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• EVALUATING DEMAND How to find the questions that really are asked frequently • THE BASICS Elements of explanation you need to know • CASE STUDY A Conversational FAQ on US Foreign Aid to Egypt • THE FORMAT Production tips and tricks






FAQ Contributors

Blair Hickman Team Leader Rosa Lee’s Story by Leon Dash and 20 Things I Learned about Browsers and the Web by Google. Also, Peanut Butter Face Discusses Sri Lanka by VlogBrothers for pure genius. Tom Chen Designer NMA Animated News, by Next Media Animation: Funny, engaging and unique -- all important buzz words for best practices. They are still new, and looking to expanding their market in America. Brittany Binowski Designer, Research Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die by Chip and Dan Heath because they practice what they preach. The book is simple, unexpected, concrete, credibile, emotional and full of great stories. Colin Jones Research Anything Nick Baumann makes for Mother Jones. Great questions, succinct and concise answers. He seems to know what the user wants out of a good explainer. Nasry Esmat Research I love the Guardian’s presentation of the Wikileaks cablegates scandal.


Din Clarke Audio and Research My favorite explainer is “Giant Pool of Money”; I never get tired of listening to it. My sentimental favorite, though, is the Schoolhouse Rock series.

35 9 13 19 21 About

A short history of the FAQ


How to find the questions that are really being asked

The Basics

FAQ Contents


Elements of explanation you need to know.

The Format

Production Tips & Tricks

Case Study

A Conversational FAQ on U.S. Aid to Egypt

Checklist Making sure you didn’t forget anything

ABOUT A short history of the FAQ The FAQ is a child of the Internet. Though the format has existed since at least 1647 (see: Matthew Hopkins, The Discovery of Witches), the acronym, any focused effort to aggregate the genre and, I would argue, construction of a true FAQ did not emerge, like most good things, until the early 1980s.

And finally—and this is really the crux of why this issue exists, why we became journalists and probably why you’re reading this magazine—I love that although individuals seemed absolutely incapable of either finding answers or asking relevant questions, collectively, they were able to harSpecifically, it was 1983. NASA’s Eugene ness nearly all the knowledge in the world. Miya had grown weary of seeing “dumb answers” to recurring questions on the organization’s massive mailing list, so he started a series of monthly posts, urging people to check the FAQ before emailing, yet again, “What’s the address?” The Internet soon caught wind of this nascent genre, and an early discussion forum called USENET—which is sort of a mix between Wikipedia and Yahoo Answers—adopted the FAQ as “a way to prevent stupid questions from being asked on the newsgroups.”

Unfortunately, in journalism, the essence of the FAQ got lost somewhere along the way. Most of the time, an FAQ does not address what people want to know, but rather what we think they want to know. It’s become more about the journalistic medium— Question-Answer-Celebrate—than about user demand.

I’d like to end with an example. On the left is a screenshot of an FAQ about And not to get all meta on you, but TCP/IP Protocols. It was posted on the FAQ seems, to me, to be one of the USENET circa 1999. purest expression of the principles of the Internet and New Media. It’s about And on the right is a shot of Google’s figuring out what people need to know FAQ on more-or-less the same subject, written in late 2010 with HTML5. On and then finding the answers. the site, the pictures move, pages turn In this issue, we talk about how to eval- and interactive thumbnails let you preuate user demand to find the questions view and browse: people are actually asking. We talk about how people learn, and how to Wouldn’t you rather be Google? translate that to an FAQ that actually - Blair Hickman makes sense. We look at Good examples and Not So Good examples. We

Today, USENET’s FAQ archive has over 4,300 FAQs in over 24 categories that range from cars and fly fishing to Unix, maintained by volunteers who value information purity and maybe have a little too much knowledge about cats. I like this story for a few reasons. First of all, stupidity and laziness seem to the founding themes, which really makes me giggle. Second, I found this story on the FAQ about FAQs, on It’s maintained by russ@, so if you have any corrections, please email him.


look at emerging technologies and talk about how to make an FAQ look pretty enough that it might go viral—and in doing so, actually advance the whole of human knowledge, which, let’s be honest, is why you probably became a journalist in the first place.


EVALUATING DEMAND How to find the questions that are really being asked


n FAQ is not about style. It’s about questions. Your job is to figure out which questions are asked the most, and the answer to that problem, though not simple, is relatively short -rely on your own online networks. Twitter, Facebook, Quora, Yahoo Answers and Wikipedia-- while they may be helpful -- are extremely inefficient, time consuming, and unreliable. The users on these networks have varying interests and levels of knowledges. They won’t give an accurate guage of your readers’ knowledge gap. Not to mention, the questions that are most likely produced from these searches are rhetorical or half-baked. Thus, evaluating user demand means nothing unless you are evaluating the demand from YOUR users that use YOUR site, and unless you are asking them what specific information they don’t understand. An organization must have a clear idea of their audience, how to gather information from specifically from them and then how to put it to use. Some strategies are better than others, and we outline a few below. But remember that search strategies vary from organization to organization--you need to experiment to find what works for your publication.

Twitter & Facebook

The best all-around strategy for gathering user demand is to leverage your individual Twitter and Facebook accounts. “Have any questions about Egypt? Reply to this tweet. Post on our Facebook wall.” According to data guru Dustin Curtis, it’s important to include a direct command. He more than doubled his click-through rate by switching the phrase “I’m on Twitter” to “You should follow me on Twitter here.”

11 5

Left page: Salon, for example, is great at proposing questions to their users on Twitter. However, these questions are more rhetorical in nature and almost never ask their users to do something--reply to this tweet, leave a comment. One must not forget, however, that after information has been requested from users, the news organization must continue to interact with them. This can be by responding to specific Twitter responses or Facebook comments with “Thank you to everyone who gave us feedback!” or “@newsuser What a great question! Can you be more specific?” This shows users that the you are actually reading and paying attention to what they have to say and that their responses hold value - which will, in turn, keep the users coming back and spreading the word about how great and responsive your organization is. Also, feel free to include links to articles in your news database in your requests for information. This will not only help your users engage with your content and give them a better idea of what you are looking for but also generate more page views for you too, so make sure that you sprinkle a few of those in. And -- don’t forget to tweet the final link to the FAQ when it comes out too.


Crowd-source your FAQ by blogging about your plans. Tell your users what exactly you’re trying to create and how they can help. Explain to your users that you want to know what their questions are about a specific event because, as journalists who are constantly writing and interacting with the news, it’s some times difficult to step away from that position and accurately gauge what user wants to read. Include links to articles you’ve already written on the topic, and ask for their feedback either in the comments section or the Google Form. Link to this blog post from your Twitter and Facebook accounts, and make sure that you monitor the responses you receive to this blog post and ask follow up questions or offer additional information when necessary.

Google Forms

Another great addition to any plan to gauge user demand is to create a short form requesting information or questions from users and put it on the home page of

each article. The form can be in the main body of text or in a box on the side of the page. They’re easy to create and encourage engagement. They also allow you to gather information in an easy to read Excel sheet, for a variety of very specific and pointed questions, in a relatively short amount of time. The Guardian’s Ultimate Climate Change FAQ is a great example of how this can work successfully.

Comments Section

Forms can work in coordination with a site’s comments section so that all the answers from a specific form can be sent directly to the site’s comment section, where other users can than directly respond to another’s comment and discuss it as well as “agree” and “disagree” or “like” and “dislike.” Incorporating an “agree” and “disagree” button may help the news organization determine just how many people there are out there that have the same question without having to sort through 15 different form responses or twitter feeds of the same question stated in 15 different ways.


The last suggestion we have is e-mail. Many news organizations have mailing lists of subscribers, sources or other users that have contributed information to articles, such as this one on ProPublica’s site. Send e-mails with questions or forms requesting feedback in addition to or in conjunction with these e-mails that you already send them. This will make it so that your readers are no longer passive consumers, but also users who are interacting with, engaging with and helping to create content. When creating your own plan to guage user demand, keep in mind that there are many more strategies out there -- maybe that we haven’t even thought of -that can be utilized, but these are the strategies that we have tested, tried or think are the best -- and that these strategies work best in combination with one another.



2. Provide Context

The elements of explanation you need to know


o effectively explain something, You must understand... How people process information And learn. Thankfully, we’ve done all that research for you.

And look, here’s a link to the report: pdf Instead of text attribution, why not work with what you’ve got and link to the report? Then it could read, “According to the State Department.”

ture and provide a context for unfolding news. Studies from Cognitive Linguistics suggest that this context is Last November, the Guardian launched a crowdessential for understanding new information, that we sourced FAQ on climate change. They crafted their process the new by couching it in the familiar. That’s Google Forms and coded a globe, bolded links and why Gleewinds exist. nested HTML, and shouted, in their best 12-pt. Georgia font, “Tell us, dear readers! What would you like to For an FAQ, this means a few things. know?” • Every FAQ should include a quick explanation of the most fundamental level of a news story. Nick And their readers responded - “What is the climate?” Baumann did a good job in his near-real-time FAQ for Mother Jones on the uprisings in Egypt: The lesson here is that, as journalists, we should never assume that readers know the answers to the most basic questions. Quite often, no one has bothered to explain the big pic-

And although the genre of an FAQ may seem inanely straightforward (ask question, answer question), a cou- • Make sure you only answer the question you asked. ple elements of effective explanation should guide the Seems simple - rarely followed. For example, look at construction of your FAQ. this paragraph:

1. The Magical Number Seven

In 1956, cognitive psychologist George Miller quantified the capacity of man’s working memory; he discovered that the human mind can only remember about seven pieces of information, plus or minus two. That number has since dwindled to four, and been parsed into numbers, sentences, long words and short words, but despite any tweaks, the consensus remains that humans can only remember a select amount of stuff on demand. For journalists, and masters of the FAQ, this means that you need to present information in manageable chunks

How much does the U.S. spend on Egypt? Egypt gets the most U.S. foreign aid of any country except for Israel. (This doesn’t include the money spent on the Iraq and Afghanistanwars.) The amount varies each year and there are many different funding streams, but U.S. foreign assistance to Egypt has averaged just over $2 billion every year since 1979, when Egypt struck a peace treaty with Israel following the Camp David Peace Accords, according to a Congressional Research Service report from 2009. The underlined is the Question and Answer. The rest is just extra fat. Important information, yes. But not central to this Q-A series.

For FAQs that lives on the Internet, there are a few ways to cut corners. • Use links instead of messy attribution. For example, • People read things online in an F-Shaped pattern. in ProPublica’s FAQ on U.S. Foreign Aid to Egypt, Format accordingly and avoid dense text. they use the phrase “according to a Congressional Research Service Report from 2009.” That takes up a lot of space and introduces a lot of jarring jargon.



Slate’s video FAQ: History of The Tea Party in Four Minutes Credit:

Right: Heatmaps from user eyetracking studies of three websites. The areas where users looked the most are colored red; the yellow areas indicate fewer views, followed by the least-viewed blue areas. Gray areas didn’t attract any fixations. Credit: The Guardian made it even more obvious, and allowed users who already knew about climate change to skip that information the basic information by presenting Q-A series in a modular format.

tinct from the rest of the FAQ. What if, for example, an FAQ called “What Does The Tea Party Want From Wisconsin?” opened with Slate’s History of The Tea Party in Four Minutes? Or if an FAQ on the apocalypse opened with Instant Egghead’s video on dark matter?

• Put the most fundamental information first. This might seem obvious, but it’s often overlooked.The World Food Program’s FAQ, “What Is Hunger?” is -Blair Hickman a Not-So-Good example, because defining hunger should is the second or third Q-A series. TBD’s FAQ on the Maryland Gubernatorial Campaign, however, is a Good Example of placing the most fundamental information first. • Try making this introductory content visually dis-


THE FORMAT Putting it all together



Make the Q-A series modular. The Guardian’s ultimate climate change FAQ adopts a Q-A structure, but posted each question as an individual blog post. This gave them the flexibility to play with layout, design and images.


Add a search box for quicker navigation. Here’s a good example from

espite the ubiquity of the Q-A series, the FAQ genre is not about form. It’s about questions. But how do you know which format is best?


Try the Traditional Q-A Format. This ubiquitous format works well with breaking news because it lets journalists quickly cover the 5Ws, and it lets users pinpoint the info they need.

2b And this one from

Adam Estes of Salon is even better. By providing headings and subheadings, Estes condenses the text and makes it easier to digest. If you’re considering this yourself, click here for a Wordpress tutorial.

The recent uprisings in Egypt suggest high demand for this format in this situation. Mother Jones, which produced a series of FAQs on the Arab Uprisings, saw their web traffic increase 400% in one month. Here, we list the elements that need to be included to make a top-notch traditional FAQ. There are Good and Not-So-Good examples of each.

1a First of all, don’t forget to open with fundamental context. Nick Baumann’s FAQ on Egypt for Mother Jones is a good example:


1b’s FAQ on how to prevent the flu is Not-So-Good:

2a Create a road map with hyperlinks. This one from Mother Jones is not-so-good. Primarily because it doesn’t provide a roadmap. This one from Gawker is good on the right.

IF YOU WANT TO simplify A COMPLICATED issue... Try simulating a conversation. We’re huge fans of this genre, which sounds more like a conversation at a bar, than a chapter from your seventh grade bio book. This format works best if you’re a proficient writer, working with a niched topic. Road maps don’t jibe with this style, so general readers, looking for basic information, will probably get frustrated. However, this format does a great job of simplifying a complicated subject, because it simulates a natural dialogue.

• Interrupt one character’s thoughts • Use ellipsis to indicate fading into silence (people’s speech often tapers off) and dashes to indicate a big pause • Create an Opposing Point of View and challenge the “Knowing” character’s knowledge. This establishes credibility and let’s you sneak in attributions. We gave $2 billion dollars a year to Egypt since 1979 How do you know that?

To execute, just imagine two characters that fit the The State Department publishes those reports archetypes of “Knowing” and “Unknowing”--the preevery year… tentious scholar and the naive jock, the wise profes• To convey confusion, start a sentence with an sor and the eager collegiate, a news junkie father and attribution question, then repeat the attribution. his baby--and write a dialogue between the two that “Egypt? We give money to Egypt?” mimics the rhythm of a real-life conversation. • If your organization’s editorial style allows huThe trick to reconstructing natural dialogue is to mor, then do it. simply listen to the way people talk. Real-life conver- sations are non-linear, and some linguists even argue And finally, READ IT OUT LOUD. I don’t care if that complete sentences don’t exist in natural conver- you have to whisper at your desk. If it sounds weird, sation. Writers call conversations that break this rule you’re doing something wrong. “Flat Dialogue.” For good examples of this type of FAQ, see TBD’s And though this sounds simple, it’s rarely done. piece on the Maryland Gubernatorial Campaign, Try some of the following tips for writing natural as well as a post from Studio20’s Jay Rosen on the dialogue that follows a logical flow of information. methods behind his blog. • Start with “I have five minutes. Could you tell me about _______?” This lets you slip in the most important information first. • Use incomplete sentences and contractions.


See an example on Click here



Still putting it all together


Try unexpected associations. People pay attention to unexpected formats, props or pop culture references. And people learn best when they connect new information to old information. So go ahead. Use LiLo to describe the financial meltdown.

“If you have a subject that allows for a little snark, this can be viral gold.” if your story has an inherent debate... Try creating animated video. This format works because, with the available technology, your video shines with a little snark. A company called XTranormal provides a web-based software that turns any script into an animated video. There’s a small fee, and since the animation is a little rough, it works best with short, overview scripts. However, if you have a subject that allows a little snark, this can be viral gold. To make this work, you need to imagine an entire scene—not just a conversation. And due to the monotone voices and stiff movements, the videos that suc-


ceed follow a sarcastic script with two general character archetyps--we’ll call them The Jaded Cynic and The Ignorant Optimist. A February 2011 Wall Street Journal article explains it like this: A clueless dolt irritates a jaded insider with an astonishing blend of naiveté and ill-earned self-confidence. In one, entitled, “So You Want to Go to Law School,” a prospective law student tells a lawyer, “I love the Constitution,” to which he replies: “If you say it’s a living, breathing document, I may kill myself.” “But it is,” she says. “Oh no. You’re going to make me orphan my daughter,” he responds. For good examples, see this video—So You Want To Be A Journalist--or check out the video we made on US Foreign Aid to Egypt. Above: We made an XTranormal video about US Foreign Aid to Egypt to test this theory.

dle East crackdowns and the U.S. responses to each. It wasn’t classified as an FAQ, but a quick look around the Internet, and probably your own head, shows that this post did, in fact, answer frequently asked questions.

And to describe these relationSince the format is so dependent ships, Marian Wang, ProPublica’s on subject matter, it’s hard to give blogger, used cheeky relationship specific tips on how to construct statuses, reminiscent of Facebook: these FAQs. We can, however, give Bahrain Relationship status with you examples. United States: BFF Yemen RelationProPublica recently created an ship status with United States: FrenFAQ that on an overview of Mid- emies

if you have a broad topic...

Try a Live FAQ. You know what sub- • VYou is like Livestream comject you want to cover, but you’re bined with voicemail. Users ask not quite sure where to focus. So if a question, you record an anyou’re an expert, or have an expert swer. It’s free, easy and engagon hand, then simply ask your using. Check out Phil Bronstein’s ers. for an example of this service in action. You need a few days to promote • TinyChat is one of the best and research a live event, so this live-chat forums we found. method is best for timeless FAQs. Though it looks more social, it You might want to grab an expert allows up to 12 broadcast vidto be on-hand, give yourself a few eos (your team), and unlimited days to research the topic. chat participants (your audience), making it a great tool for We recommend the below technolnews organizations. ogy for Live FAQs. The first two re- • CoverItLive is a group live-chat quire a camera on your computer, option, that allows for backbut that’s about it. end moderation. It’s a tad slow,

Miscellaneous Tips & Tricks Don’t forget updates.. Rather than a rolling live-blog, we suggest an embeddable news widget or visual, interactive timeline. Some Cool Tools: • Google Gadget that you can embed news feeds in your webpage. • Yahoo Pipes lets you create customized feeds for more complex topics. • Dippity lets you create pretty, engaging and interactive timelines. Avoid jargon. Unfamiliar words consume an exorbitant amount of brainpower. Use analogies or, if necessary, explain jargon at the beginning, with its own Q-A series.

People learn best when they connect new information to old information.

CASE STUDY FAQ on U.S. Aid to Egypt: Where Does the Money Go -- And Is It Worth It?


o see what can be done with an FAQ, we re-wrote an FAQ, originally published by ProPublica, on U.S. Foreign Aid to Egypt. Our FAQ has all of the same content, information, links and figures, but it incorporates the tips and tricks found in this guide. We also, for comparison’s sake, created an XTranormal and an audio podcast, which you can find on Explainer.Net The United States has provided aid to Egypt since 1979, averaging just over $2 billion per year. They receive more US foreign aid than any other country, besides Israel. But now that “USA” has popped up on tear gas canisters in Tahrir Square, questions are surfacing about the U.S.’s aid to Egypt. Here, we break down where the money goes, how it’s spent, and whether or not it actually helps the people of Egypt.

diplomacy! The idea is that we can use that money to keep them from smuggling weapons, making sure the state police don’t torture people. Keep the peace in the Middle East.

I heard we give money to Egypt, but I’ve been so wrapped up in The Daily, I don’t know anything about it. Well, what do you want to know?

That’s a lot of money. Yeah, but USAID--including money to Egypt--is something like less than one-half of 1 percent of the federal budget. But it is a lot of money--more than we give any other country, except for Israel.

I don’t know...give me the big picture. Well, in the early 60s, the government started an agency called USAID that distributes money to developing countries. They divide it up into military and non-military aid, and give it out to help promote democracy, humanitarian development--advance our policy goals. In Sub-Saharan Africa, our goal is to build stable governments. They call it “the overall goal of transformational diplomacy.” So when did we start giving money to Egypt? 1979. It started after Egypt and Israel signed a peace treaty at Camp David.

So how much do we give them? It’s been about $2 billion a year since then. $1.3 billion is for military assistance.

I’m confused--what exactly do we get out of this? Well, Egypt buys weapons that were made in the states--F-4 jet aircraft, F-16 jet fighters, armoured personnel carriers, Apache helicopters, antiaircraft missile batteries, aerial surveillance aircraft. So the defense contractors like that, and it boosts our economy a bit. Plus, our navy ships get expedited processing through the Suez Canal faster, and we get access to Egyptian air space. So the government thinks this helps advance our foreign policy goals, but the problem is that no one’s actually measured whether or not the program works

When I didn’t measure results at my job, I got fired. We weren’t part of the Egyptian-Israeli war. Exactly! Like, for example, Egypt can buy U.S. weapons I know, but we moderated the deal--transformational on credit...with the money we gave them. So starting in


2006, they made agreements for services over $2 billion, but some of that isn’t due in full until 2011. Until they pay, the money we gave them is used for...well, we don’t really know.

low; in 2007, economic aid was $6 per capita. To put that in perspective, we spent $40.80 per capita in Jordan in 2007. But Jordan’s per capita income was already 170 percent higher than Egypt’s.

So we don’t know exactly whether the money we give It just didn’t add up. And the Egyptian people need jobs. them helps the U.S? Which is part of the reason they’re protesting. Right- the military money, anyway. Why haven’t human rights NGOs in Egypt done someAnd is that the only problem? thing about it? You know, groups that promote democNot quite. The other problem is that the money gives racy and stuff? us no say in Egypt’s stance on human rights. Like, Mubarak’s regime shut most of them down. when Congress tried to withhold $100 million unless Mubarak stopped smuggling weapons into Gaza and Soo why don’t we just give pro-dem NGOs money to open torturing people, Mubarak got so angry that Condo- up again? leeza Rice pulled the bill. And now, Robert Gates said The U.S. isn’t allowed to do that. Our relationship with the Obama administration is taking the same stance- Egypt was so messed up after the Bush regime, that -military aid comes with no conditions. President Obama promised we’d only give economic aid to NGOs that Mubarak approves of. So we cut funding OK, so military aid sounds like it blows. for pro-democracy NGOs in half. Well, that’s a little pre-emptive... And since his regime is so corrupt, he pulled the plug What about non-military aid? Didn’t you say part of on the pro-democracy organizations that seemed too the money we give them is for non-military services? aggressive. Yeah, that’s called economic aid. It’s usually in the hundreds of millions each year. Although it’s been declining It’s all messed up. Even the government thinks it’s time since 1998. to reconsider Egypt’s aid package. So does non-military aid benefit the people? If I were an Egyptian citizen, I wouldn’t be too happy. It’s supposed to, but it’s not really working. We spent $57 million and four years to increase jobs and incomes Me either. for rural households in Egypt. But that failed. And then we spent $151 million to modernize Egypt’s financial -Blair Hickman sector, but we couldn’t measure the results of project. And then, in 2009, the Obama administration cut economic aid to $2.60 per capita. That number was already

CHECKLIST Making sure you didn’t forget anything

Include an overview of

basic issue

Put the simplest information first Use analogy where appropriate

Scan Twitter, Facebook, Yahoo Answers, Quora,

Comment sections

Request questions via the organization’s Twitter and Facebook Write a

blog post requesting questions

Create a Google

Form to post on your site



Insert search box Answer only the Use


hyperlinks and simple language for attribution

Text is in manageable


LiveFAQ, XTranormal, Simulate a Conversation Insert Google News update widget



a STUDIO 20 production MMXI

Profile for Explainer .Net

The FAQ  

A Journalist's Guide To Making One That Doesn't Suck

The FAQ  

A Journalist's Guide To Making One That Doesn't Suck