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Using Questions as Headers

The longer I work with instructional text, whether for software or games, the more I’m convinced that we should at times use users’ questions as headers. For instance, imagine if we’d written this about situation aspects in Fate Core:

How Long Do Situation Aspects Last?

The short answer: aspects are true until they aren’t. Situation aspects stop being true when:

  • someone takes action against the aspect that removes it (putting a room On Fire out, escaping being Cornered)
  • character maintaining the aspect does something that means they can’t keep maintaining the aspect (moving away from someone you have Cornered)
  • aspect naturally expires (room On Fire burns itself out)
  • the situation is no longer current or relevant, and the story moves on (usually once the scene is done)

That info is in the book already, in places here and there, but not presented as such. With the above presentation, many of the people who miss the answer and ask online wouldn’t. And those who would ask would also be able to get a simple answer in the form of a page reference.

Why does this technique work? It has two different effects: it either forges context with a reader’s existing query, or it triggers the query in the first place so when the reader has the query again mid-experience, the answer (or at minimum its existence) is in mind. Bonus points if it’s in the table of contents and index.

Why don’t we use questions for headers as often? I think because we aren’t used to seeing this in books as often as we see books be strict monologues. And there’s writer hubris: assuming you’ll be able to write your answer in such a way that the question never comes up. Spoiler alert: that doesn’t work all of the time.

This could work as normal body text, or as a sidebar. Sidebar is a good option if you don’t want to restructure your book, but the information in the answer is distributed throughout the book. Sidebars are a good place for quick answers that contain page references.

As a personal style note, I avoid yes/no questions. I prefer to assume “yes” and rephrase the question to be “How…”, and definitely don’t do them if the answer would be “no” because that could generate a microfrustration or other negative reader response.

Next time you’re putting together a book and trying to find ways of answering questions users have had—be they tech users or game players—try a draft with the questions as headers and see what sort of response you get.

“What About an FAQ?”

This question came up after this post’s publication. I talk about that (and other things) in Twitter, collected in a Storify thread. TL;DR is that an FAQ is a diagnostic tool that doesn’t benefit from proximity, so it isn’t exactly what I’m talking about.

–Ryan

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4 Responses to Using Questions as Headers

  1. Derek Guder says:

    When you have a chance, a follow-up on this in contexts where questions are the standard form (i.e. FAQs) would be interesting.

    Personally, I find FAQ or question-based formats useful for initial introduction but they always feel imprecise and bloated later, after the material is more comfortable. They’re great intro and companion content, but not core, basically.

    There’s also the question of how to identify the questions that you should be including, especially if you don’t have the time to rigorously poll new users on their issues.