One trend in modern government web design which has been creeping in over the years has been to convey information in the form of FAQs, or Frequently Asked Questions. And as it has increasingly crept in, so it has increasingly irritated me.
The internet origin of the FAQ concept dates back to the olden days of Usenet – that place where we used to rant and ramble on to one another before there was Facebook, before there was Twitter, blogs, web forums, whatever. Most newsgroups – places to discuss grouped together by broad themes, such as uk.politics.misc, rec.music.compose, or alt.destroy.the.earth – would maintain a document, posted on a monthly basic, containing basic information about the newsgroup, such as what it’s for, when it was set up, what the advertising policy is, etc. It would also have the FAQ section. This was the genuinely curated selection of questions genuinely frequently asked by newcomers to the newsgroup – so if it was, say, a newsgroup about website production, one frequently asked question might have been ‘what is the best wysiwyg html authoring tool?’. Newsgroup regulars, tired of frequently answering the same questions asked by newcomers, would instead politely (or usually, rudely) refer the questioner to the newsgroup FAQ. Thus it was actually a tool born of geekery’s continual need to passive-aggressively slap down the ingenue.
Fast-forward to the modern era, and government websites become riddled with FAQs; whilst some of the questions are obvious ones – how do I pay my council tax? – more often than not I frankly don’t believe the organisation’s contact centre has been overrun with members of the public asking this or that question about this or that arcane matter of policy. Thus, more often than not, the FAQ page does not represent the collective memory of the service, rather it becomes a way by which a service area – too lazy to be bothered to write proper, engaging yet concise prose – conveys information which it decides is important for the customer to know. It may well be important for the customer to know this – if it’s so important, take the time to write it properly, because if the customer doesn’t know it’s important, if it’s not actually the question the customer is asking, the customer will think it doesn’t apply to them, so they’ll ignore it. And where does that leave you?
The other problem with the FAQ format is even when it is a question customers genuinely ask frequently, it assumes everybody asks the same question using the same words. If the FAQ is written ‘how do I pay my council tax?’, that excludes the questions ‘where can I pay my council tax?’, and ‘when do I need to pay my council tax?’. The busy website customer, scanning down the page, is being distracted and misdirected from the focus of their actual problem – paying their council tax – by having to second-guess the question the page author is second-guessing they’re asking. Most people are trained to expect to see lists in alphabetical order, so if the customer is focused on paying their council tax, then the letter in the list they will be drawn to will either be ‘c’ or ‘p’, not ‘h’ or ‘w’. So rather than ask and answer the question the customer may or may not be asking, instead the better way is to simply have a heading ‘Council tax – payment’ or ‘Paying your council tax’ (depending on what the overall topic of the whole page is), and include all the information the customer needs to know about it, written properly and engagingly.
Allied to the problem of the FAQ trend in government websites is the Top Task trend. Whilst it’s true many government websites in the past were more about serving the organisation than serving the customer, and Top Tasks as a methodology are a step in the right direction in reframing the architecture of the website in the direction of serving customer needs in order to encourage them to use the 15p-per-query website rather than make a £2.83-per-query phone call, too often an obsession with top tasks can lead to a similar problem that the FAQ style has above; whilst – hopefully – the choice of top tasks listed will at least have been informed by statistical analysis, if the customer is thinking of different wording for the task than the one chosen, the customer is then misdirected and what was intended to be easy for them to find becomes harder, and even sometimes impossible for them to.
It’s a common feature on many government websites to have a section on the home page with a series of headings ‘Report’, ‘Pay’, ‘Request’, ‘Apply’, ‘Book’. Now, paying your council tax (again) is an obvious one, but does one report the presence of graffiti, or does one request a graffiti remocal? Does the customer want to request a bulky waste collection, or book a bulky waste collection? Might you need to be booking library computer time, or requesting library computer time? And finally, will a housing tenant be requesting a housing repair, as correct English dictates, or might they be reporting a housing repair, as the anecdotal evidence of the language used by the majority of housing tenants suggests. Remove the verbs from the headings, and just having the links labelled bulky waste collections, council tax, housing repairs, graffiti, and library computer time (note again the alphabetical order – statistics might have more people asking about housing repairs than bulky waste, but the people interested in either of those things don’t know that, do they?) and believe it or not, even the least computer-savvy person is intelligent enough to see the subject of the task and apply their own verb to the problem they need to solve.
The other area in which an unhealthy obsession with top tasks shares the same problem as the FAQ format is that the chosen task needlessly excludes those who are choosing a different, related task. Your statistics might show the task of renewing a library book appears in the top ten list of things people want to do – so naturally, in the Top Tasks box on the home page of your website you put a link ‘Renew a library book’. But what about the people who want to search the library catalogue? Reserve a book? Check the opening hours of their local library? Report the fact that they’ve lost their library card (or is that request a new library card)? If any one of those tasks doesn’t quite make the top ten – say, one of them when the page visitor count was done actually rolled in at 12, another at 17, and the next at 25 – then why have you made renewing a library book one click from the home page, but searching the library catalogue at least two clicks after forcing the customer to look in the navigation structure to see where the library catalogue might be, just because a few hundred more people during the period the statistics were gathered for happened to be requesting (or applying for, or booking) dropped kerbs? Renewing a library book might have been logged at number eight in the statistical league table, but the whole collection of library-related tasks a customer is wanting to do on the website almost certainly charts at number two (after looking for jobs).
So whilst the blunt top tasks implementation indeed has the link ‘Renew a library book’, the intelligent implementation groups those library tasks together into a single link ‘Libraries’, which then takes all those library customers to a single library landing page, again crediting them with the intelligence to know their own verbs, making it easier for the library customers to carry out all their tasks, and has the bonus giving the free information to the person wanting to reserve their library book of what the opening times of their library are so they can go and get it when it arrives!
If you want to discuss this issue further, you can use the self-service channel in the comments box, or the face-to-face channel at LocalGovCamp in Birmingham on 14 July, when I might pitch a session on it.