The Facts About FAQs

There are many different ways that libraries can provide help and guidance to patrons in finding the information they’re seeking online. Web 2.0 applications, such as wikis and blogs, have become increasingly popular for this purpose. These tools deliver information about library resources and services while allowing users input via comments or (in some cases) editing privileges. Another way to help online users is via chat services, available now in many academic and public libraries. Instant messaging allows users to receive feedback and advice almost immediately with all the context and messiness of their question in mind. This is particularly useful for less common questions and unique situations. But by far the most ubiquitous online help resource is the FAQ.

 While the FAQ does not have the personal touch of an instant messaging service or the collaborative features of a blog or wiki, it has some distinct advantages. First, the large majority of users are familiar with the FAQ format. Many websites, whether commercial, personal, or informational, have an FAQ section. So if your patrons have used the internet before, they’ve most likely encountered at least one FAQ. Second, unlike a chat service, it does not require library staff to be immediately available. Although maintenance is a must (as will be discussed in further detail below), the FAQ is an independent animal that can, if properly constructed, be trusted on its own for a little while.

That said, there are many situations in which an FAQ is not appropriate and there are an infinite number of ways to execute an FAQ poorly. In this A List Apart article, R. Steven Gracey is particularly critical of the FAQ. It’s not all condemnation for this universal help tool, however. Gracey also gives some excellent pointers on how to make an FAQ effective and (gasp!) helpful for users. When done right, the FAQ can be a valuable tool for library websites that supports good content by making it discoverable to users. Below I enumerate some points made by Gracey, and a few of my own, on how to create an FAQ that is not a crutch for bad web content, but a scaffolding for good web content.

  • Include actual questions. If a real person has never asked some variation of the question, it probably doesn’t belong in your FAQ. After all, FAQ stands for “frequently asked questions,” not “questions I really think my users want to know, but they’ve never asked because they’re just too darn shy.”
  • Make it easy to find. If your FAQ isn’t findable, you’re in trouble. Big trouble. People are looking for the FAQ because they can’t locate the information they’re seeking. If the FAQ is difficult to find, you will have grumpy users.
  • Keep it manageable. The point of an FAQ is not to document every fact that can be found on your website. A scan of 112 academic library FAQs done at the University of Notre Dame revealed that some library FAQs had as many as 400 questions included. That’s too many. Period.
  • Maintenance! Seriously. If your collections have changed, or if you’ve had turnover in your staff, of if you’ve moved the copy machines, or if the sun has risen, there’s probably something that’s out of date on your FAQ. Update and weed frequently. Add when needed.
  • Make it searchable OR sort by category. No one wants to look through all 400 of your questions to find the answer they’re looking for. Allowing users to search or to scan categories makes the process a whole lot faster and less frustrating.
  • Assume the user won’t find her answer. Never suppose your FAQ can address every question. Provide a link or contact information somewhere on the FAQ page where the user can go for further help. In Libraryland, this will most often take the shape of a link to the chat service (if available) or an email address for a reference librarian.

This list is by no means comprehensive, and it is largely a product of my own experience with FAQs, rather than any kind of authoritative study. Questions (frequently asked, or otherwise) and comments welcome!

Image courtesy of flickr user Ciccio Pizzettaro