In the digital age, organizations create and use a lot of information to run their business, so a well-structured knowledge base is a vital tool for success. It serves as a repository of information, fostering collaboration, enhancing productivity, and driving innovation. But how do you write the perfect knowledge base article? Here are some insights.
Understanding the knowledge base
What are knowledge base articles?
Knowledge base articles are informational documents that answer your common questions, explain how to solve your problems, or educate you about a specific topic. They are part of an organization’s overall knowledge management system, and may contain proprietary information.
Knowledge base articles can cover a wide range of topics, such as:
- How-to guides: These articles provide step-by-step instructions on how to perform a specific task.
- FAQs: These articles answer frequently asked questions about a product, service, or topic.
- Troubleshooting guides: These articles help you diagnose and solve problems.
- Concept explanations: These articles explain complex concepts in an easy-to-understand way.
These articles let you find answers on your own so you don’t bother your colleagues or search fruitlessly in multiple tools. They are a key component of digital transformation and improve developer satisfaction and efficiency.
The significance of effective knowledge base articles
A well-tended and considered set of knowledge base articles can support the long-term success of an organization. They help employees at every step:
- Efficiency and productivity: You can find the information they need quickly and easily, without having to interrupt their colleagues or wait for responses. Considering how much time is lost from context switching—20 minutes or more per interruption—this can improve the speed in which you get things done.
- Training and onboarding: New employees can use the knowledge base to get up to speed on company procedures, products, and services. By the time they start their first project, they’ll know enough to contribute effectively.
- Knowledge retention: When employees leave the company, they often take their knowledge with them. By documenting this knowledge in a knowledge base, organizations can ensure that it stays within the company.
Without a knowledge base, all of these happen manually, if at all.
Planning your knowledge base articles
Identify your audience
Understanding who you want to read your article helps tailor the content to meet the needs and understanding level of those readers. An article intended for developers will look different from one intended for your marketing team. Ensure that your article assumes the right level of knowledge: assume too much and your reader will be lost; too little and the reader will be bored or have difficulty finding the information that they need.
Look at the questions you receive on a daily basis. What information could you put into a knowledge base article to head these questions off before they’re asked? Even better, use those questions and your answers as the basis for knowledge base articles.
Consider your own journey at your organization. What did you not know? Were there various steps to achieve your current understanding? This can help you identify when they might need help and what kind of help they might need.
Set clear objectives
A clear sense of what any article should do effectively addresses the needs of your audience. The best way to do this is to structure articles around questions and answers. This way, the objective of any article is clear: answer the question posed at the beginning. For example, if the article is prompted by the question “How do I reset my password?” the reader should be able to reset their password after reading it.
Break down the solution into a series of steps that the user can follow. Each step should be clear and concise, and should lead the user closer to achieving the objective. Include pitfalls, caveats, and additional information that may assist the reader in their objectives.
After writing the article, test it to see if you can achieve the objective with just that information. Better yet, have a feedback mechanism as part of your platform (more below).
Structuring your knowledge base articles
Craft clear titles and headings
Headers and titles guide the reader through the content and make it easier to understand, so make sure that they are specific and descriptive. Break up your article with subheadings so readers can jump to the information that meets their needs best. The title should clearly indicate what the article is about and the question that it answers. Include keywords that indicate the most important concepts and make it easy to locate through search.
There’s a limit to being descriptive. Try to keep your titles and headers concise to avoid overwhelming readers. Use action words that indicate the objective of the whole and of each section. Unless the article is very technical and requires it, avoid jargon.
Use a consistent format
The structure of your knowledge base article plays a crucial role in its effectiveness. The question and answer (Q&A) format is intuitive and mirrors the natural way people seek information.
By focusing a knowledge base article on a narrow question, Q&A lets users quickly locate the specific information they need. Because of this narrow focus, it encourages clear, concise answers, avoiding confusion and ensuring the information provided is direct. Anyone who has the same question needs not ask it again; they can just reuse the knowledge provided in the article.
As anyone who has talked to children knows, a single answer isn’t always enough to satisfy someone’s need for knowledge. It’s important for a knowledge base to encourage interaction and engagement—clarifying questions, corrections, and other feedback—to foster a collaborative learning environment.
Writing high-quality content
Keep it concise and to the point
Writing concise knowledge base articles is key to ensuring that your users can quickly and easily find the information they need. If you’re trying to save your co-workers time, don’t waste their time with flowery language.
Avoid unnecessary introductions and get right to the information that the user needs. This isn’t an online recipe; cut to the chase. Use simple, plain language that your users will understand. Consider whether jargon is appropriate: it may exclude some readers, while domain-specific readers will appreciate that it encapsulates a complex idea in a word or two. Use short paragraphs, bullet points, and numbered lists to break up the text and make it easier to read.
While keeping your topic narrow is good, narrowing the scope of the entire knowledge base is not. A Q&A format is versatile, accommodating a wide range of topics, and flexible, allowing for updates as new questions arise. It allows for knowledge seekers to initiate requests for knowledge instead of waiting for your SMEs to write something new.
Incorporate visuals and multimedia
Including visuals like images, charts, and diagrams in your knowledge base articles can greatly enhance their effectiveness. Visuals can often convey information more clearly and quickly than text alone. They can help to explain complex concepts, illustrate steps in a process, or highlight important information.
Remember, it's important that any visuals you use are clear, relevant, and of high quality. Poorly chosen or low-quality visuals can confuse readers or give a bad impression of your content.
Making knowledge base articles searchable
Use keywords effectively
Effective keyword usage plays a crucial role in improving the discoverability of a knowledge base article. Many knowledge bases have a keyword search function. By including keywords that your users are likely to search for, you can ensure that your articles appear in these internal search results.
Keywords can help users quickly understand what an article is about. By including keywords in your titles, headers, and early in your content, you can help users decide whether an article is relevant to their needs. Keywords can also help in categorizing and tagging articles within the knowledge base, making it easier for users to find related content.
To make the most of keywords, it's important to understand what terms your users are likely to search for. This might involve researching common questions or problems, analyzing search data, or talking directly to users. Remember, keyword stuffing (overusing keywords in an attempt to manipulate search rankings) can lead to a poor user experience and may be penalized by search engines, so it's important to use keywords naturally and in a way that adds value for the user.
Tag your articles
Tags and categories are essential tools for organizing a knowledge base. They can be used to indicate key concepts, technologies, and features/products/services. An article can have multiple tags, and the same tag can be used across multiple articles. Users can then click on a tag to see all articles that have been tagged with that term.
Tags improve the discoverability of articles within your knowledge base. They allow users to browse articles by topic or feature, rather than having to search or scroll through a long list of articles. They also help in creating a more structured and organized knowledge base, making it easier for users to navigate and find the information they need.
Keeping knowledge base articles up to date
Regularly review and maintain articles
Regularly reviewing and updating your knowledge base articles keeps the information accurate and relevant. Over time, information can become outdated or incorrect. As your products or services evolve, so does the information about them.
Regular updates can ensure that your articles continue to address the current state of the organization. Outdated information can frustrate readers and put them off the whole knowledge base and send them back to your chat platform. By regularly returning to and testing older articles, you can identify and fix any issues with the usability of your articles, such as broken links, unclear instructions, or poor formatting.
To make the review process easier, consider setting a regular schedule for updates (e.g., every six months) and using analytics to identify which articles are most viewed or receive the most feedback. This can help you prioritize your updates and ensure that your knowledge base remains a valuable resource for your users. Even better is using a platform that will automatically trigger these reviews, so older articles don’t get ignored and grow stale. We all know the feeling: “Who forgot to update the Wiki?”
Encourage user feedback
Alongside regular reviews, implementing a feedback mechanism can ensure the quality of your articles. Readers are the best judge of how well your content is meeting their needs and where improvements can be made.
A good knowledge base platform should include a feedback mechanism as part of its platform. Perhaps this is a contact form, perhaps you could let readers edit articles directly, perhaps you could have comments and related answers. When users do provide feedback, make sure to respond. This shows users that their feedback is valued and encourages them to continue providing it.
Remember, the goal of collecting feedback is to improve your knowledge base. Be open to criticism, and use the feedback you receive to make your articles more helpful, accurate, and user-friendly.
Providing clear navigation and cross-linking
While you may be tempted to apply a rigid structure and table of contents on your knowledge base, most users have specific informational needs. Focus on providing good search results. Search allows users to quickly find the information they need without having to navigate through multiple pages or categories.
There are two styles of search: lexical and semantic. Lexical tries to match keywords in your query in order to identify the best results. Semantic search uses AI techniques to find articles that are closest to the meaning of your search. You can use a combination of both in your knowledge base.
As an added bonus, an internal search engine will show you what readers are looking for and which articles are getting the most attention.
Cross-linking related articles
By including good cross-article links, you’ll increase your chance of both your article finding the right reader and readers finding the information that they need. There are several strategies you can use to provide clear navigation and cross-linking in your knowledge base:
- Tags: As mentioned earlier, tags can be used to group related articles together. Users can click on a category or tag to see all the articles related to that topic.
- Search: A robust search function is crucial for helping users find the information they need. Make sure your search function is easy to find and use, and that it returns relevant results.
- Related articles: At the end of each article, you can provide links to related articles. This can help users find more information on the same topic without having to go back to the main page or use the search function.
- Internal links: Within your articles, link to other relevant articles. This can help users navigate to more detailed information on a particular topic.
The more internal navigation you can provide your readers, the better chance they’ll find what they need.
Stack Overflow: Helping craft effective knowledge base articles
We’ve created Stack Overflow for Teams based on the world’s most used developer question and answer site, Stack Overflow. Our knowledge base solution lets you follow the best practices for creating effective knowledge base articles and maximize knowledge reuse in your organization.
If you’re looking to improve your organization’s knowledge management practices, you can get started with the free version here.