Why FAQs aren’t the answer you’ve been looking for

I was recently sent an email with a very polite request asking me, as the content designer on our team, whether we could add frequently asked questions (FAQs) to coop.co.uk.

The request was well intentioned. The sender had seen someone asking a question about one of the Co-op’s services, and naturally had wanted to help them. Alongside that, there were perceived business benefits to adding FAQs too: reducing the number of calls colleagues would need to answer.

As content designers, we balance business needs with user needs but we always put the user first. We give people the information they need, clearly, once, at the point they need it. We consider where the user is and what they’re trying to do.

Every situation is different, but we can advise Co-op teams if they’re receiving lots of questions about their product or service. However, this post outlines general reasons for opting against FAQs.

FAQs don’t solve the real problem

Imagine if you ran a walk-in barber’s shop. As a competent small business owner you’d have the opening times on your door and on your website. But I imagine that the most common question a barber is asked over the phone is:

“Are you open on x day at y time?”

You might want to reduce the calls like this coming in but the people phoning you up aren’t calling because they looked at your opening times on your door or website and didn’t understand when you’re open or not. They weren’t outside your door or on your website in the first place, so adding your opening times into a FAQ section on either of these places won’t stop the calls.

FAQs are unlikely to answer the exact question a user has

FAQs force users to navigate (or, wade through) your content by questions they may have, rather than look for the information that they know would answer it.

Recently, a local paper presented an ‘all you need to know about our exciting running event, including start times and route’ as FAQs. The content gave lots of information presented as ‘answers’ including what the route was, whether it had changed since last year, where you could park, where the toilets were, where the finish line was. But all those ‘questions’ (and many, many more) could be answered simply and clearly by a route map. This would have been a clearer, quicker-to-grasp way to present the information.

Time-consuming hard work for users

Using the same example, I wanted to know what time the run itself started.

I had to scroll through reams of information in the FAQs before finding out that: “Runners must be ‘in their pens’ at 10.30am”.

As a spectator, I’d presumed the FAQ would be: “What time does the race start?” The FAQs writer seems to have chosen to answer the question from a runner: “What time do I need to be in my pen?” The ‘answer’ available was certainly related to my question but only really gave me half an answer. And I’d read a lot of information I didn’t need.

A user can only guess what you’ve chosen to be an FAQ. This means every user has to look at every question and answer to find out if it answers their need. Even if their query is covered it’ll take a long time.

If it isn’t covered (or they don’t see the information they need), they’ll phone you up anyway. And they’re more likely to be annoyed.

Like all content, FAQs need maintenance

Often FAQs repeat information found elsewhere, but as a ‘quick’ or more ‘friendly’ summary. But once you start duplicating information, even if you remember all the different places that information is located, you’re increasing the work you have to do in future.

The FAQs I was asked to add concerned a page that already contained a PDF manual of how to use the service in question, and that did (in a more detailed way) answer the same questions. Attempting to summarise or simplify main problems has a need, but the problem was one ‘answer’ gave a completely different process to that in the manual.

Iterate the content you already have

All content should have an owner – someone committed to updating it for factual accuracy as well as keeping an eye out for if it still meets user needs. If you find that the same questions are being asked regularly, revisit your original content.

You’ll find one of 2 things:

  1. The information is missing.
  2. The information is in the wrong place.

If it’s missing, add it in in clear language in the place that would make sense to your user.

If you think you’ve already given the answer to the question, then it’s either the wrong answer, or it’s in the wrong place.

Put your effort into working on that. Start by asking the people who are asking the questions if they’ve seen the original information. If they have, it needs work because they didn’t understand it. If they haven’t, it’s in the wrong place.

If it’s in the wrong place, consider where else it could be placed. Where are your users before they’re asking the questions. For example, it may be that you should add information into a welcome email not a website. Perhaps you should put it out on social media?

And finally, talking to a content designer is really a good first step. You can email the Content community.

Tom Adams
Lead content designer

Making things simpler for colleagues on colleagues.coop.co.uk

Photograph from over the shoulder of a Co-op Digital colleague who is using the update colleague site on their phone.

We’re redesigning the Co-op Colleagues website and updating its content to make the navigation easier and the information more helpful to colleagues.

The problem we want to solve

There are lots of places where colleagues can find information about our policies, procedures and working at the Co-op. This is confusing because:

  1. We’ve never flagged one channel as the single, definitive place to find information.
  2. The information we give across the different channels doesn’t always say the same thing.

We’re now working with our internal comms team to make colleagues.coop.co.uk the main place to find out about being a Co-op colleague. It will help people who work here with everything from checking when they get paid through to finding out what to do before they go on maternity leave.

Favouring a website over the intranet

When we built the site a couple of years ago, we put it straight into the public domain, even though the main audience is people who work here at Co-op. It was a quick proof of concept, to show we could be open about our policies and procedures and make them more user-friendly. Doing it this way meant one Google search from any device could get a colleague straight to the information they need, without having to get onto our network or remember log-in details.

The best way to make information available to everyone who needs it is to make it open – that’s why the right product decision was to build a website rather than pour time into redeveloping our existing intranet.

There are other problems with the intranet too. Around 80% of our staff can’t access it because they work in our stores and warehouses and don’t have a work email address to log in with. For those who can log in, the search doesn’t work very well and the navigation isn’t intuitive. It’s not surprising many colleagues can’t find what they need and end up phoning our internal call centres for help, which takes longer, causes frustration and costs us more.

We’ve created a content ‘quality filter’

To avoid the Colleagues site going the same way as the intranet, we want to empower colleagues to help themselves. So we’ve created a proposition that provides a quality filter for everything that goes on the site.

All content must:

  • have a clear user need
  • be about being a Co-op colleague
  • have a named content owner who’s committed to reviewing it at least once a year

If a piece of content doesn’t fit these requirements, it doesn’t go on.

A big culture shift

People are used to being able to publish any content they want to our colleagues – our proposition takes away that right. Everything for the site will now be reviewed, edited or created by a small team of trained editors from around Co-op. They will make sure everything fits the proposition and is designed to help users find out how to complete their task as quickly and easily as possible.

That’s why we’ve written guidelines for creating content completely open too. We’re asking a lot from people, so it’s only right that we’re completely open about what we’re doing and how we’re doing it. Then they can hold us to the standards we’re trying to set.

Where we’re going from here

We’ve already made some changes with support from Code Computer Love, but we’ll continue to add new content and restructure what’s already there over the coming months. We’ll also continue to review and iterate the guidelines to make sure they’re helping our editors to create content that meets our colleagues’ needs.

There’s a feedback button at the bottom of every page, so please let us know how we’re doing.

Hannah Horton
Content Community Lead

Our writing guidelines (they’re for everyone, not just for writers)

Words matter. The words we choose and the way we present them is vitally important to how users interact with our services, our products, our brand.

And although most of us create, use or interact with content on a daily basis, the words and the content design is hard to get right.

Most people are time-poor and have a lot of things competing for their attention. So if we want our content to be effective, we need to get it to them:

  • quickly
  • in a way they understand
  • through the most effective or expected channel
  • at the time that’s best for them

Doing the above helps us meets the needs of the people who are interacting with us, shows respect for their time, and makes our messages, services and brand more successful.  

Working with words at the Co-op

Co-op has a community of content designers, creative writers, editors, social media experts and copywriters who are making interacting with the Co-op more straightforward and effective. We work across a range of services, departments and channels to create content that puts the user first.

But absolutely everyone across the Co-op, no matter what their job role, communicates to different audiences, for different purposes. This makes it hard for our approach and our messages to be consistent.

We’ve written guidelines to help

We hope these pointers will help people put the needs of the people they’re communicating with first. Each tip is based on things we’ve learnt about how people read, how they speak, their motivations, anxieties and their priorities.

Of course, the guidelines will evolve based on feedback. We’d love to know what you think so let us know in the comments or email content@coopdigital.co.uk

Co-op Digital writing guidelines

Be respectful
People talk about things in different ways.
Use words your audience understands.

Be clear
People don’t know what you know.
Don’t make assumptions about people’s knowledge.

Be considered
Too much content complicates your message.
Use the right words, not more words.

Be sensitive
People arrive at your content with different experiences, insecurities and struggles.
Put yourself in their shoes.

Be inclusive
Jargon and acronyms confuse and alienate people.
If you have to use them, explain what they mean.

Be purposeful
People are busy.
Find out what they need to know and give it to them quickly.

Writing’s on the wall

We’ve made a set of posters on the guidelines and they’re starting to appear on various walls around Federation House and Angel Square. We’re hoping they’ll remind people to be mindful when they’re communicating – to help them make each word count.

You can download our writing guidelines now.

Thank you to Jack Fletcher for designing these posters.

Jo Schofield
Content designer

 

From digital design manual to design system

In January 2017 we released our digital design manual. Now, 18 months later, the design manual has evolved into a design system.

Although it’s been live for months, it’s still (and always will be) a work in progress. We’re sharing it now in line with one of our design principles: ‘we design in the open’.

You can see the Co-op Digital design system at coop.co.uk/designsystem

Evolution of the design manual

The aim of the design manual was to help teams release things faster so they could focus on user needs rather than on making basic design decisions. We iterated and added new pages as and when there was a need, for example, we added guidance on forms, guidance on tables and our secondary colour palette.

But a year after its release, we were at a point where more of our digital services were going live, so we revisited the design manual and asked if it could be more useful.

What we learnt from our users

We asked our design, content design and user research community how well they felt the guidance in the design manual was serving its purpose. Feedback was mixed but most people felt that it didn’t quite cover enough.

A workshop made it clear that users wanted:

  • example-driven patterns
  • guidance on when to use specific design and content patterns
  • examples of ‘experimental’ patterns
  • all guidance in one place

Afterwards, we dedicated time to making some major changes to the content as well as the navigation and layout.

Design system – nice for what?

We found lots of excellent examples of design systems in our research but good, solid design systems are good and solid because they’re unique to the organisation or business they belong to – they meet the needs of designers, content designers and researchers who work there.

The Co-op Digital design system includes our:

  • pattern library
  • content style guide
  • guidance on our design thinking
  • design, user research and content design principles
  • tools (front-end and prototyping kits)
  • resources (Sketch files and brand assets)

Most importantly it’s a living document. Like all good design systems, ours will never really be ‘finished’ but it’ll evolve as our teams and services do. Over the past 6 months we’ve established processes that allow our team members to contribute to the system.

We audited our existing design work and looked for similarities and opportunities to create familiarity. We’ve also spent a lot of time building the foundations for a stronger and more collaborative team through workshops, design crits and making sure we design in the open.

Familiarity over consistency

The Co-op is an organisation with very distinct businesses which all need to communicate with Co-op members, customers and users in an appropriate and relevant way. For example, the way we communicate with a customer in a food store is likely to be very different to how we speak to a customer in a funeral home.

So it’s likely that our services might feel different. And that’s ok, as long they feel familiar.

A design system lets us create this familiarity. It should lead to a much more unified experience when they interact with different Co-op services.

Pattern library

We’ve started creating a library of design patterns – this is the most significant addition to our previous guidance. It doesn’t replace our design guidelines, it just pulls out the useful stuff we learnt designers look for when they’re designing a service. 

Each pattern will have:

  • an example, ie, a visual example of the pattern
  • an associated user need
  • design guidance, ie, how you use it
  • accessibility guidance

Our colour palette pattern is a good example.

The library will be the de facto standard for how we display certain types of information.

Anyone at Co-op can contribute by submitting their pattern to the design community. They can do this by filling in a form justifying why users outside their service might benefit from this pattern or, why what they have created is an improvement on a current one.

Evolution of the design system

We want to continuously improve the guidance designers are looking for. To help us do this we’ll speak to more of the external teams that work with us and invite our colleagues in the Brand and Marketing teams to contribute their own guidance. We’ll also put the system to the test with teams as they build more Co-op services.

Watch this space.

Jack Sheppard
Matt Tyas

How Co-op Insurance is making its marketing terms and conditions more accessible

Most people need insurance at some point in their lives but so few people read the small print before buying it. It’s not laziness on the part of the customer, member or consumer – it’s lazy content and bad design.

At Co-op Insurance, we’ve been making changes to our marketing terms and conditions (T&Cs) because we believe that everyone deserves to understand what they’re agreeing to when they tick a box or sign their name.

Part of my job as a direct marketing consultant at Co-op Insurance is to look after the leaflets and customer letters we send out. I teamed up with Sophy Colbert (a content designer at Co-op Digital at the time) to work out how we could present the small print in a clearer, more succinct way so we don’t alienate people with legal jargon.

Understanding the challenges

Regulations from the Financial Conduct Authority mean that there are certain things that we need to include. Thankfully, how we say them can sometimes be flexible. But writing T&Cs that are easy to understand, as well as legally compliant, isn’t easy.

When writing the legal parts, there’s a tendency to include more information to be certain that all bases are covered – there’s a misconception that saying something in a long-winded way might reduce risk. This is not only problematic from a plain English point of view but also in terms of the limited space there is.

We believe that through good content design and good visual design we can move away from this approach: instead we can say things once, clearly.

A simpler layout

Before we changed much of the copy, we changed the layout. Here’s an example of a leaflet from May 2017:

From May 2017, an example of how the T&Cs used to look. Text is in one big block. Hard to read.

And here’s our communication from June 2018:Example of Co-op Insurance communication from June 2018. Shorter copy, less crowded layout, easier to read.

Putting the terms into columns and adding subheadings makes the content feel less daunting because the shorter lines make it easier to read. Laying things out like this also makes it easier for us to check there isn’t any repetition.

Making the language accessible

According to the National Literacy Trust, around 15%, or 5.1 million adults in England have literacy levels at, or below, those expected of an 11-year-old. This means they can understand short, simple texts from everyday sources on familiar topics, but reading information from unfamiliar sources, or on unfamiliar topics like terms and conditions for example, is likely to be difficult for them.

With this in mind we’ve:

  1. Explained any terminology that we’ve been advised not to reword completely.
  2. Got rid of repetition.
  3. Been consistent with our choice of language.
  4. Improved the flow of the copy by taking out a lot of the brackets and incorporating information into the main sentences.

Nobody should be excluded from understanding what they’re agreeing to. Communicating simply and clearly is not only the right thing to do but it will help us build greater trust.

Increasing white space

Adjusting the space between letters and lines of text can make a big difference to how easy the copy is to read. We’ve made the size of the terms text slightly smaller than it was before, which might seem counterintuitive, but doing this meant we could add more space between individual letters, making it easier for the eye to identify the shape of a word. Making the type slightly smaller also means that we can increase the line spacing, or ‘leading’, slightly which makes it easier to scan.

The right thing to do

We believe we have a responsibility to make our marketing easy to understand and accessible to all customers and potential customers. This is our first step. We know we have a long way to go but content designers across Co-op are committed to inclusive design.

It’ll take time but we’ll get there.

Give us your feedback

We’d like your feedback on how we can improve further. How can we open up our communication more so that it’s accessible to even more people? Let us know in the comments.

Vicky Lowry, direct marketing consultant at Co-op Insurance
Sophy Colbert, content designer (ex) Co-op Digital

Making a will can be daunting. We’re trying to change that.

How changing where we give content has made our digital service easier for users.

I’m Joanne, a content designer working on the wills digital service. We’re building a new way for people to tell us what they want in their will.

Content design is finding out why people come to a web page – what they came to find out, order, apply for  –  and giving them this information:

  • in a way they understand
  • through the most appropriate channel
  • at the time they need it

How and when we give users information is critical for our service.

Why we need to make wills easy to understand

A lot of people find wills intimidating because of the complex terminology used. When you make a will you’re asked to make decisions about your:

  • ‘estate’ (the things you own when you die)
  • ‘executors’ (the people who manage your will when you’ve died)
  • ‘beneficiaries’ (the people or charities you want to leave things to)

We’re asking people to learn new concepts and unfamiliar terminology. We then ask them to make important decisions based on what they understand of these concepts. We need to make this easy, so people can be certain they’re making the right decision.

How we started trying to make it easy

We started by breaking up definitions of complex concepts using short, simple sentences and paragraphs written in a clear way. We presented this content over a few web pages before showing a screen asking the user to fill in the related question.

Screen shot of part of the wills digital service

Screen shot of part of the wills digital service

Screen shot of part of the wills digital service

We know users tend to read very little on the web – studies show only 16% of people read web pages word-for-word . We thought that by forcing users through these pages of information, it’s more likely that they’d take the time to read them, and therefore more likely that they’d be able to make an informed decision.

Initially it seemed to work. People commented on how straight-forward it seemed – it felt easy, not complex.

But, people were impatient

The further people got through the form, the less they were reading. They were scanning the pages, clicking through them quickly, and missing a lot of the information.

When they were asked a question, they skipped back and forth between screens to remind themselves of the concepts they needed to understand to answer. One person took pictures of the pages before moving on.

People were finding it time-consuming and frustrating.

And, we knew it was likely that this frustration would increase if users:

  • were in a busy environment
  • had short-term memory problems
  • had English as a second language

We realised we couldn’t truly rely on users reading, understanding and remembering the earlier information, even if we knew they would have passed through it.

We needed to rethink where and when we gave users information.

Make it easier, make it successful

By asking users to read information on one page and remember it later, we were increasing the mental and physical effort we were asking them to go through (called the ‘interaction cost’).

Having to go back to be reminded of information – finding the back button, clicking it, waiting for pages to load – also increases the interaction cost.

Research shows that usage goes down as the interaction cost goes up. So, to give our service a better chance of success, we needed to lower the effort involved to use it.

Give information at the point it’s needed

So we moved the information to the same page as the question – to the point the user needs to refer to it to make a decision.

In places, this made the pages long.

Screen shot of part of the wills digital service

So, we:

  • kept the sentence and paragraphs clear and succinct
  • broke up lists into bullet points
  • interspersed the content with logical subheadings

This makes the text easier to scan – users can jump to the section they need without having to travel to a separate section or memorise information.

We’ve reduced the effort required to use our service and reduced frustration.

We’re giving users what they need, when they need it.

Joanne Schofield

Paperless billing – out of sight, out of mind

I’m Sophy, a content designer at CoopDigital. My team builds digital products that test our core proposition, that Co-op is an organisation that people can trust with their personal data. My job, in collaboration with design, development and user research, is to come up with the words that appear in those products. We’re currently working on Paperfree, a mobile app that helps people get on top of their paperwork. In the last couple of weeks we’ve uncovered a new, unmet, user need.

Most of the companies that sell us necessities like water, gas and television offer paperless billing in some form or another. These companies email us from time to time, urging us to log on and take a look at our latest bill. But how many of us actually do this?

It’s easy to lose track; paying by standing order and opting for paperless billing means that bills just get paid, out of sight and out of mind. Which can be good – you’re no longer knee-deep in paper. But you’re out of touch with your spending and the information you need is buried behind many different login screens. Oh, and companies tend to delete bills that are more than a year old.

As part of our user research on Paperfree, we spoke to people who are very good at being paperless. By doing things like regularly downloading utility bills from their online accounts, they are in control – not just of their documents, such as bills and statements, but also of the information in those documents. They can track their spending over a longer periods of time and make better decisions about their finances.

It’s worthwhile, but hard work. And arguably not much of an improvement on getting paper copies of bills in the post.

We immediately recognised a problem, and an opportunity to fix it. Our group of people with advanced paperless skills go to a lot of effort to understand their long-term spending behaviour. Other people will log on and take a look at their bills when prompted. But they are looking at this information in isolation, without the bigger picture of their spending across different suppliers and sectors. And a lot of us simply don’t bother at all.

So we’ve started trying to solve this problem. We’re still working to our core purpose around trust and personal data, but with a new focus.

This is how it we think it could work: you enter the login details for your (for example) water supplier billing website within the app. The app then logs in to your account for you and downloads all your old bills. We also want it to automatically go and get any new bills as they come in. Repeat this process for all your other suppliers, and you have something that takes care of downloading your bills for you so that you can see them all in one place. You’re more likely to engage with your bills. You don’t have to keep logging in to lots of different accounts. You decide when you want to delete your old bills, rather than having this decision made for you.

Image of the Paperless Team

In the last few days we’ve built a rough prototype that we can test on real people.  As a team we’re used to not getting attached to things – working in the pioneering end of product development at Co-op, we know that this idea may not see the light of day – and that’s OK. We work quickly and cheaply, so if a concept doesn’t take hold, we can move onto solving the next problem without tears.

For now, however, we’re very excited by this new focus. It complements the work we’ve done on Paperfree so far, and supports our core purpose (proving that Co-op can be trusted with personal data). It’s also really easy to explain – a good indicator of it being useful. We’ve set ourselves the goal of releasing a simple version in the next few weeks. In the meantime, we’d like to hear about your experiences of paperless billing sites – share your thoughts in the comments.

Sophy Colbert