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HomePatterns > How to write FAQs that really answer customer questions                           




Write questions in the persona of the guest

Put instructions in numbered steps

Handle branching with bullets

Go ahead, repeat yourself

Show pictures

Find out if you have answered the question

Keep growing the FAQ

Create troubleshooting sections

Challenge on FAQs

How to write FAQs that really answer customer questions

When guests get stuck, they most often turn to the FAQ, because the style seems friendlier than the average help system, and the genre promises answers to real questions from users, rather than a stonewalling corporate pile of documentation.

Most FAQs adopt a fairly conversational style. (But most could go a lot farther in that direction).

That general style probably reflects the List Serv heritage, where a list moderator who got tired of answering the same question over and over would collect all the answers in one file for downloading.

Originally, the relationship was personal, or at least one-to-one, as the moderator answered one e-mail after another, and then simply pulled together all the best answers in one place, to make the FAQ.

The moderator usually had a real interest in helping out, and knew the niche audience very well, being part of it, so the answers often sounded like insider talk.

 The basic structure of a FAQ suggests a conversation, where the visitor asks a question, and you respond. That give-and-take shows the genre is a pure Internet play.


Answers to Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) from Hot Text, Web Writing that Works (PDF, 995K, or about 18 minutes at 56K)

Hurray for FAQs (PricePoint)


Perhaps because of this conversational setting, FAQ sentences tend to ramble.

Worse, some writers add clause after clause, and insert subordinate clauses within relative clauses, tossing in some when's and if's.

A guest who wants to understand will have to pull these multiple clauses apart, parsing meaning out of each piece, and then putting the pieces together to make sense.

Tip: Use only one subordinate clause per sentence--and put that clause at the beginning or end of the sentence, because readers find extra clauses easier to absorb in those slots.

Alas, the passive voice also attracts a lot of FAQ writers. Turning an active verb into the passive (transforming "We confirm your order" into "Your order is now confirmed") lets writers avoid saying who or what is doing the action, even though that kind of trick makes the sentence ambiguous. "Your entry is refused." By whom? By what? If no one is responsible, how can a visitor get mad? Easy.

Try fessing up by using the active voice.

"If you get this message, that means that our database can't understand what you've typed. Please try again, using the tip next to the slot on the form."

Break your paragraphs up, too.

Too many FAQs try to compress the entire answer into a single paragraph, as if that made it a unit. But you're on the Web, and people come to the FAQ upset, anxious, angry, ashamed--not in a great mood for reading, and certainly not thoughtful enough to read ten 10 or fifteen 15 lines of prose extending from one side of the window to the other.

Got a list? Reach for the bullets.

Open that answer up, even if you end up using half a dozen paragraphs for the bulleted items.


See: Duffy, Palmer, and Mehlenbacher (1992), Dumas and Redish (1993), Gutzman (2001), Hackos and Stevens (1996), Horton (1990), Price (2000), Price and Korman (1993), Rubin (1994), Seybold and Marshak (1998), Seybold, Marshak, and Lewis (2001), Zemke and Connellan (2001).


















Every sentence I utter must be understood not as an affirmation, but as a question.
-Niels Bohr, New York Times






Student: "Aren't these the same questions you asked on the exam last year?"

Albert Einstein: "Yes, but the answers are different this year."

Is that a bug on my head? How can I get it off?


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