Jory MacKay
Jory is a writer, content strategist and award-winning editor of the Unsplash Book. He contributes to Inc., Fast Company, Quartz, and more.
August 13, 2019 · 12 min read

7 Steps to Create a Useful Knowledge Base

What is a Knowledge Base?

Great customer service is the backbone of every successful company. Unfortunately, as you scale your product and your customer base, it gets harder and harder to keep everyone happy.

No one likes waiting around in long support queues or getting no response to emails. But it’s all too easy to drop the ball when you’re drowning in questions, support tickets, and bug reports. That’s where the magic of “self-service” support resources comes into play.

Your support knowledge base is an amazing way to quickly give your customer answers, take pressure off your support team’s shoulders, and keep your users happy without burning out. But it’s not as simple as throwing up a few support articles on a blog and calling it done.

Building an effective knowledge base takes planning and work. So if you’re ready to give your knowledge base a tune-up (or create an entirely new one) this guide will teach you everything you need to know about how to create a powerful, valuable, and useful knowledge base.

What is a knowledge base? And why do you need one?

A knowledge base is a self-serve resource for customers covering the most important and up-to-date information about your product, best-practices, workflows, and troubleshooting. It’s a living document that reroutes common customer questions away from your support inbox and into a place where customers can educate themselves about your product.

That’s a lot of words to digest. So instead, let’s look at it another way. One of the easiest ways to understand the importance of your knowledge base is to think back to your last visit to the grocery store.

Let’s say you’re on a health kick and decided to put together a massive salad for dinner. You head to the store, pick up your vegetables, and then head to the front where you’re faced with a choice. Either wait in the (most likely) longer line for one-on-one support as someone rings through your goods for you. Or, take your chances with the “self-serve” checkout.

You decide to roll the dice and go through the self-checkout. But quickly realize the mistake you’ve made. Not only is the UI is terrible, but it only shows the option for organic kale when you type “o” and not “k”... What seemed like an easy option to get help is now a ton of extra work.

Now, let’s say you’re like me and you’ve just come back from a busy day and decided dinner’s going to be frozen pizza. You head to the freezer section, select your pie, swipe it on the self-checkout, pay, and you’re out!

Now, this isn’t to say everyone should eat pizza over salad. It’s just to illustrate that different problems require different approaches. The same goes for your customer support.

The self-checkout isn’t a bad customer support model. It’s just not the right one for all your customers. Some people need personalized help (which is where your Help Desk becomes so important), while others prefer to talk to a real person on the phone (which is where metrics like first call resolution becomes critical). However, for a lot of your customers, giving them a self-help resource like a knowledge base is just as powerful. And as we’ll show, it has some pretty amazing knock-on effects.

Here’s the truth: Your customers want to help themselves

As we wrote in our Guide to Creating Workflows, true success comes from eliminating the unnecessary from our lives. And while customer support is definitely a necessity for any successful business, responding personally to every customer question isn’t.

Even better, your customers actively want to use your knowledge base.

According to research, self-serve knowledge bases are the most used (and expected) customer support tool. While across industries, 81% of customers attempt to find their own solution before talking to a rep.

Why would people actively choose a knowledge base over personalized support? To answer that, we first need to talk about Ikea (I promise this metaphor won’t be as long-winded as the grocery store one!)

Besides their famous meatballs and budget-friendly furniture, Ikea figured out something powerful, yet counter-intuitive about furniture: People like to do things for themselves. In fact, there’s even a cognitive bias referred to as “The IKEA Effect” which explains how your customers “place a disproportionately high value on products they partially created.”

When it comes to your product, customers get an equally satisfying feeling when they can solve issues for themselves. Yet, beyond this amazing behavioral superpower, knowledge bases are important for a number of other reasons:

Finally, fleshing out your support strategy helps you grow your business. As we wrote in our Guide on 7 Ways a Help Desk Can Improve Customer Retention, happier customers translate into happier businesses (In fact, one study found that American companies alone lose $75 billion a year from poor customer service!)

Self-Service Best Practices: 7 Steps to Create a Useful Knowledge Base For Your Customers

While it’s tempting to think of a knowledge base just as a way to save money on support costs, this would be a mistake.

Let’s think back to our grocery store salad-shopper example for a second. Imagine how frustrated you’d be if your local grocery store had just self-checkouts and no one to help? I’m sure you’d start to choose something else if you kept having issues and no one was able to solve it quickly and easily. The same goes for your customers.

A knowledge base has to be part of your overall support strategy. Before you jump in and start writing help articles and giving your support team extra vacation days, you need to know who you’re making your knowledge base for, what it does (and doesn’t) do, and how you’ll present it in the best way possible so the people who do want to use it can get in and out as quickly and easily as possible.

It’s a lot to get through. So to make it easier, we’ve put together this 7-step plan on how to create a useful knowledge base.

1. Start with a plan

You probably already have help content scattered all over the place in FAQs, blog posts, random documents, processes, etc… And before you can help your customers, you need to bring this all together and answer a few questions.

Not only do you need to understand what you’re going to include in your knowledge base, but also how you’re going to make it, why it’s important, and who is taking ownership of it. To do this, let’s follow some of the same steps we outlined in our Guide to Writing Project Proposals:

  1. Explain the problem and provide context. Talk to your support team and understand their perspective. Are they overburdened with requests? Answering the same thing over and over? Frustrated with their current tool for creating knowledge base articles? Know why creating a knowledge base is important to your team and what they think the best path forward is.
  2. Connect your knowledge base to your bigger company (and customer support) strategy. As we said before, a knowledge base is part of your overall support strategy. So ask: How does this fit into how you currently do support? How will your support team interact with and maximize their use of the knowledge base?
  3. Create a set of deliverables. What is this knowledge base going to look like? Instead of a loose grouping of flimsy articles, how are you going to make sure it’s easily navigated and used? It’s also important to define who is responsible for this project. Your knowledge base owner will help keep it moving forward, maintain standards and workflows, and create a plan for keeping your knowledge base relevant and up to date.
  4. Define what “success” looks like. What’s the scope of your initial project? It’s better to start with a v1 you can build off rather than going overboard and promising too much. Besides, you’ll learn more about what your customers want with a live knowledge base they can actually interact with than waiting for it to be “perfect” before you launch.
  5. Break down the project timeline. Every project needs a timeline and deadlines to be taken seriously. At a minimum, you should know when you want this project to start and when your launch day is.

One of the best ways to make sure all the steps of your knowledge base project are completed is to use a project management tool like Planio.

In Planio, you not only get full control over how you create and present your knowledge base content, but can also assign roles and permissions to make sure your knowledge base owner can keep everything moving smoothly.

Creating a new role for wiki managers in Planio

2. Choose who your knowledge base is for (or make multiple ones)

At its core, the purpose of a knowledge base is to help users discover answers. But so far, we’ve been approaching knowledge bases as just resources for your customers. You can, however, use them for other purposes as well.

The way your knowledge base works will come down to what your company does and who you serve. But along with public knowledge bases for your customers there are several other additional options you might want to consider:

  1. IT Knowledge Base: Are there common IT questions (like password requests or equipment procurement) that could be better solved with a knowledge base article?
  2. Team or Project-based Knowledge Base: What about internal knowledge management for new team members or for specific projects?
  3. HR Knowledge Base: Can you provide a portal for employees to find out about benefits, vacation days, or HR policies?
  4. Legal Knowledge Base: What about contract approvals, policies, or trademarks?

As the name implies, a knowledge base is a great place to store, manage, and share knowledge across your company. And they don’t have to be limited to just your customers.

3. Create a list of recurring topics, issues, and themes

With your plan in place, deliverables and deadlines set, and a knowledge base owner selected it’s time to start actually building the thing. But first, how do you know what to include in your knowledge base?

Again, this comes down to the basic premise of why you want to create a self-serve support resource in the first place: to help customers/users/employees find answers for common questions.

When you’re drafting an outline for your knowledge base content, start with these places:

  1. Look for trends in common topics: What questions are your support team constantly answering? Are they around common themes or features? A good idea is to start high-level and work down to more specific articles. For instance, you might list out topic areas like onboarding, best practices, setting up an account, billing, and ones around your core features. Then, go through each and find the specific topics and questions that come up the most.
  2. Check common search terms and where your users are getting stuck: Your users won’t always tell you where they’re having problems. To uncover these places, it’s important to get insight into where your product is failing. There are a few ways to do this:
    • Check Google Analytics: What search terms are people using in your Help Desk or when visiting your knowledge base?
    • Use a tool like Hotjar or Usabilla: These tools will visually show you where users are getting stuck when using your app or product through heatmaps, recordings, and user testing.
  3. Create a process for flagging new issues for your knowledge base: Finally, you’ll want to define a process for identifying, assigning, and creating new knowledge base content. What happens when a new issue appears? Who decides it needs to be added to the knowledge base? How does that process look? Don’t leave this up to chance.

Because Planio holds all your projects, issues, bugs, and more, it’s easy to flag topics and questions for new knowledge base articles. Simply add a status to your an issue to the “Knowledge Base” category or assign it to your knowledge base owner.


4. Define and employ a consistent tone of voice

Your users don’t care who wrote your knowledge base content. They only care that it provides the answers they’re looking for in a way that is clear, concise, and consistent.

The 3Cs of knowledge bases

These “3Cs” are the core of what makes your knowledge base usable and your knowledge base owner should put together a set of standards, so that no matter who’s writing the content—support agents, technical writers, IT professionals, or anyone else—it hits them.

We’ll get into the specifics of writing knowledge base articles below, but at a minimum, you should follow a few steps:

  1. Create a template for your articles: As we wrote in our Guide to Writing Technical Documentation, the human brain loves structure. Using a template or “schema” ensures your users know where to look for the information they need right away.
  2. Keep content short and use headings to your advantage: Most users will skim your articles looking for the nugget of knowledge that will help them. You can make this easier for them by using plenty of headings and keeping content short and concise.
  3. Make your headlines action-oriented: Put yourself in their shoes. What exactly are they trying to get done?
  4. Use lists and step-by-step instructions: Clarity is key, but so is context. Are you explaining a power user feature? Maybe you don’t need to include all the steps for logging into their account and getting to their preferences. Respect your users’ time.
  5. Define terms and jargon (or don’t use it at all): If you’re in doubt whether your user knows a term, define it for them or point them to another resource.

Remember that your knowledge base is an extension of your brand (to an extent). Whether you’re a polished, professional business tool or a quirky, scrappy startup, feel free to channel some of that character into your knowledge base as long as the answers are still clear, concise, and consistent.

5. Mix it up with videos, case studies, and articles

A knowledge base doesn’t have to just be a collection of help articles. It can serve multiple purposes by including different functions such as:

However you present your knowledge base, it’s important to be as visual as possible. A picture is worth 1,000 words to users who are lost, confused about a feature, or keep coming up against a wall.

The problem is that too many people think they can’t present visuals to users unless they’re perfect. But a knowledge base is all about functionality. An annotated photo, basic walkthrough video, or simple illustration can often be all that’s needed to give your users what they need.

6. Ensure searchability is easy

If your users have a problem, can they find the solution? If not, your knowledge base isn’t doing what it was built to do. As you create more articles and support content, searchability and discoverability will become more important.

This might mean including a search bar in your Help Desk, making your support articles public and searchable on Google and other search engines, or using a table of contents to display information in a logical order.

Of course, the right knowledge management tool goes a long way in making your content easily searchable and updatable. In Planio, you have full control over the structure and hierarchy of your support content so you can find help quickly and let users dig into their exact issue.

Searching the knowledge base in Planio

7. Keep it relevant and updated

No one likes hitting a snag and only being able to find a help article from 2012. You can’t think of your knowledge base as a static document. Instead, it has to be something that changes along with your product, company, and users.

Create an ongoing plan or “shelf life” for your knowledge base articles to make sure they’re being updated or retired on a regular basis.

Think of your knowledge base as an extension of your company’s knowledge management. How do you share and spread the latest information? How and when does your knowledge base come into play during product launches? Having self-serve help articles ready to go before a new feature launches gives your users a better experience and frees up your support team for more pressing issues.

How to write an effective knowledge base article

We’ve already covered the 3Cs of writing great knowledge base articles—keep them clear, concise, and consistent. But what does that look like in practice?

Writing an effective Knowledge Base article

The truth is that what you might think is clear and concise is far from it for your average user (or the type of user accessing your knowledge base). Instead of taking any chances, make sure your content follows these best practices:

If in doubt, just fall back on those 3Cs we keep mentioning. Always ask yourself, is this clear enough? Would someone using your product for the first time understand what you’re telling them? If not, how can you make it clearer?

Helping your users help themselves is a win-win

There’s really no downside to creating a knowledge base for your product. Your users get an in-depth resource to help themselves, and your support team gets a break from handling the same questions and issues over and over.

Even better, setting up a knowledge base is low-hanging fruit. Using a tool like Planio and taking the time to plan, talk to your support team, and work with your knowledge base owner will ensure everyone’s on the same page and you can start seeing the benefits of self-service support in no time.