On cows and web FAQs: 3 thought experiments

Imagination is more important than knowledge – Albert Einstein

Thought experiment 1: infrequently asked questions FAQs

Imagine you’re in a viewing room above a dairy watching afternoon milking time. A few questions pop into your mind: How often are the cows milked? How long does it take to milk?

A nearby poster – Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) – attracts your attention. The questions on the poster include: What’s the volume flow of the milk being pumped? What brand are the suction attachments? How often is the plant equipment upgraded? 

None of these questions are the ones that sprang to your mind. How do you feel?

Thought experiment 2: the ‘all question’ dump FAQs

Again, imagine you’re at the dairy watching the milking process and pondering some simple questions such as: How long does it take to milk all the cows and What happens to the milk? 

You see a door marked with the label: FAQs. You open the door and enter the room. On the walls are 10 posters all composed of questions and answers on general farming topics. Your topic might be there but you only have 20 seconds before you have to leave.

How’s that working for you?

Thought experiment 3: unrelated FAQs

Milking time and those bothersome questions again. This time you’re attracted to an FAQs poster. This time it has information about the menu at the Cafe next door like How much is a caffe latte? and  Who is the CEO of the Cafe?

Blood boiling yet?

These FAQs blunders happen on the web all the time

Absurd exercises or have you had similar experiences on the web? These are common errors seen on websites we’ve all visited:

  1. Infrequently asked questions FAQs: questions that are just plain made-up (and often too technical) to fit the question and answer format
  2. The ‘all questions’ dump FAQs: when you click on the FAQs menu item you get all possible questions lumped together in one long page – how do I know my question has been very frequently asked?
  3. Unrelated FAQs: questions and answers that don’t directly apply to the information you’re currently looking at

Milking time at Caldermeade Farm and Cafe

OK, so you’ve got this far so you deserve to see the sign that prompted me to think about all this: it’s a physical FAQs sign at the milking viewing room at Caldermeade Farm and Cafe:

FAQs sign: 1. How often are the cows milked? Twice a day - 4.30am and 3.30pm. 2. How long does it take to milk? 400 cows are milked by 2 operators in approximately 1 hour 40 mins. 3. How many cows can fit on the milking platform? 50 cows. 4. How long does it take a platform (with 50 cows) to rotate? 10 mins.

 It’s brilliant because the language and format are so simple, it quickly answered all the questions I had in mind and improved my experience.

Do your website FAQs like Caldermeade Farm

  • Make sure your questions are frequently asked: this sounds so logical that it seems inconceivable that it could be ignored. It’s obvious that someone at Caldermeade over the years has taken the trouble to listen to the questions and write them down in frequency order.
  • Don’t lump all of your questions and answers at the end of a click: As Gerry McGovern writes: “Links are signposts. They are promises to the customer. They must tell customers where they are going and what they will get when they get there. The essential problem with FAQs is that it is not useful or helpful.” I agree with Gerry: the label FAQs is misleading navigation. Instead…
  • Relate your FAQs to the content on the page people are likely to have questions about.
  • Keep your questions and answers focused and short: one of the problems with FAQs as an informational format is that the first few words are taken up with question words – what, how, why. If you must use FAQs (they can be useful and helpful if they adhere to the 3 first points)  keep the questions and answers short so people can scan quickly to the keywords they’re looking for.
  • If you don’t have a mechanism for collecting frequently asked questions then get one! Ask any customer facing people in your organisation about the topics they regularly get enquiries about. Last night I wanted to find out about kids birthday parties at a swimming pool complex. Their webpage listed all details apart from the price. Like 99% of people who ended up on that page, we just needed an indication of price. I had to ring up and ask. Surely that’s an FAQ but I bet the person I spoke to on the phone hasn’t passed that on to the web author.

The great thing about the Caldermeade FAQs is that Caldermeade management is so confident these are the right questions and answers that they’ve printed them on a board. Not so good if they need to change them. That’s the advantage of the web. Find out something is trending as an FAQ… just update the page.

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