Future student online experiences

Future student online experiences

Sharing the work of the Prospective Student Web Content Team

5 reasons why FAQ pages deliver a bad user experience

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) are not a sensible way to structure web content. They might be easy to produce, but they’re difficult to consume and risky to manage. Here are five solid reasons to ditch your FAQ pages.

1. They’re harder to understand

Structuring a heading as a question creates a longer line length, there’s no way around it.

Research shows that long sentences on web pages are a bad idea.

They create a higher cognitive load, making them genuinely:

  • harder to understand
  • difficult to follow on small, mobile screens
  • problematic for people with visual or reading impairments

Our goal when writing web content should be to make it as simple as possible for users to complete their tasks. Long question headings simply make it more difficult for everyone to understand your content.

Further reading

Find out how the UK Government designs accessible content and why short sentences are important:

How people read (gov.uk service design manual)

Sentence length – why 25 words is our limit (Inside gov.uk blog)

2. They’re slower to read

Eye tracking software has shown that people read differently online to how they read in print.

Most readers tend to:

  • scan around 25% of the content
  • decide in less than 10 seconds whether a page is relevant
  • follow an F-shaped reading pattern, scanning the first few words of each heading

Therefore, we need to design content that is easy to scan and that follows common reading patterns. We can do this by putting keywords in the right places, like at the start of each heading (a technique called front-loading).

FAQs prevent us from doing this because we can’t prioritise the keywords. Every line has to start with who, what, where, when, or why. This makes the content repetitive and slower to consume, forcing people to read the full sentence every time.

Look at the evidence

Studies by the Nielsen Norman group show the most common online reading patterns and the importance of keywords:

How people read online (nngroup.com)

How little do users read (nngroup.com)

3. They’re difficult to navigate

People don’t visit our websites to browse through content and see what’s on offer, they come with a task to complete.

The fastest way for them to do that is by following a clear, task-based navigation. FAQs work against this because they force us to group content by type rather than task. By ‘type’ I mean something that refers to the format of the content rather than what it’s actually about.

This includes section names like:

  • toolkits
  • resources
  • videos
  • FAQs

Users have no idea whether the content in a Resources section will help them complete their task or not, without reading through all of it. The same applies to an FAQ section. They’re forced to trawl through lots of question and answer pairs, with little or no navigation, to (hopefully) find what they’re looking for.

Further reading

Read Gerry McGovern’s work on the importance of top tasks and clear website navigation:

The Top Tasks method (gerrymcgovern.com)

Designing navigation for clarity and fidelity (gerrymcgovern.com)

4. They’re risky to manage

Every piece of content needs an owner, but it’s difficult to assign an owner to an FAQ page spanning multiple topics.

Lack of ownership creates risk, especially if you have lots of FAQs. Or, if you’re producing FAQs that are changing rapidly in response to outside events.

FAQs are also seen as the final word on a topic. They’re viewed as a definitive answer rather than a piece of fluid web content that can change regularly. Because of this, they tend to multiply.

They can start off on one website, then spread to:

  • intranets
  • subsites
  • social media feeds
  • enquiry handler scripts

If you have no clear content strategy or top-down content management, this can be a dangerous situation. Information can quickly become out of sync as it duplicates across multiple sites and channels. This leaves you and your organisation open to unnecessary risk.

Further reading

Read more about the importance of content governance and clear content ownership:

Content governance: a four step road map (gathercontent.com)

5. They’re often made up

Worst of all, FAQs are often made up.

They tend to come from within an organisation; they’re what the business thinks its users want to know. They’re often completely fake or based on a few pieces of staff feedback. They do not meet real user needs.

To be useful at all, FAQs need to be based on data from user research and enquiry analysis. That data needs to be gathered and analysed on a regular basis so that it can inform publishing decisions. Without that evidence-driven approach, we can’t produce user-centred content and we can’t prioritise.

Further reading

Read our previous blog posts on the importance of using enquiry analysis to establish user needs and publish useful content:

Closing the loop: the importance of enquiry analysis

A process of continuous improvement reduces support calls

The alternative

It’s fairly simple:

  1. Find out what your users want to know, through user research.
  2. Publish it next to other relevant content, where people will naturally look for it.
  3. Use nested headings, short sentences, and well-placed keywords to make the content easy to read.

Opinion pieces on FAQ content

If I can’t convince you, maybe these people can:

FAQs – Why we don’t have them (gds.blog.gov.uk)

FAQs are the dinosaurs of web navigation (linkedin.com)

No FAQs: create purposeful information for a more effective user experience (alistapart.com)

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