A Knowledge Base (KB) organizes information so that it’s easily searchable and browseable. It’s like a library and card catalog all in one, with the accessibility of an online resource and the freedom of a hosted solution instead of internal server headaches. In Zendesk and other Cloud-based help desk ticket management software, knowledge bases are often used to:

  • Present users with quick self-service options such as answers to frequently asked questions, manuals, product care instructions, updates and patches

  • Train staff or educate end users through how-to articles, troubleshooting guides, white papers, instructional videos, etc.

  • Equip help desk reps with a database of known issues and fixes>

  • Supply code snippets, templates, macros, and other tools to developers and support agents
  • Attract website traffic by offering unique, valuable content in a specific area of expertise that is hard to find elsewhere

Marketing departments, third party vendors, partners, and social media support agents rely heavily on help desk KBs to meet the needs of their customers, therefore these stakeholders should be involved in the decision making process about the appearance, functionality, usability, structure and contents of any help desk KB.

Although they often require a lot of work to create and maintain, online help desk knowledge bases save businesses a great deal of money over time as users are able to find answers fast instead of opening tickets for common issues. Customer service satisfaction goes up as well, especially as support agents are no longer tied up with answering the same question over and over; instead they are able to focus on unique issues that genuinely require direct assistance.

The potential to save money is reduced, however, if a knowledge base is not created properly from the beginning. A disorganized KB can be difficult for end users to navigate and find desired search results, prompting them to use more costly call, email or IM services for support. At the same time, help desk staff may struggle to find fixes for problems that have already been documented.

This article provides tips on how to establish a well-built knowledge base from the get-go.

How Online Knowledge Bases Work

Knowledge bases can be browsed using a standard classification scheme -- tiers of categories and subcategories -- however, search tools are usually much more efficient for finding specific information. Unlike the Dewey Decimal System, knowledge bases use keywords and tags to categorize and sort information. They can be scanned by search engine spiders like Google and Bing as well as by the search tool that is part of the KB itself. Therefore, they are effective for reaching end users who are not aware of the availability of the resource, drawing web traffic.

This kind of knowledge base can be much more efficient than storing office documents in a shared drive, managing an Intranet, or using server-based knowledge base software programs that can be costly, elaborate, and time consuming. Zendesk in particular is uniquely beneficial to help desks because it combines knowledge bases, forums, ticket management and social networking tools into one application.

Using Tags in Knowledge Bases

Tags are keywords, that can be associated with a ticket or article, which help identify unique content, categorize, and pinpoint the location of specific information. They can also be used to track and measure business information. For example, help desk staff can use tag views to get a sense of how many people contact the help desk about account issues, and how many of those people closed their account. They could therefore use two tags - "account_issues" and "close_account", filter by account issues, and look at how many of those tickets also have "close_account"

Users can search for tags just like keywords, while in the Zendesk admin, views can be created for agents and management to see groups of articles and tickets based on their tags. Tags can also be used in automations, triggers and macros.

Organizing Help Desk Knowledge Bases

Knowledge bases are always changing as the contents within them are added, revised, and archived. Therefore categories should be broad enough to accommodate an array of subcategories while avoiding sub-sub (tertiary level) categories.

Often help desk knowledge bases are organized according to department or internal processes, rather than in a way that makes the most sense to end users. For example, a customer may not be sure whether their issue is due to a hidden feature or a broken function so may look up technical support issues when really they need to see product specifications.

Other KBs are organized by tasks users are trying to accomplish, but categories are named according to how help desks define user tasks (e.g. Frequently Asked Questions or Troubleshoot an Error) rather than how end users think of tasks. This kind of organization leaves it up to the customer to determine if their question is a commonly asked question, or if troubleshooting is necessary.

To save both ends time, money and headaches, consider organizing KB categories and subcategories according to feature and release number, and then by topic. Tags can be used to specify attributes such as FAQ, and user proficiency such as basic versus advanced level of technical detail (for example, using the calendar feature, or scheduling meetings using the “check availability” feature). Contact info can be included via links to related articles that tell customers who to contact (customer service or tech support) and what information they'll need to provide. Department can be automatically added as a tag (determined by article ID) for easy viewing and sorting.

The key is to do the thinking for the end-user as much as possible. Therefore, it's important to have a user group test your knowledge base prior to rolling it out and allow users to submit feedback about the KB tool and its content.

Knowledge Base Best Practice Tips

Preserve old versions of articles -- Versioning can be achieved in Zendesk by making a copy of an article before you update it, and moving that copy into a special archive KB. You may wish to set role restrictions to agents only.

Make it robust - Your KB should have enough entries in it to cover the basics of your service or product offerings, common known issues, and frequently asked questions before making it available to end users. Offer incentives to help desk staff for adding new, unique articles to the KB, or making significant revisions to existing ones to build up your KB quickly.

Imperfection is expected -- Don't hold off making a KB until all known issues are documented in it -- that day will never come. Take a hint from Wikipedia, and publish notes in articles identifying a need for further verification, research or substantiation of a given article.

To moderate or not -- Online knowledge bases are made up of articles, which can include images, screenshots, videos, code snippets, screencasts, transcripts, and more. Unlike a reference library, though, KBs are often interactive. Readers can leave comments on individual articles, which makes moderating and maintenance an important of KB management. To reduce the amount of time spent cleaning up and following up on comments, consider disabling comments on articles. This will keep all comments in user forums, where interaction is the primary purpose and moderators are essential.

Dedicate a curator -- Even if commenting is turned off in a KB, a dedicated curator is important for processing new articles and properly retiring old articles. They can act on behalf of various stakeholders, making sure that marketing messages are incorporated, instructions are worded clearly, outdated/conflicting information is removed, versions are tracked and preserved, and tags are assigned appropriately. If comments are allowed on articles, the curator can act as moderator.

Cross-link articles -- Another important function curators can perform is cross-linking articles (linking one article to one or more related articles) which is essential for usability, significantly increasing customers’ ability to help themselves.

Keep announcements and news in forums -- Although a knowledge base can also keep customers updated with news, announcements, release information, and product updates, a community forum can be a better option for this kind of communication. Announcements posted in a forum can link to a KB article for additional details.

Avoid techie terminology -- try to keep words as user-friendly as possible, whether those users be customers or help desk staff. No one likes having to guess at the meaning of a category, or discover that there was a fix to their problem but the keyword to search for it was familiar only to those with Cisco certification or an MBA. If terminology is necessary to properly identify as issue, use a tag for it, as well as a tag for a more basic term, or use both the term and another more common word together for categories. In articles, provide the definition the first time the term appears.

Using multiple knowledge bases -- Knowledge bases are not divided up by what they contain as much as who uses them. Just as a library has sections for different types of reference material, so does one knowledge base. University libraries differ from public libraries in the populations they serve, and therefore what materials they have in stock are appropriate to their readers. In the same way, help desk KBs may be created separately -- for general information or highly technical information -- but usually this is done to serve different user groups with varying levels of expertise and need for technical know-how.

The only good time to create separate KBs is if there will be no crossover in the type of information provided to users. Examples would be KBs that are provided in different languages, or one KB that provides information just for agents paired with another KB that delivers the same information but is worded from the customer’s point of view.

As long as end-users and support staff of different levels of expertise can benefit from an article, it should be organized in the same knowledge base. Categories, search keywords and tags can be used to help them find the appropriate information for their needs.

Taking advantage of tag clouds -- A visual representation of what tags are trending in your KB, forums and tickets, tag clouds can be handy for getting a quick grasp of user needs and behaviors. For example, a “suggestion box” style forum is used to gain information from users on how to improve a product or service. Tagging each post with the service or product that it refers to, and then displaying those tags in a cloud, allows agents to see what user needs emerge and where development efforts should be focused.

Promote newly-added content -- A special page or content area should be dedicated to listing recently-added articles. Automated email notifications can be sent to all KB users as well.

Be consistent offline and on -- If you offer printed or PDF documentation to users, make sure the same organizational structure (section and category names) is used to make usage easier for all

Enhance your KB -- Suggesting related articles is an excellent way to help users help themselves, and spread the word about your awesome resource. For KBs that get a lot of customer traffic, consider giving the user the option of creating an account so that they can mark favorites, grab snippets, etc. Give them options to share to personal online libraries like Delicious, Evernote, and Microsoft’s OneNote, as well as sharing to Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest and other social media networks.

Does your knowledge base work well for you? Not so much? Tell us why below...

Ellen Berry is Content Director for Myndbend. Her background is in website development, graphic design, career development, project management, entrepreneurship, technical writing, and journalism. She has worked for small start-ups, Fortune 500 companies and nonprofits, in fields including biomedical research and development, IT, finance, telecommunications, publishing and digital media. Her articles are frequently published on high profile websites such as USAToday, ScientificAmerican, TechRepublic and MonsterWorking.