Question: When is a self-service writer a diplomat?
Answer: When they are a writing a knowledge base to help customers solve their problems quickly and reduce repetitive conversations with your support team.
Writing documentation for a knowledge base is hard. Documentation is more than providing information, it’s goal orientated.
To ensure minimal reading and effort for your customers can be a lot of work and pressure for a technical writer! You want to help your customer as much as you can and to give your support team some slack.
The only way to do that is to cater to best practices in a knowledge base. And to do that, we need to get back to the fundamental question:
What is the purpose of a knowledge base?
A knowledge base is how you communicate with customers. It’s understanding your customer’s pain and analyzing their capability of using your product. A knowledge base guides your customer towards a solution through documentation.
The goal is to create documentation so good that your customers don’t need to contact your support team. The way you support your product is as important as the product itself.
This is especially important for complex products that customers will get to know over time.
As technical products and Software as a Service (SaaS) have become common, the business support strategy has evolved to encompass a long-term relationship with customers.
A killer knowledge base is key to your customer support strategy. It’s anticipating problems and questions before they happen. It’s not a wall to keep your customers away from support.
1. What’s your knowledge base format and style?
Our first stop is your knowledge base content.
Knowledge base formats and style have come a long way since the software first became available.
Avoid dry, overly technical articles that will have your customers itching to email your support team.
Be proud of your documentation
As a documentation writer, you are as professional as any content marketer, copywriter or blogger. Your style will make or break the effectiveness of your knowledge base.
A knowledge base style guide goes beyond basic grammar. It arranges the format and content so you can communicate with customers in the way they want.
Here are some fantastic style guides to provide you with inspiration:
Know your audience
To better understand who you are writing for, liaise with your marketing team. Knowing your audience helps you to set the tone and style of your articles to speak to customers in the way they want.
It takes really strong, smart, and organized documentation to build and keep a strong customer base.
Who is your customer and how do they want to receive the documentation? Discover how they want to learn about your product by formatting your knowledge base content to cater for customers who prefer to read, listen or watch with multimedia content.
“Most customers want to be able to self-serve. Your job is to find out what they want and write it for them. You can find that insight in your support inbox. If customers are emailing questions that cannot be answered with your knowledge base, then write an article to answer that question so people don’t have to contact you in the future for it. We call this process “just in time” documentation, it’s a form of agile documentation.”
Marybeth Alexander, co-founder and CEO at KnowledgeOwl.
2. Write an effective article using best practices
Now we’re going to look at writing an individual article. Writing documentation is all about creating the customer experience. Self-service content needs to build trust with your customers, and should be treated in the same way as your marketing materials.
Coming up with your article
Keep sight of the motivation for customers to visit your knowledge base. They’re likely to be in distress, frustrated and trying to solve a problem. Don’t drive them crazy with flowery or confusing content.
When you write your article, make sure you have the information you need. Reach out to subject matter experts in your team to provide you with material.
Structure the article thoughtfully
State the solution up front. Don’t make your customers search for it or skip to the end. Then, include the logical steps your customers need for those who want the information step-by-step.
Write clearly and simply so your readers easily understand the information. You need to focus on solving their specific problem. Order your points logically and keep to one point per paragraph. This helps with understanding.
Use subheadings to signpost readers and enable them to scan your article to the point that helps them.
Write your titles intuitively, including the keywords that your customers will be likely to use.
Editing your article
Once you’ve written your article, walk away and leave it for a day. Come back to it with fresh eyes and edit what you’ve written. Better yet, ask someone else to give feedback on whether your article solves the problem.
Your content has to be so good that it keeps your customers coming back for more. Make them see your knowledge base as their first stop for troubleshooting. If your customers trust your knowledge base, they’ll be more likely to come back.
You need to work on becoming the best writer you can be.
3. Best practices for building, structuring and organizing a knowledge base
Information architecture (IA) helps you make sense of the information you’re facing. It encompasses a field all its own but you can take the principles and apply them to your knowledge base. It’s what differentiates your knowledge base from a simple FAQs.
IA is for everyone. Abby Covert is an information architect who provides lots of helpful and clear resources on her website.
Navigating your knowledge base
As a documentation writer, it’s your job to make sure customers can navigate your knowledge base. This means having a broad overview of the structure and organization of your knowledge base.
The key factor in your IA isn’t the sophistication of your system but consistency in telling your users what to expect. It’s predictability presenting your content to make your knowledge base usable and reliable.
How to categorize articles
A top-level category page must feel different to a bottom-level content page.
Your knowledge base hierarchy shouldn’t just be a reflection of your internal structure. Choose broad top level categories that mean something to your customers. You can survey your customers and propose potential categories to them.
Tag your articles correctly to enable your users to use the search function.
Use article types (How-to’s, Best Practices, Reference) to clearly define the purpose of each article. Article templates are essential for standardizing your content.
Surface your most popular articles on your homepage to anticipate your customer’s needs.
“Get to know your users, and address their needs as directly as possible. We leverage specific archetypes to guide content creation (e.g. tutorial vs. troubleshooting content). They keep things consistent without being too rigid.
Conor Sexton, Documentation Specialist at Leadpages.
4. Follow knowledge base design best practices
Design aids navigation and comprehension. Customers will find your knowledge much easier to use if you use great design principles.
What is design?
Design aids navigation and comprehension, so customers will find your knowledge base much easier to use if it makes use of great design principles. But what are these?
The design of your knowledge base is anything that contributes to great user experience. We’ve collated seven design standards that the best knowledge bases make use of.
Navigation is your priority when designing your knowledge base.
The search bar should catch your customer’s attention as soon as they hit your knowledge base.
Make sure you have quick links to frequently-asked questions on the homepage too, so customers can instantly find what they’re looking for.
Have your categories colour-coded or structured according to customer need.
Your titles should be short, and contain the main keywords relating to your article.
Finally, make it easy for your customers to request further help from your team. This cannot be overstated.
Make use of white space and other visual elements such as imagery and video. You can include illustrations with categories for users to process information visually.
Appropriate use of color and branding
Color is a key part of designing your knowledge. It doesn’t have to be in your brand colors but should have continuity with your brand. Stick to a maximum of two base colors, plus one more color to highlight key elements.
Colors should be bold, not bright. Consider calming colors — blue or green — in your knowledge base to soothe angry customers.
Use different font sizes to direct your customers’ attention, including headers and paragraph tags.
It’s best practice to include a table of contents at the beginning of long articles, and include bullet points to break up the text.
Your knowledge base must be mobile-friendly and accessible to visually-impaired customers.
Don’t use color as the only way to navigate. Include alt text that is available to screen readers.
5. Managing and updating your knowledge base
When the excitement wears off from creating a new knowledge base, there comes the need for a system to manage your content. As customer support manager or documentation writer, no one else is more key to maintaining your knowledge strategy.
Keep it up-to-date
If your content is neglected over time, it will be nothing. You need to be an active curator of your documentation so it continues to serve your customers’ needs.
Create new articles for your knowledge base as you roll out new features for your product.
Make it a policy never to repeat information in different articles. Hyperlink to the relevant article instead. Then, you only have to update one single article if and when that information changes.
Scaling your knowledge base
You’ve thought about your information architecture and categorized your content well. Your content can scale with your support strategy because you know which sections to place new articles into.
This requires a comprehensive and unified view of your customer support strategy. Your whole team needs to be working together to ensure that your customers stay at the heart of your content, instead of internal priorities.
Establish formatting guidelines
It’s essential to keep your content standardized to ensure your customers know what to expect from your knowledge base.
Establish sensible formatting guidelines for every content writer to follow when they submit articles to your knowledge base. This keeps everything consistent and professional.
Appoint a knowledge leader
You support team is your most valuable asset in managing your knowledge base. Frontline staff know exactly what problems your customers are having, and can help you keep your content on point.
Support staff members with the most potential can be nominated as knowledge leaders. It’s an opportunity for them to take on more responsibility, and use their natural skills to create the best content.
“Honestly, one of the things I rely on the most, when working on a knowledge base, is documenting my documentation. Whether you’re a team of one or you manage a crew of contributors, whether you build a full-blown style guide or just save some notes you can refer to later – having a record of the style, tone, and formatting decisions you make will save you an immeasurable amount of time and effort down the road.”
Kelly O’Brien, Self-Service Content Manager, Kayako.
A takeaway on knowledge base best practices
To provide your customers with an amazing experience, you need the best knowledge base software. Choose the right tools to help you create content that rocks, is visually appealing and can be easily edited.
What is the priority best practice?
It is to make articles searchable. Make the reading or scanning experience as content-focused — even if that means hiding navigation menus until your users need them.
Every knowledge base will be different so develop a strong format and style that becomes familiar to your customers. If they can count on what to expect, customers are likely to trust your knowledge base.
Always keep your content up-to-date with the latest version of your product. Articles should be well-structured, focused and to-the-point. Seek extra information from subject matter experts or support staff where needed.
Remember, you are a professional writer responsible for building ongoing relationships with each and every one of your customers. Documentation writing is as important as marketing.
Writing is a skill that you develop with years of practice. As a self-service user writer or customer support manager, never stop improving your writing.
Combine your superior communication skills with a genuine desire to help your customers self-serve, and your knowledge base can’t fail to rock.