legitimate use for FAQs.

Call centres and general email boxes were being inundated with questions from the public. The first line of defence was to improve the web content supporting the tasks people were trying to accomplish. However, we also looked at how we could redesign Contact us pages to encourage more self-serve behaviour and reduce call volumes.

We worked closely with call centres to figure out what the top call drivers were in any given week. With this data, we put a small set of answers to the most asked questions right at the top of contact pages. We moved the phone number or email address lower on the page.

Answers reduced calls and emails

When we added answers to the top of 2 general enquiries contact pages, those answers began to get a lot of use. As many as 5 to 15% of the page visitors were opening and viewing each answer.

On the General enquiries by email page, we saw a clear correlation between increased clicks on answers and a decrease in email submissions for those questions and answers. The percentage of visitors choosing to submit an email was cut in half, from a high of 46% to an average of 20%.

Many calls to the general 1-800 0-Canada number were for questions specific to individual applications for the Canada Economic Response Benefit (CERB). Call centre staff had to redirect those calls to specific phone lines, depending on how the caller had applied for the benefit.

On the General information by telephone page, we added a new top question and answer about getting help with issues related to an application. The analytics showed people used it to find the specific phone number they needed. It helped them understand which phone line to use based on how they had applied for the benefit. They still had to call, but this acted as an initial triage for callers. It saved them time on the phone by getting them to the right phone number the first time.

General information by telephone page showing answers to most frequent call drivers at the top of the page (in expand/collapse pattern to minimize screen real estate) and wait times along with the contact phone number at the bottom of the page

Guidelines for limited use of FAQs

While we do have a legitimate way for you to use a FAQ, we implore you to proceed with caution! There are some important guidelines to follow.

  1. When users have already made the decision to contact you directly, consider putting answers to top questions on a Contact us page
  2. Work with call centres to determine what the top call drivers actually are, and only include those
  3. Limit your list to no more than 7 as the user’s top task coming to this page is to contact you, so don’t make them scroll endlessly
  4. Use an expand/collapse pattern so users only need to look at the answer that is relevant to them
  5. Put the answers above the phone number or email address as this is a last ditch effort to encourage self-serve behaviour
  6. Review and update the answers weekly or biweekly so they truly reflect the most current call drivers
  7. Avoid duplicating content by providing a brief answer and link to the authoritative web content that provides further detail

Final word

Based on our evidence, we have since amended our strict “no”, to “avoid-except-on-contact-pages-when-you-know-the-call-drivers.” It’s not really about FAQs or no FAQs. It’s about user journeys, and customer/client service.

Ask yourself who your FAQ serves — you or your clients. Then make the right choice!

More encouragement to avoid FAQs