FAQs are Failures to Organize

I have been working on a large content migration project, shifting flat HTML into a content management system.  It’s been a manual process for a number of reasons.  The most obvious is that most of the content on the Web site is not actually linked, so we are only bringing over about half of the actual files.

A significant number of these resources are Frequently Asked Questions.  In fact, for just about every resource or sub-site that was created, someone developed a frequently asked questions page.  As I mentioned on the previous post, these seem to largely be questions that people want to be asked, rather than questions that are actually asked.

In some cases, the “frequently asked question” is actually a series of questions that all reach the same end.  This may mean that the person creating the FAQ isn’t even sure what the question is, or that the resulting “question” isn’t sufficiently focused to meet the goal of providing a guidepost for a visitor to follow.  Even when they may be actual questions, they have been reworked to get to the answer.  Which is usually a single document that, had it been easy to find, would have eliminated the need to ask that particular question.

I’m becoming more and more convinced that FAQs merely reflect a capitulation to bad organization.  If you find people can’t locate your information, through browsing or search, throw up a “Frequently Asked Questions” page to get them to where they want to go.  In some cases, this might actually be useful.

More frequently, though, they seem to slowly grow into miniature navigation schemes that are themselves no better than the initial navigation they were meant to bypass.  I’m working on one FAQ that has nearly 300 entries, but dozens are either exact duplicates (the same question under a different heading) or are the same question but with a second entry.  It’s evidence that the FAQ finally become so unwieldy that the content owners had lost track of what was in it.  Inevitably, perhaps, most of the answers are “if you are looking for title of this document, here it is: link”.

It has caused me to add a new “rule”, if you will, to my own concepts for developing sites.  No more FAQs.  If someone suggests one, I’ll ask them to defend the idea and suggest that we revisit the navigation on their content to see if we can skip the additional content.  Because that is what it is:  a new resource that adds a layer to the primary content.  Now content owners have to manage both to make them useful, and why not just make it easy to find the primary content with good navigation?