Websites: software creating questions and answers?

Subject: Websites: software creating questions and answers?
From: Geoff Hart <ghart -at- videotron -dot- ca>
To: "TECHWR-L" <techwr-l -at- lists -dot- raycomm -dot- com>
Date: Wed, 31 Mar 2004 10:29:36 -0500

Irene Wong reports: <<A few people I know are talking about software from Rightnow which adds a question and answer capacity onto a website. It's being sold as an answer to the problem of huge numbers of phone calls to call centres. Commonly asked questions are noted and answers are built up from content and questions. I imagine some kind of artificial intelligence is used in what must be fairly sophisticated programming.>>

What you're talking about is an automated means of building an FAQ ("frequently asked questions") list. The biggest problem with such things is that they're like flea markets: lots of interesting stuff, much of it quite valuable, but you'll have to be more patient than most people to find what you're looking for.

I've always wondered why people don't devote the same effort to creating FAQs that they devote to other important forms of documentation. In fact, I got so pissed off at the generally abysmal quality of the FAQs I'd dealt with that I put together an article making several pointed but simple suggestions on how to create a good one. It's called "Just the FAQs", and will appear in the May 2004 issue of _Intercom_ magazine. If you're an STC member, you'll see it in a couple months; if not, you can get a copy via your library or borrow one from an STC member in your city.

The software you mentioned sounds like a potentially helpful way to _gather_ the necessary information. But it won't take the place of some human input into organizing and presenting that information any more than concordance software can generate an index. No broadly available software yet exists that understands context and synonyms, and until such software becomes available, we'll still need humans to organize and contextualize information.

<<Is this really a useful form of communications where users get an answer to a fact but may not get all the facts they need as they would if they read/accidentally glanced at surrounding text?>>

If you design an FAQ intelligently, with a table of contents, topics organized by subject area, cross-references, hyperlinks, and maybe even an index, the FAQ can be every bit as helpful as other good forms of documentation. If, on the other hand, you simply dump the information online and rely on a search engine, you're going to fail. Search engine technology is rarely a good choice in my experience; anyone who lacks research skills--not to mention skilled searchers who simply use different terms than you use--will fail more often than they succeed, and will give up in frustration.

--Geoff Hart ghart -at- videotron -dot- ca
(try geoffhart -at- mac -dot- com if you don't get a reply)


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