The purpose of classification, navigation and search is to deal with customers’ frequently asked questions (FAQs).

The concept of the FAQ simply doesn’t make sense. It’s a carryover from the early days of IT and the Web, where, essentially, designers were too inexperienced to design a proper information architecture. Very strangely, FAQs are being recently promoted by, of all organizations, The Nielsen Norman Group, who have launched an FAQ on FAQs report.

Let’s say you are a technology company and your customers are constantly asking about prices and configuration details. Do you hide this frequently asked for information behind an FAQ or do you introduce links on your product pages for "Pricing" and "Configuration"? Surely, if something is frequently asked for then you should focus on it more in your navigation?

Think of it from the point of view of the customer. They have a question. They come to your website. They see a link called FAQ. How do they know that their question has been frequently asked? In other words, FAQ is an organization-centric form of navigation. It makes life easier for the writers than for the customers.

Another thing: most FAQs I’ve come across over the years aren’t even FAQs. Instead, they are a dumping ground for any questions that come to mind. Often, they are political or PR propaganda. When I wanted to update my address for my TV license, out of desperation I ended up on the FAQ page. The first question was: “Why is it important to pay your TV license?” Right. A definite FAQ.

Even at the most basic level, questions are a very poor form of navigation. Which works better as a scannable link?

  • Pricing
  • What are the prices for our products?

When a customer has to scan a whole list of questions beginning “How do I” or “What are the,” it’s a nightmare. There’s lots of evidence out there that shows that on the Web the first two or three words are really important. These words need to be as specific as possible (pricing, configuration). Otherwise the likelihood is that people will skip that piece of text.

Sarah Richards, who did excellent work for GOV.UK in creating useful content, has written a number of great pieces debunking the FAQ. “FAQs are convenient for writers,” Sarah has written. “They put everything in a long list; it’s all neatly organized and the ‘Q’ does a lot of work for you. But they’re more work for readers -- questions take longer to scan and understand than simple headings and you can’t take any meaning from them in a quick glance.”

There are models for organizing information that work best internally for the organization, and that are the most cost effective to produce content quickly. FAQs and PDFs are examples of such organization-centric content. However, such models of content generation make life miserable for the customer.

Once, I dealt with an organization that had so many frequently asked questions on its FAQ page that they decided to create a new page. Do you know what they called it? “Most Frequently Asked Questions.”