Greg DeVore

By: Greg DeVore on May 27th, 2015

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What makes a successful self-service article?

Over the last few years it has been interested to see the increased focus on self-service support options. Not too long ago, most knowledge bases looked like a glob of text vommitted out into some sort of wiki. Knowledge bases were ugly and, in most cases, ineffective at helping customers help themselves.

But that is changing. Businesses are investing more and more into their knowledge bases and as a result those knowledge bases are looking much better. But having a knowledge base that looks better doesn't mean that your knowledge base will perform better.

The ultimate goal of a self-service knowledge base is that a customer can:

  1. Find what they need
  2. Successfully follow the instructions in the article to accomplish their desired task.

If a customer can't do those two things then it doesn't matter how ugly or pretty the knowledge base is--it has failed in its primary purpose.

So, let's talk about what makes a successful self-service article. To do that, we need to walk through the process a customer has to go through to successfully use a self-service knowledge base.

1. They have to find it

Search in a knowledge base is obviously a big deal. Most of your customers will search for your knowledge base content. The single most important thing you can do to prepoare your articles for search is to get the title right.

When a customer comes to your knowledge base they have a question. A title that makes it clear what question is being answered will perform better than an article with a very general title.

2. They have to determine if the article applies to them

Once the customer views the article they are instantly in a state of uncertainty. The biggest question they have is, "Will this article tell me exactly how to do what I want to do or will it be a waste of time?"

To really determine whether or not that is true,  the customer is going to have to read a little of the article. In a few seconds they will decide if they want to make the time commitment to the article. They will probably stay if they have good images. 

Adding screenshots and images makes it more likely that they will take that first step. Why? Images are much easier to quickly scan than text. By scanning the images the customer can quickly make an initial assessment as to whether or not the article applies to them and they are more likely to move forward and try to use the article to answer their question.

3. They have to be able to successfully follow the instructions in the article

This would seem obvious, but are you testing for this right now? It isn't enough just to "have an article". Your customers need to be able to successfully implement the instructions in the article. I see a lot of knowledge bases that have a lot of content in them. But the articles aren't easy to follow and many times don't produce successful results.

How are you ensuring that your customers can successfully follow the instructions given in your articles?

(Bonus) 4. They have to feel confident while reading your article

This might seem like a strange requirement. But think about times that you have had to use a help article. What have you been worried about?

  • Am I doing this right?
  • If I get something wrong am I going to mess things up?
  • Is this article current or am I going to be wasting my time reading it?
  • What do they mean when they say...?

All these questions are running through your head as you read. Confusion is not a possitive emotion. The more your article can eliminate these questions the more confident your customers will feel when reading your articles. If they feel confident they will associate using your self-service knowledge base with positve emotions. Those feelings will increase their likelihood of using your knowledge base again as well as affect how they feel about your product and company.

Where are you at?

Perform an assessment of your knowledge base. Is your knowledge base meeting its primary purpose? Is it really helping people help themselves or are there some of these areas where you could improve?

About Greg DeVore

CEO of ScreenSteps