Is Your Site's FAQ Helpful or Useless? Improving the Lowly FAQ

by Ostatic Staff - Apr. 15, 2010

You can find them on virtually every project page or company web site dealing with open source. The ever-present Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ) list. Over on A List Apart R. Stephen Gracey tackles an infrequently asked question, "Do they really work, or are they just a snake oil remedy for poor content?" This isn't a yes or no question.

Do they work? Well, yes. When written well. Are they often used in place of, rather than as a supplement to, useful content? Emphatically, yes.

Gracey suggests that you ask whether you really need a FAQ or not. The answer for any FLOSS-related project is yes, yes you do. There's a strong expectation in the open source community that any project or product will have a FAQ associated with it, so it's a bad idea to skip them entirely. A FAQ is an opportunity to handle common questions that can be answered quickly, or to guide users to more in-depth content. Gracey covers this pretty well in the "Are FAQs ever appropriate?" section, but more from the perspective of companies.

What should a FLOSS project have on its FAQ? What would you want to know if you weren't already familiar with the project? You should answer questions that average users and potential contributors would want to know. For example: What's the project license? How does a user get a download? How often is the project released? What are the communication channels and how can a user become involved with the project beyond using the software?

Note that the FAQ shouldn't be the only place on your site with that information. It needs to be a quick one-stop shop, but it shouldn't be the only source of info.

A good FAQ needs to be tended to on a regular basis. Too many projects put up a FAQ and rarely update it afterwards. This should be part of a release checklist, at the very least. Each time a new release goes out, the FAQ should be looked over and updated.

Is a bad FAQ better than no FAQ at all? Usability and content experts might say no, but for FLOSS projects that host the FAQ on a wiki that's open to editing, the answer is yes. A stub or mediocre content is better than nothing at all, because once it's in place it's just begging to be updated, maintained, and improved. The last question on the FAQ should be "How can I improve this FAQ?"

Picture courtesy of Horia Varlan under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.