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The web application I'm working on has a few pages where a list of questions and their answers will be displayed. All pages have the questions grouped into overall headings (which the users will be familiar with) and each heading has 3-5 q/a underneath it. On one page, the categories have very similar questions between them (ie - "How can I get this?" may appear under several different categories, but have a different answer based on category.

Any suggestions on best practices for this sort of interface? Hierarchical FAQ-style pages that you think are done really well?

I could have anchor links for the categories at the top of the page, then have the questions/answers appear by default (one long list, with standard anchor within page navigation). Or should I use jquery to show/hide either entire categories or show answers when clicking on questions?

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In case anyone comes across this, I found an interesting article by Gerry McGovern re: FAQs. He makes good points about how FAQs often reflect the structure and language of the organization rather than the users. Food for thought, though I certainly think they can be done well. –  Voodoo Apr 25 '11 at 20:11
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4 Answers

up vote 5 down vote accepted

To my knowledge their are two things to improve on a basic FAQ page:

  1. questions that are actually frequently asked, or in another way, really interesting;
  2. and let the answers appear on the place were people might actually have that question

MOO does theirs quite good I think. For example:

  • have the categories dropdown on the top of their page (hover "Ask MOO" on the top menu)
  • have different page layouts depending on the answers; lists, small apps, tips and downloads, images, etc.
  • provide more information then found elsewhere, meaning the rest of the site can be slick enough for people who get it and can get rid of help texts all around
  • write nice text, making it almost fun to spend time on their FAQ!

Also, A List Apart has written a good article about the Infrequently Asked Questions of FAQs which deals with a lot of the above and more.

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Thanks for this Lode. Good tips. MOO is a bit more complex than what we need, but I like the clear nav. Definitely a +1 for the tip about making the questions interesting. FAQs I think are ideally a more interesting alternative to a manual and as casually as possible while still being clear. (I guess that depends a bit on the domain) –  Voodoo Apr 5 '11 at 20:03
    
+1 for different page layouts depending on the answers. Making the layout appropriate to the content helps readability –  jrullmann Dec 31 '12 at 17:37
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People have come to expect a certain look/feel to FAQ pages - typically a list of all the questions at the top of the page, which link them to the answers below. This pattern is well known, and you should conform to it as much as possible. Having said that, there are several problems with this well known pattern:

  1. If there are many questions on the page, it is difficult to find them.
  2. If the question to which they are looking to answer isn't there (or if they can't see it, there are rarely resources on the page indicating where else to go.

The first problem is very difficult to solve - it can be improved by organizing the questions into categories, including a type-ahead search in the page, etc. But it doesn't address the main problem, which is that questions are free-form, and could be asked many different ways. One way of addressing this limitation is by including (either visible or not) all of the many permutations of the question that you have received (if it actually is frequently asked, this should be no problem, if it is a problem, it's not frequently asked) as search terms for the type-ahead.

Pagination isn't really appropriate for a FAQ page, because it breaks the built-in browser search functionality, which some users will insist upon using.

One of the most used FAQ pages I've ever seen is here: http://www.parashift.com/c++-faq-lite/

Hope this is of some help.

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Thanks for your thoughts. It's a balancing act between content inclusion and clarity. I generally agree that pagination isn't ideal for FAQs, but I see that the C++ guide is heavily paginated. –  Voodoo Apr 5 '11 at 20:00
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In my opinion FAQ page has to accommodate quick scanning. This being said, users formulate questions in their heads in a certain way but the FAQ page may have different wording for the very same question.

To accommodate scanning the following techniques could help.

  • Information density could be increased.
  • Dropdowns for available categories could be replaced with always visible lists.
  • No page reloads for navigation between categories could help users to scan for relevant information.
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I think that traditional static FAQ pages are today no longer what users expect. In general, users do not have the time or desire to go through categories or long lists of questions. They will even scan the answer instead of reading.

So I would suggest providing a prominent search function up top in the FAQ page.

Underneath it I would display links to the top read questions from the FAQ list.

Further down I would display the FAQ categories then use something like jQuery to display and hide information as the user clicks. With a simple back-end you could keep a count of which questions are read the most.

This information would be used to display the top read questions and it would also highlight potential pain points with the web application or some process if users find it necessary to read a particular question often.

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