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How to Structure a Knowledge Base

Organize your Knowledge Base using this simple & scalable information architecture

When establishing a Customer Education (CE) program, a common best practice is for the Customer Education program leader to take ownership of the company’s Knowledge Base and Support Documents. However, coming up with an information architecture can be a daunting task. Ideally the structure of the knowledge base and training content should resemble one another so it is easier to categorize and update content later on.

This article will describe a simple, scalable information architecture for your knowledge base that really works. More importantly, it will make managing requests for content much easier as the same information architecture can be used for your learning content.

The three types of content

Organize your Knowledge Base into three broad categories. If you are using Zendesk or similar, think of these as the three big buttons on your knowledge base homepage. The three types of knowledge base content are:

  1. Getting Started

  2. How-to

  3. Troubleshooting & FAQ

Getting started content

This type of content is focused on your new users. It is written to help people take action and complete the core tasks associated with your solution. For most companies, this section doesn’t have much hierarchy and isn’t an overwhelming amount of content. You want your new users to go to one place and find exactly what they need to get started. If you put too much content in this folder, new users might not know which one is the right asset.

This content doesn’t go into depth about why certain actions are taken or use unfamiliar / branded language. Don’t try to teach people your company backstory here. Just tell them what they need to get moving and speak to them in very simple or industry standard terminology. Help people using this content begin unlocking the core value of your solution.

When someone in your organization asks you for training materials or knowledge base articles, it’s important to ask “is this for a new user?” If so, consider how it can fit into your Getting Started section. Fewer articles is better, so you might just add this material to an existing manual or guide.

Good examples of Getting Started content are:

  • Quick start guides

  • Getting Started checklists

  • Lists of helpful resources that can be bookmarked or downloaded

How-to content

This type of content is typically very extensive and organized by feature. Inside this section of your knowledge base you’ll want to have subfolders that make it easy to navigate quickly to the feature a person wants more information about. It also is a good place to include best practices and long-form content about the rationale for why certain features work the way they do.

A good practice is to enable “on-site search” for your knowledge base. This means having a little search window at the top of your pages so people can type in what they are looking for and get results. Aside from saving people time by clicking around in folders, the words people type into on-site search can be easily viewed in Google Analytics or another similar system. By reviewing what people search for, you can quickly determine which features people want to learn about most. This often follows the “80/20” rule, where a few features are the source of most questions.

Good examples of How-To Content are:

  • How to use X feature

  • User manual for X feature

  • Tips & tricks / best practice videos

  • Admin manual for training new team members on your product

  • Webinars about how to efficiently use a feature

Troubleshooting & FAQ content

This type of content focuses on helping people who have run into an issue or help them find the right path toward escalation. The issues need to be written from the perspective of the user as they would encounter or witness them. Provide clear, unambiguous resolutions. A good practice is to give your instructions to someone unfamiliar with the tool and see if they complete the correct actions without anyone helping them. If they can, then your troubleshooting content works. If not, rewrite it and try again.

To determine where to focus your effort initially is to partner with your support team. Find out what types of tickets the support team responds to most. They will often have written out canned responses that can quickly be turned into knowledge base articles. Also ask “What issues are causing the most tier 2 support requests?” since these are the most expensive to service. Sometimes a single comprehensive guide can eliminate hours of expensive engineering time spent addressing these features.

Helping solve support tickets is also a way to elevate the viability of your customer education program in the organization since support teams often are under-resourced. You’ll be helping solve a real and measurable challenge.

A very common perspective from many organizations is to “gate” or hide this troubleshooting content from the public. You will hear this raised as a concern that competitors will use these admissions of complexity against you in sales deals or marketing collateral. The best practice here is to not gate this content. Why? Because Google is likely where people go initially when looking for troubleshooting help. If the content is gated, it won’t show up in search engine results and so people might think it doesn’t exist.

Good examples of Troubleshooting content:

  • FAQ page, organized by feature or role

  • How to troubleshoot X feature

  • Getting help / how to contact support

  • Links to creating a support ticket

A example of this method in action

An analogy that helps illustrate this concept to people is the manual for lawn mower. Thought lawn mowers aren’t software, they are tools used to complete a job and all of them are unique in some way. The buyer wants to make use of this tool, so the analogy fits for most cases.

When you buy a new lawn mower, there is often a glossy card attached to the equipment that describes how to put in the oil and gas, and how to start it. It doesn’t describe the spark plugs or setting the blade height. It just provides a few steps using big font in an easily findable place about the things you need to literally start the machine. This is an example of Getting Started content.

Along with the lawn mower often comes a little booklet. That booklet describes in detail how to properly use the device. It includes safety information as well as step-by-step instructions for how to cut your lawn. An example includes how to set the height of the blade and what to do when storing your lawn mower over the winter. This is the How-to content. It is typically written as step-by-step instructions or illustrated best practices that are easy to understand. With more complex machines, there might even be a supplement that tells you how to program the digital interface.

At the back of this manual is often a lengthy table of common issues people experience. It organizes the issues by severity or how the customer might come across them. It then provides a detailed explanation of how to resolve the issue. In many cases, there are instructions about how to escalate to get support from the manufacturer. This is an example of Troubleshooting and FAQ content.


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