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.

AP Steps Into the 2000s: Email Loses the Hyphen

Ah, the Associated Press. Bless their hearts. Long the whipping boy of web business types [and deservedly so, for a years-long series of tone-deaf and business-stupid moves online], the AP has nonetheless retained its position as the stylebook of business and media.

Quick background: Stylebooks are used by both business and media communicators to settle questions of how you spell things, what to capitalize, how to handle URLS or emails in copy — in short, anything that you might have a difference of opinion on. When you’re communicating for a living, you need to make a decision about how to handle these questions of opinion and then stick with your answer throughout your communications. It makes you look more professional and ends time-wasting arguments about when you capitalize titles.

In my two decades of communications experience, I’ve never seen anything get people angrier than hyphens. I have no idea why this small line is so infuriating, but believe me, this is far worse than the Oxford comma.

Hyphens typically crop up in a couple of places: To string together two-word adjectives [just like that — meta!] or when you’re sticking together two words to make them one [like cross-country]. I tend to be an over-hyphenater [to be generous to you under-hyphenaters out there], mostly because I like concrete rules. When you hyphenate less, there are usually still some things you’re going to hyphenate, and I find some hyphenation far more confusing than lots.

And for years, the Associated Press has kept the hyphen in the word e-mail — I guess because it’s a shortening of the now-ancient-sounding phrase electronic mail. As early as the mid-1990s, online style guides recommended spelling the word as email, but AP [and as a consequence, lots and lots of journalists] has lagged behind. But last week, AP finally decreed that the proper spelling is email.

Most organizations that officially declare style use some combination of a recognized manual like AP and their own rules, so many organizations have been spelling it email for years now; the AP’s decision last week simply follows current usage, instead of defining current usage, as it often does.

English is stupid

I’m a professional writer, editor and organizer of words and ideas. I love grammar, syntax and the structure of words.

So when I tell you that English is stupid, I know whereof I speak.

I don’t mean there’s not a reason why things are the way they are. We can spend pointless hours on etymology and learn a lot about our language’s history. And then end result is a hodgepodge…it’s all stupid.

I’ve been reminded about how dumb all these things are because my son, 5 1/2, is on the verge of really, seriously, honest-to-God reading. And bless his heart, he’s worked hard, and he knows the rules — but not yet the exceptions. So he sees
and he sounds out, “kuh-now.”
and he stops dead cold.
Or how about any word with silent E? Do you know how many silent Es there are at the end of words in kindergarten readers?
And any word with C. Here’s a letter whose only job is to sound like two other letters. Kinda like X. Except that sounds like maybe 3 other letters. Or is that K that sounds like X?

The information architect in me hates all this. Information architects like things to be neat. Organized. Buttoned up. And most of all, easy for the audience. English is not easy for anyone. Those of us who are native speakers often aren’t able to keep all the rules in our heads. [Note: There is the obnoxious side of me, which LOVES all the arcane rules and spellings, because I happen to be good at remembering most of them. The more rational part of me thinks that the arcaneness prevents us from communicating as well as we could.]

R u with me? Let’s considur fonetik speling and rulz that don’t have silee xsepshuns. It wood sure help my sun.

Yahoo! Style Guide: Hoping the first impression holds

Yahoo! Style Guide
The Yahoo! Style Guide [print version, also available as the online Yahoo! Style Guide here] arrived at my house while we were on a 7-state Western odyssey last week. So I have just begun to dive into this new entry into the “how to write” contest, but I had to pause here to say I’m already on their side.

Chapter 1, Ideas in Practice on p. 14-15. The Yahoo editors strip out a frighteningly prototypical section of “web” copy and rewrite it the right way. They slash away adjectives, dubious claims and the flotsam that ruins most web writing. The overfluff that people add because they can.

They add bullet points, bold copy and links.

The end result is remarkably shorter than the starting point, and it’s useful, easy to comprehend and directive.

That’s honestly as far as I’ve gotten, but good heavens. If all you read is chapter 1, you’re well on your way to better writing.

You’ve got information. Do you have content?

It’s a common refrain, professed by organizations large and small to their content strategists [or perhaps explaining how everything is under control]:

Oh, we’ve got lots of content. We just don’t have it on the website. We just need to put it up there.

Sometimes, it’s even true.

But what happens far more often is that the organization has a lot of information, little to none of it web-ready.

This is not always a popular statement, but information isn’t the same as content. For your web content to be effective, it must be designed and edited specifically for your business purposes, and optimized for web reading to meet your audience’s needs.

Information does not magically become effective web content by the circumstance of appearing on your website.

Another related, unpopular point: People with access to information and Microsoft Word do not automatically become writers.

I think I sound more negative or critical than I intend to do. If it seems like I’m talking straight to you, let me just encourage you by saying that you are not alone. Many, many organizations are dealing with these issues.

Often, we get into a situation like that because we’ve left the content until the end.

Save yourself from the content/information dilemma:

  • Craft a strategy for your content with your business goals in mind.
  • Don’t let yourself be fooled into thinking that your information is web-ready.
  • Get experienced web writers to work with your topical experts to shape your information into web-ready content.