FAQs: do better solutions exist?

Documentation sometimes contains a section titled, 'Frequently asked questions' or 'FAQs'. The TechScribe website used to have a page of FAQs, but better options exist, and therefore, we removed the FAQs.

The problem with FAQs

Typically, FAQs are only a group of facts that were dumped into a document because the writer did not structure the document satisfactorily.

Typically, a page of FAQs contains many lines of "How do I…?," "What is…?," and so on. That text gets in the way of the important content, which appears at the end of each sentence.

Possibly, your customers spend a long time searching a list of FAQs to find answers to their questions, because a question can be asked in many ways. For example, if you sell your products through resellers, possible FAQs are:

Alternatives to FAQs

A well-designed document answers a reader's questions, and the structure of the document lets the reader find the answers easily.

With some documents, an optimum structure for all types of readers is not possible. If FAQs are necessary, a hybrid method is possibly suitable. For example, when we had a page of FAQs on the TechScribe website, instead of the typical FAQ style, we used text similar to that shown in the second column in this table:

FAQs and hybrid equivalents
Frequently asked questionAlternative hybrid FAQ
Who owns copyright?Copyright—who owns it?
How much does documentation cost?Cost—how much does documentation cost?
How long does it take to create documentation?Duration—how long does it take to create documentation?
Do you work on a fixed fee?Fee—do you work on a fixed fee?

In the second column, the key word or phrase is at the start of each sentence, which immediately tells the reader whether the remainder of the sentence is worth reading. The key words are sorted alphabetically.

However, this hybrid method is similar to an index. The information content in an index is higher than in an equivalent set of FAQs, because an index contains only important concepts and phrases, without unnecessary text.

A disadvantage of an index is that the reader must navigate from the index entry to a different topic that answers the question. With an FAQ, the question and the answer are in the same location. However, despite this limitation of an index, we decided to remove the page of FAQs from the TechScribe website.

See also

Just the FAQs (www.geoff-hart.com/resources/2004/faqs.htm)

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