by Sean Michael Kerner
Maintaining and deploying useful FAQs can be a very tedious process. Luckily there are a number of open source FAQ generation and management tools out there that exist to try and make it a bit easier.
FAQs. No matter how you slice 'em up and package them, at the end of the day are all about content. That's where it gets a bit interesting to try and see what tool (if any) you should consider for your FAQ as there are obviously a number of different type of tools that exist to help manage content. Many of the popular open source content management will have rudimentary FAQ capabilities. That is, they'll have a module/block/content unit that is allocated in its structure for the admin to populate with content. On the other end of the spectrum are Wikis that are usually more general purpose and not specifically geared for FAQs, though often are used for that purpose.
Then of course there are the tools that supposedly have been specifically developed for FAQs, remarkably enough, these tend to have the word FAQ in their title. Projects, like FAQ-IT, Faq-O-Matic, piFAQ, makefaq and phpMyFaq populate the landscape.
For the most part though many of them are only simple page based content management tools that allow the admin to post their own list of questions and answers. Makefaq, for example, is a Python based tool that takes a text file and generates a nicely formatted FAQ page. PiFaq allows users a basic login functionality to update the FAQ remotely but it's still quite simple and basic.
FAQ-O-Matic is a bit more sophisticated in that it has a 'slicker' UI and a very usability-friendly default template, but still it's essentially a glorified text editor. Simple enough though I suppose it's still easier than manually coding pages and uploading, but who does that anymore anyway?
FAQs are of course, Frequently Asked Questions, so wouldn't it make sense for a FAQ application to be a collection of questions, user submitted or admin driven, with a top 5 listing of the most recently asked questions and a top 10 listing of the most actively viewed list of questions. That's where the "frequently" comes in.
That's the general idea behind phpMyFAQ which, in my opinion, stands out from the rest of the tools that claim to be FAQ focused. The version that I'm using at the time of writing this article is 1.4.1 and is licensed under the Mozilla Public License. phpMyFAQ runs on either Apache 1.3.x or 2.x, IIS, PHP 4.3.8 or greater (including PHP 5) and utilizes a MySQL database of 3.23.x or higher. Installation of phpMyFAQ is relatively straight forward, unpack the archive, set up the MySQL database and then run the included install script. It's that easy.
Setting up a FAQ in phpMyFAQ is a bit different than just a simple text file with a question and answer. This application is all about FAQ's and is, for lack of a better term, a content management system for question management. You'll notice this from the very first interface, the default template homepage, that literally shows visitors the most frequently asked and viewed questions on the site.
Users can add content, ask a question, and view open questions, as well as, search through the FAQ. Basic bread and butter stuff right? Don't worry it gets better, for the actual FAQ detail users can send the FAQ detail to a friend, view/save as a PDF, view a printer friendly version, export as XML, rate the FAQ detail and, based partially on the permission set-up by the admin, provide inline comments.
The admin interface is also jammed packed with features including user administration and tracking, database backup, export of your top 5 latest records and top 10 viewed entries to an RSS feed, and a nice WYSIWYG inline editor to make sure all your records look the way you want them too.
The FAQs on FAQs
For a FAQ to truly be useful it needs to have a proper frequency in order to be relevant. That's where phpMyFAQ really helps because the very nature of a top 5 listing, as well as the user interaction, maintains a certain frequency automatically. Whether you use a simple tool that just allows for online updating and editing or a more sophisticated FAQ application like phpMyFAQ, the key is still content. It's called frequently asked questions so you'd better be posting and answering what your users want and need to know. If you're using a simple edit tool than the onus is absolutely on the admin to keep it fresh, or at least relevant by reviewing and updating content on a regular basis. If you're using phpMyFAQ, your users are helping you out a bit, but it's still incumbent upon the admin to make sure that open questions are answered and that user submitted content is reviewed and posted.
One of the things that many FAQ writers often forget is to include some of the basic information that you probably just assume your users already know, or that may be repeated somewhere else on your site. One of the simplest yet most important questions that should be at the top of almost of FAQ is, "What is the purpose of this FAQ?" and/or "What is 'insert company/product/service/' all about?"
Though Search functionality on a web site is arguably the most used feature of any given site, a FAQ be right up there as well. As such, an embedded site FAQ should also be properly and thoroughly linked to deeper levels of content within your site.
The other thing that inevitably bogs down many a good meaning FAQ is an overabundance of questions. Again, remember what the first letter of the acronym stands for. Frequent questions tend to focus more on general usage than overly specific minutiae.
Unfortunately, there is no great hidden mystery or trick to maintaining a solid FAQ even with a great tool like phpMyFAQ beyond the basics of frequency and relevance of content.
The hope though is that with a bit of good open source technology and some help from your users, your FAQ will achieve the frequency it needs to properly earn its moniker.
Sean Michael Kerner is a contributer to numerous publications, freelance writer, developer, IT consultant, speaker, part owner of various digital dives and a recovering interactive ad agency executive. He is not a snake tamer, and believes that Java is best served with one cream and two sugars.