Q: What’s the point of FAQs?

A: Last week Justin Searls had a series of tweets using the #HonestFAQ hashtag. This one, in particular, got me thinking:

As a newly-minted marking pro, my first thought was “yeah, that’s true.” Most prospective users or customers will not read through the entirety of your documentation just to see if they want to play around with your product or not. FAQs can be an excellent rhetorical device for preempting reasons to not sign up. Twenty five years of world wide web use has taught us to look first for FAQs, so there’s a quick success when the answers are there.

But I also started thinking about FAQs I’ve written over the years. Mostly, they were in my first professional job. I was doing a lot of desktop support, so I put together some FAQ entries to head off some of the questions that I regularly was asked (or expected to be asked). The goal was to let people handle their own easy problems so that I could focus on the harder problems for them.

The more I thought about it, the more I came to the conclusion that FAQs (particularly the non-marketing ones) are indicators of a bad user experience. This may be due to technical issues, documentation, or something else. But if the platonic ideal of software or a service includes the fact that everything is self-evident, then there’s no other conclusion.

This makes FAQs good, not bad, as they serve as a guide post for what needs to be fixed from the user perspective. The ability to preemptively write good FAQs means you’re thinking like your users. The earlier in the process you start doing that, the fewer FAQs you may need to write.

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