Good content does not include FAQs
Last updated: May 17, 2022
On this page
- Why we do not use FAQs
- Rewrite FAQs as well-structured content
- Challenge assumptions, it makes better content
- Guidelines for limited use
When writing web content, don't use Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs). Instead, take a descriptive and topic-based approach. When you include FAQs, you indicate that people will not be able to use the content to fully understand the program or service.
FAQs are not easy to scan and often begin with the same words, such as:
This structure forces a person to read each question before they find their answer. Then, they have to read the answer to see if it applies to them. This extra time and energy leads to frustration and people may miss the content they need altogether.
Instead, use headings
Design research shows that content structured with descriptive headings is easier to scan quickly. Good headings are clear, direct and usually 6 words or less.
When creating FAQs, people either try to imagine questions that people might ask or assume that a single question from the public represents a larger population. They're rarely based on real questions from the public. This leads to dense and oddly specific questions which defeat the purpose of a section claiming to list frequent questions.
Once content has been written and published, questions from the public are often added to an FAQ section as a quick fix. This approach ignores the importance of maintaining content over time.
Instead of trying to fill content gaps by relying on an FAQ section, edit the content to integrate new or missing information. This ensures that content does not become redundant, outdated or trivial.
Answers in FAQs duplicates existing content, often in similar phrasing. While the intent behind this duplication is to highlight details the public might miss, it's better to restructure content so it cannot be missed at all.
There are many ways to highlight important details. These include:
People scan web content in an 'F' pattern, with most attention given to headings and introductory content at the top left of the page. Address these patterns by using content headings in a short table of contents and describing processes using an order of operations. This way, content is organized based on topic similarity.
FAQs cannot be organized using the 'F' pattern as all the information is phrased as a question. As a result, FAQ web content appears as dense blocks of information and is difficult to visually scan and understand.
Plain language writing prefers consistent tense, objects and subjects. Switching 'you' and 'I' to form questions causes confusion. Plain language writing uses simple sentence construction and active voice. Questions in FAQs tend to be lengthy and specific. They're inherently inconsistent and contrary to best practices in plain language writing.
If you have existing FAQs, follow these steps to rewrite them into well-structured content:
- Group FAQs by topic
- Develop headings for those topics
- If content already exists, reformat the content to declutter and reduce confusion
- Edit down to the core points being portrayed
- If the content still seems dense, consider using bulleted lists to list out the details
"I applied in late December but have not received a response. When will my application be processed?"
You should hear a response soon. Applications are processed by September 1 of each calendar year, but as demand can vary year-to-year, you may not get a response right away. Check back frequently.
Application processing time
Applications are processed by September 1.
FAQs are often written by program or policy staff who make assumptions about the audience of their content. Foundational concepts of content design, such as user research, are skipped. The content writer may be familiar with FAQs from websites or documents they've seen in the past, or they may be under direction from a senior staff member.
Web content experts advocate for adherence to web style because it's the most effective way of conveying information to the public. User experience testing consistently shows that people are looking for content that is succinct, topic-based and in plain language.
Jurisdictional best practice
Other digitally progressive jurisdictions avoid the use of FAQs:
Only consider FAQs when a person has already made the decision to contact someone via email or telephone. The FAQ allows a final attempt at self-service:
- This means FAQs must be in a subpage, beyond a contact link and never directly linked
- Do not include more than 7 questions
- Use the accordion feature
- There is a record of the exact questions being asked frequently by email or telephone
- The questions are well-maintained and reflect the public's frequent questions at a given moment in time