I’m Going to Stop You Before You FAQ Again

Just ran across a conversation about FAQs in the Google Group for content strategy. [If you’re interested in CS, you need to join this group! Lots of great ideas.] This conversation popped up at a great time for me — I’ve been pondering FAQs for a few weeks now, and here’s what I know:

FAQs started — decades ago — as a vehicle to help discussion forums clean out the clutter. New forum users often showed up with the same questions that long-time users had asked before, and it got repetitive to answer the same questions over and over again, so many forums set up a list of questions that were frequently asked, along with the definitive answers.

I remember very clearly when I first used an FAQ page on a regular website. It was the mid-to-late 1990s, and we were so cutting edge. It was a real inside baseball joke — we had to explain to our client what an FAQ even was, and they still couldn’t figure out why we needed one.

It turns out, we were both right. We were right — FAQs slowly started popping up everywhere over the next few years, until you wouldn’t even think of building a website without one — and our client was right, because FAQs just don’t make sense on a text-based website with a content management system, Learn C++ and programming scheme that have any level of sophistication.

Why FAQs are a bad idea for your website:

  • FAQs are rarely well written. It takes a lot of talent and time to write well from the contorted perspective of an FAQ. Are you asking the questions in your customer’s voice? Are you answering them in yours? Or both in your voice? At what point do you give up and just start throwing pronouns around willy-nilly? If you’re like most FAQ writers we’ve seen, that happens pretty early in the process and the results show it.
  • FAQs don’t actually help customers. The construct of an FAQ — couch your help copy in the kinds of questions a customer might ask, if you let them call you — actually makes it more difficult for your customer to get an answer. When people are seeking information online, they’re skimming for keywords that describe their issue. You’ve surrounded their keywords [change password] with a bunch of extraneous copy [How do I change my password?]. Stack that simple question up with 2-3 dozen more “helpful” questions, and people can’t find a thing.
  • FAQs don’t live at the point of sale. Your customer needs help figuring out how to add a photo over on the profile page, not from an FAQ page that’s a link in the footer. FAQs aren’t in context, and your customers are more likely to give up and leave your site than they are to search around…and around…and around to find the answer.
  • FAQs don’t fix your sucky website. When you use FAQs on a website, they become an ineffective panacea for every problem with the interface and the content. People abandoning their shopping carts? Slap a couple more FAQs up there. Landing page not working well? Must need more FAQs.

What to do instead of using FAQs:

  • Fix your website. This is the hardest answer, but the best one. If something’s not working on your website, make it work.
  • Use in-context help. This often will require development, but putting help in-context makes a big difference. Add a little question mark or the word “Help” linking to a pop-up window with the tip right on the page where the problem happens. [Bonus: A good use of a pop-up window!]
  • If all else fails, create a topical help directory. If you can’t do the development or don’t have a system that supports in-context help, at the very least, throw out your FAQ and rewrite the information as a topical help directory that customers can easily scan and navigate. You eliminate perspective issues and your information is much clearer to your customer. Similarly, if your customers come to you with a wide variety of expertise, you may have to hit the largest group in terms of usability — and some people will need more help. Make it easy for them to get it.

Finally, if you’re running a discussion forum — by all means, use an FAQ. Everyone hates seeing that same question asked by new users every week.

Dear Conference Organizers:

I know it’s hard to get the marketing thing right. Believe me, I’ve been in the business for years. All these details take a lot of work and a lot of smart people. And you don’t have the budget you used to. And etc.

But dear lord, when you send me the 5th “REGISTER NOW BEFORE IT’S TOO LATE” email, and for the 3rd time I panic and go scramble through my emails only to find that indeed, I registered 4 months ago, I start to get a little ticked off.

Please, for the sake of my sanity and the love of all that is holy, please, please segment your list. Every time you send me one of these, I question my decision to attend — because clearly no one ELSE has signed up yet, so maybe you aren’t so awesome after all. And you don’t even know that I signed up, for heaven’s sake. Maybe I wasted my money by pre-early-registering when clearly, I could have waited 4 months and gotten the same deal.

And if you really are still trying to fill the seats, just think how much better I’d receive an email with this kind of message:

Hey, you — yeah, the smart cookie. You signed up for ABC Conference last spring, and you are going to be so glad you did. We’ve got some great stuff in store, like As, Bs and Cs. If you want to share those great ABCs with a colleague or client, please pass on this Friend of Laura registration code — they’ll thank you, and we will too!

Now, I’m sure your conference is going to be wonderful, and I know I’m going to love it. If you’ll just clean up this little email issue, we can go right back to being BFFs.

Planning Now for a #contentstrategy SXSW 2012

Well, it’s that time again — time that all the web-nerds penciled in our calendars months ago: The SXSW Panel Picker is open for voting!

If you’ve never been to the all-things-web-digital-music-and-film that is SXSW in Austin each March, I’m not sure where to begin. Last year I remember hearing that there were more than 25,000 attendees at just the Interactive part of the festival, making it the largest part of the event. SXSW pitches itself as uniquely focused on the creative side of the web, and I think there’s something to that. But there’s something for EVERYONE there, no matter your discipline.

In that vein, let me give you a little pitch for my discipline, content strategy.

Over the past few years, the SXSW sessions focusing on content have grown in number, and in my judgment, in quality as well. This year, there are a number of great-looking content sessions proposed in the Panel Picker, but we need your help. About 3600 sessions were proposed total this year, and they’ll take 500. The odds aren’t good for any one session, so content needs your votes and comments to shine strong at the conference.

Here are the ones I’ve specifically voted for. I’d value your thoughts and votes on my own proposal, but also on others that interest you. [You do have to create an account — free! — and sign in to vote. Speaking as someone who spent some time developing just my own proposal, I really appreciate your input!]

First, my proposed session:
Content Structure: Frame It Right, Make It Work
I’m planning to talk about content structure, metadata and information architecture — and how to use structure to make your processes more efficient and your copy easier to manage. I’d love your votes and comments!

Other sessions that got my thumbs-up today: 

Margot Bloomstein’s proposed session: Contextually Relevant Content Strategy
Margot is a smart, smart woman. I’ve heard her speak more than once and I’ve followed her thoughts online for some time. When she’s talking content strategy, it’s good stuff.

Panel moderated by Kristina Halvorson, with Joe Gollner, Erin Kissane, Mark McCormick and Karen McGrane: Rude Awakening: Content Strategy Is Super Hard
Amen. Some great names in the discipline gather to talk through the thorny questions.

Jeff Pfaller’s proposed session: Understanding Digital Content and Human Behavior
Optimizing your content for humans.

Amy Thibodeau’s panel: Copy Matters: Content Strategy for the Interface
Man, do we need this.

Once and Future King: Can Syndication Save Content?
I’ve spent large parts of the past couple of years trying to convince publishers that syndication is a revenue stream, to no avail. I’d been content to let the industry die, but sounds like this panel will try again to convince them. Bravo!

Google Doesn’t Make You Stupid

I’m re-reading Nicholas Carr’s famous Atlantic article from 2008 titled “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” I’m 10 paragraphs in and I’ve now stopped 4 times, twice to check email, once to tweet about how I keep stopping and now, to start writing this blog post.

So it seems, off the cuff, that the answer to Carr’s question must be, “Yes, yes, immediate access to information, tools and other people through today’s electronic media is, in fact, making us stupid.” I haven’t even read far enough into it to say that I am confident I remember Carr’s central premise — I first read the article when he wrote it 3 years ago.

[Brief pause]

OK, I’ve re-read the whole thing, and I’m still arguing with Carr.

Carr leans heavily on anecdote here, as he has to — there’s still precious little research about the long-term effects on humans of  being “wired” vs. not being so. Additionally, part of Carr’s point is that the move toward using artificial intelligence and relying on it in the ways we now do is systematizing our thought processes, or at least, our intellectual work in ways that are unnatural for humans.

Yet early in the article, Carr notes that reading isn’t intuitive for humans, either. While writing [and thus reading] was developed about 5000 years ago, human society is far older. Each human learns anew how to read — no one is born with that ability.

But I think the part that bothers Carr is the reduction in narrative. It is a human quality to make meaning of our world, to create a story where one did not exist. And deep concentration and deep reading greatly assist us in developing narrative. But developing the skills needed to sort, evaluate and synthesize the vast amounts of information available to people in modern society is also valuable.

I view many of the ways I use information, systems and technology today to aid me in clearing my brain for this deeper kind of thought. The more I can create routines and mechanize my information management, the less brainpower I have to devote to that — and the more I can devote to what I find truly valuable: pattern identification.

Finding the connections between ideas and information makes the original information all the more valuable. Pattern recognition is an essential skill in creating a narrative and telling a story — and in receiving a narrative or a story from others.

Content Strategy: It’s About the Mindset

Content strategy helps you put the business goal first, and it lets the rest of your work flow down from that.

My talk Friday to the Nashville Chamber of Commerce’s interactive SIG really underlined to me that content strategy is at least as much a mindset as it is a set of tools. We had a number of experienced web professionals in the room — from design, strategy, content, programming backgrounds — and the questions and comments really focused on two areas:

  • What do you put into a content inventory?
  • Whoa. This is a new way of thinking about things.

I find that as a group, content strategists are obsessed with how other CSers do inventories and audits. We are looking for the Holy Grail. We want there to be a single solution that answers all questions. I did my first, honest-to-God, inventory-for-the-sake-of-inventory about 6 years ago, and I’ve done countless ones since. And no two have ever been the same. Sure, I always start with URL and headline, but each one has been different, based on what we’re evaluating.

It goes back to the principle we work on at Creekmore Consulting: Content comes second, because your business goal has to come first. Give me your business goal, and then we can start talking about what your inventory should look like.

And that gets us right back to the mindset, doesn’t it? Content strategy helps you put the business goal first, and it lets the rest of your work flow down from that. We choose the tools, the technology and yes, even the content, based on your business needs.