U.S. Department of State : Combining on-site answering
A focused dual-function self-service information finder.
The US Department of State, the country’s equivalent of its foreign ministry, has gone to great lengths to make its online information service for nationals and non-nationals self-service by integrating its contact page with its frequently asked questions feature. Both the Frequent Questions and Contact Us site utilities lead to the same tabbed search tool. Clicking the former opens it on a Questions & Answers view; Contact Us on E-Mail a Question/Comment.
Both views can be filtered by any of the same set of 24 topics or keyword; some reveal further ‘sub-topic’ options when selected. Q&A matches link to an answer page, displayed within the feature, which offers a main Answer and Related Answers, all linked to other web pages or sites. The E-Mail Option adds fields for typing in a subject line and question as well as the questioner’s e-mail address. Submitting the form elicits a Preliminary Response to Question (for first-time enquirers only after an interim ‘create account’ page confirming their e-mail address) that offers a match or matches from the Q&A list. These open in a new window so that enquirers have the option to ‘Finish Submitting Question’ if it remains unresolved. They then receive an acknowledgement that the question has been submitted.
Frequently asked questions (FAQs) are a well-established kind of automated information desk that may direct site visitors to content likely to be of relevance to them. The US Department of State’s set of questions is noteworthy enough on account of its detailed searchability and links, but by allying it to the main Contact Us utility the department has gone to unusual lengths to exploit the advantage to the site owner of FAQs, which is to reduce the volume of individual enquiries it has to deal with directly.
Despite all roads favouring FAQ topics there are a couple of issues that may still send users looking prematurely for more-resource-hungry alternatives. The lack of a forewarning or explanation for the ‘create account’ diversion in the E-Mail channel makes it unduly disruptive and will deter some from proceeding. And the tabbed search tool sits on a page which carries Contact Information including telephone numbers for various topics or services.http://www.state.gov
First published on 03 July, 2007