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Chris Chagnon | August 01, 2019

How to Move From Managing a Knowledge Base to Designing Knowledge Experiences

With the focus on shift-left strategies to take our work from higher tier teams and enable resolution at our service desks and through self-service, it is more common than ever to offer our users a self-service portal and knowledge base. This shift from costly escalations to self-help, which we define later on, saves our companies some serious time, money, and resources, but at a potential detriment to our users.

Discover 7 tips for getting knowledge management right for self-service.

But don’t stress! We can help make our users actually enjoy using our self-service solutions, by designing self-service experiences instead.

How Did we Get Here?

Tier-0  support or self-help refers to the set of websites, apps, and tools that we make available to our users usually through a self-service portal. This includes: our service request catalogs, end user accessible knowledge base and FAQs, utilities and applets such as self-service password resets and VPNs, and self-provisioning of our offerings such as access, software, entitlements and inventory.

With DevOps, Agile, Design Thinking, and ITSM frameworks becoming ever-present in our field, we look to a common theme among them all: continual process improvement. All of these frameworks and practices prescribe that we never stop improving the services we deliver. Our tier-0 capabilities have gotten stronger than ever, but there is still room for improvement.

The Current State of Knowledge

Traditional tier-1 service desks enabled a conversation and a bespoke service to be provisioned to our users, and to some, self-service portals can feel lacking in that area.

Current knowledge articles have gotten better, but they suffer from a slew of problems:

  • Static Content - Static articles are very much “what you see is what you get”, meaning a knowledge article that is a collection of headings, paragraphs, and lists. A major issue with this is that static items can quickly become a dead end. This is problematic because, when faced with a dead end, users tend to stop their hunt for information, and contact the service desk.
  • Inconsistencies - Some articles may only include a few short steps to a solution, while others are epics made up of dozens of paragraphs and subheadings. A different tone of voice may also create inconsistencies if written by a service desk staff member, with more user-friendly language, compared to articles full of jargon and technical language. To our end users these inconsistencies can become barriers to not only accessibility of our content, but in finding the correct solution to their issue.
  • IT Narcissism - We tend to write articles filled with jargon that, as technicians and practitioners, we understand, but might get lost in translation for end users. A result of this, sometimes our articles can come off as condescending. We want to help users, but sometimes use language “scolding” them or belittling their efforts through our word choice. This is usually a result of focusing on what we think the user wants, but maybe not directly interacting with the user.

A Shift to Focus on Knowledge Experiences

All of this doom-and-gloom about our current knowledge base doesn’t have to bring down the mood.

We have come so far in enabling self-help, that we can focus on our continual process improvement ideologies to say, “What’s next?” and “How can we make this better?” For the sake of our self-help and knowledge, the answer to those questions is to focus on knowledge experiences.

A “knowledge experience” is the end-to-end experience of your self-help content. In this case, we use experience the same way we use it when we use the terms “service experience” or “user experience”. The field of User Experience (UX) focuses on how users interact with things and how we can better design those experiences to make it easier on the user. Similarly, Service Experience (SX) takes these UX concepts and applies them to making the delivery of a service better. In looking at how we provision a service, we can better understand how our users consume those services, but also what the user’s needs are and how we can better meet them.

Check out this infographic for 3 Ways to Transform your Knowledge Base into Knowledge Experiences

Taking this one step further, a knowledge experience looks at all of the user stories and use cases for our self-service content and applies UX and SX concepts to our portals. This means that we put the user first when designing our portals, articles, and all of our self-help content. By taking a user-first approach we realize that self-help is more than a webpage full of words. A knowledge experience can be static, interactive, or even use “intelligence” in self-help with chatbots and artificial intelligence.

Shift Left by Putting the User First

The user-first approach is important because our shift-left methodologies only work if we can also shift our users. The old cliché of “If you build it, they will come” is true, but in the case of self-service portals, it should be restated as “If you build it poorly, they will come, and leave, and never return”.

A poorly designed self-service experience could jeopardize your tier-0 initiative, because after all, you only get one chance to make a first impression!

Our user’s experience doesn’t start on the last knowledge article they viewed. When designing experiences for our user it is important to understand their experience may start outside of our portal, and carry on to websites that are out of our control—this encompasses the full “self-service experience”.

A UX Journey: A user trying to use a conference room projector may have difficulty getting things up and running, they look for a printed or written instruction but don’t find any in the room. They then google for help, but our lack of focus on SEO has led our search results to be lacking. The user then remembers that the company has an IT intranet and tries to find it through our company’s customer-facing website, several pages in they do finally find a link. They get to our homepage and are ready to search but then…they need to sign in. Once signed in they finally find instructions for using the projector, but it is a plain text article without pictures of the control panel, so the user is feeling unsure. They end up calling IT, who then dispatches a technician to the room.

The above story is an example of what we could miss if we only focus on the articles we have. This particular user’s experience started long before they made it to our website and examining all of these individual touchpoints along their customer journey can present us with numerous opportunities for improvement.

The key to putting the user first is to use empathy. By putting yourself in the user’s shoes you can combat IT narcissism and start designing content that your users will want to use. The simplest way to get started in user-first design is to ask yourself “How will an end user use this, read this, or perceive this?” when creating content. Or simply, “What your users think, feel, do, or say about it?” Finally, the best way to make sure our content works for our users is to meet them where they are. When writing content, it is important to use the language and terminology of the users. For example, we may refer to a piece of software by its official name, but our users use a branded name from our company. When writing about the software, it would be best to include the name the users use.

Read More: 6 Must-Have Capabilities for Your Knowledge Management Tools

How Can you Get Started?

Worried about your existing content? You don’t need to purge your existing knowledge base! The best way to get started with a switch from a static knowledge base to a collection of user-first knowledge experiences is to enhance what you already have.

  • Deliver bite-size knowledge articles by using elements such as headings, tables, and lists that can help create a visual hierarchy in your article, making it easier to consume, and easier to scan. 
  • Provide interactive experiences by using a “wizard” style approach when handling lengthy articles. A wizard shows a different “screen” for each step in a process and makes it easier for the user to maintain their progress and follow along.
  • Offer a visual experience by pursuing opportunities to add multimedia, images, and animations. Keep in mind that images should be a supplement to our articles and should be appropriately captioned and tagged to make sure our content follows accessibility best practices.
  • Keep knowledge “relative” by creating links to related articles, services, requests, and utilities on all of our pages we allow our users to find the content they need, and we can guide them to.
  • Show what’s necessary by providing users with relevant information within the articles, including your software libraries, room and location information, or asset / configuration item information; we can enable them to make more informed decisions.

The switch from a knowledge base to a user-first knowledge experience doesn’t have to be all at once. There is much to be said about not “boiling the ocean” when attempting any continual improvement project, but first you should prioritize.

Focus on improving the knowledge articles that provide the biggest impact and that help solve top IT service desk requests. In the case of knowledge experiences, consider it a periodic improvement that you can always work toward making better. By involving your users, and regularly reviewing your self-service offerings, what seems a monumental task can become much more manageable.

Getting knowledge management right for self-service ebook


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Chris Chagnon

Chris Chagnon is an ITSM application and web developer who designs, develops, and maintains award-winning experiences for managing and carrying out the ITSM process. Chris has a Master of Science in Information Technology, and a bachelor’s degree in Visual Communications. In addition, Chris is a PhD candidate studying Information Systems with a focus on user and service experience. As one of HDI’s Top 25 Thought Leaders, and an ALE IT Vanguard, Chris speaks nationally about the future of ITSM, practical applications of artificial intelligence and machine learning, gamification, continual service improvement, and customer service/experience. Follow Chris on Twitter @Chagn0n.