FAQs: it helps if you get to the point

Thanks to a series of customer service content projects we've been doing, we've been learning lots about how best to write FAQs and Help content. One issue that crops up time and again is how long-winded FAQs often are.

 FAQs: it helps if you get to the point

If an FAQ is a closed question – ie if it requires a yes or no answer, like "Can I return a CD if I've broken the seal on the wrapping?" – the most useful, usable thing you can do is answer the question directly at the very start of the answer: eg "Sorry - no. Our policy is to..." or "Yes, so long as you still have the receipt" or even "That depends on the condition of the product inside." The rest of the answer will go on to elaborate on this answer, but for many this instant summary will just be enough.

If that sounds obvious, you'd be surprised how many FAQs go round the houses in their answer before actually getting to the "yes", "no" or "maybe". (Note we're not saying that you should over-simplify your answers, only that you should give a clear idea at the outset of the FAQ what the answer actually is.) It's as if the author is worried that the user won't be able to cope with the truth, so they've got to sit them down and make them a cup of tea first. Here's an example of the sort of thing we mean:

I have opened my CD. Can I still return it? The company's sales policies state that items are only resaleable when they are enclosed in the original packaging. The removal of a CD's plastic wrapping is considered as breaking the packaging, rendering the CD unresaleable. Because of this, the company is unable to accept returned CDs where the packaging has been broken. The one exception to this is if the CD was faulty, and returned faulty CDs can still be accepted even where the packaging has been broken. Returned CDs should be sent to the usual returns address.