Help Center Planning Guide

Anybody can build a help center; it’s not that complicated. The difficulty lies in actually making your help center useful. Without careful planning and forethought, the only thing that you will end up with is a haphazardly strung together series of text. And, the only results this will provide you with is you and your users/team/customers wasting untold amounts of time.

In order to make it easier for everyone to create the best help centers possible (and reap the benefits), we’ve assembled this guide. In the paragraphs below, you’ll find a list of steps that we’ve extracted from our experience building numerous help centers. These steps are organized in a way that will remove all the surprises from the process and enable you to build help centers that make an impact on both you and your target audience.

1. Why do we want to build a Help Center?

Admittedly, the first time you ask this question of yourself, it’s going to seem a bit redundant. You might even be thinking “I want to build a help center because we need a help center; quit wasting my time!” Stick with me on this.

The problem with creating a help center from scratch, or even starting a new effort to make your current help center better, is that help centers can become the focus of a lot of competing interests. Is this a tool for sales or customer support? Is this something that will make your SEO or your UX better?

Ask yourself the following questions:

  • What problem is your help center truly going to solve?
  • Is solving that problem really important?
  • And, if it is really important, how is having a help center going to be enough to make a difference?

Most likely, you’ll find yourself focusing on supporting the sales team, making onboarding of new customers/team members less challenging, or using your help center as a means to work around User Experience (UX) or workflow inefficiencies.  Regardless of your reasons, knowing the cause of your current pains will grant you the understanding you need in order to know where to focus for your initial batch of content.

Speaking of content…

2. Where does the initial content come from?

Once you’ve decided where to start, you will know everything you need to know about the initial batch of content.  Everything except for where that content is going to be coming from.  A lot of times, people just sit down and start writing without regard to existing sources of content; this is a bad idea.  Not only does it waste time, but the result is something that will invariably not connect with your users.

Take a look at your current workflow.  Think about some of the following and how they might be used as initial content:

  • Trouble ticket questions and answers.
  • E-mail conversations.
  • Phone call/meeting notes.
  • Existing best-practice documents.

Not only are all of these surprising sources of content for your help center, but they’re also already written!  Even better, they’re written using the terms and vocabulary that your audience is familiar with; thus making it easier for your audience to connect with your content.

3. What does the Help Center content look and feel like?

Most likely, your natural tendency when working on your help center is just to pick a style and start adding content.  The fact is, before you can even know what style(s) you’re going to be using, you need to be able to describe the content that goes into it.  This step forces you to think about and consider the commonalities that exist within your content so that you can accurately choose the patterns that most closely matches your needs.

Simply take a look at the content that you’ve gathered for your help center, and ask yourself the following questions:

  • Are these entries short and to the point?
  • Are they longer more in-depth explorations of topics?
  • Do you have a bunch of entries or just a few?
  • Are the text entries going to be accompanied by any rich media like audio or video?

Rather than going into the rules here, check out our guide to help center design patterns and review the rules and recommendations for what layout is best for your content.

4. Does the content need to be versioned or platform-dependent?

Although this could be combined with the analysis from the previous step, in our experience, it has been important to separate this question out.  While the previous question/analysis forces you to think about a single help center, this question allows you to turn your focus to how many different instances of your help center you’re going to need.

Up until this point, you may have only been thinking that there is just a single help center.  Ask yourself the following questions and see if you retain the same level of certainty:

  • Are there different versions of your product/workflow that require different answers to the same questions?
  • How many different languages do the members of your target audience speak?
  • How many different platforms does your product/team deal with?

Most likely, you will find that you will need more than one version of the help center.  We recommend using a tool like Supportify that makes it easy to tag and filter content for display to your users.  This way, a multi-language, multi-platform (e.g., mobile and the web), or multi-device (e.g., Android and iOS) help center is a trivial task to create and manage.

Another alternative is to manage different help center instances/implementations.  Either way, it’s important to stay focused on the needs of your users and to meet them on their terms.

5. What does the reverse timeline look like?

Now that you’ve done the work of figuring out why you’re working on the help center, what is going to be in it, how it’s going to be arranged, and whether or not it needs multiple flavors, it’s time to move on to some more practical matters: how long is it going to take to make this happen?

Although Supportify is a SaaS product with a variety of libraries that make implementation quick and efficient, not every product is like that.  As a result, we’ve found that the following questions are important to keep in mind whether you’re revising your existing help center, or adding a new one:

  • Who are the stakeholders, aside from yourself, that need to be involved in this process?
  • Are there any technical/governance standards that your new help center needs to meet?
  • Who is going to be implementing the help center?  If they’re an internal team member, what does their backlog of work look like?
  • Is budget approval required for the subscription fees (or licenses) and/or implementation cost?  If not, how long will budget approval take?

DISCLAIMER: We might have stretched the truth on this one – this list isn’t just unique to help center planning.  After years or working in the technology field as consultants, product builders, and even code monkies, we’ve found that this set of questions is of crucial importance whenever you’re embarking on a new implementation effort.

Once you’ve got the answers to these questions, the path to a successful implementation of your new/revised help center is guaranteed to be much more problem free.

6. Is an approval workflow going to be necessary?

We understand that sometimes content has to go through an approval process.  In certain industries, legal or other regulatory approvals may be necessary before content can be published/distributed.  However, as we’ve mentioned before, if you can find a way to avoid an approval workflow, then you really should make it happen.

The reality is that any delay in your publishing process will make your organization unresponsive.  Additionally, the added process will create additional cost and decrease the value proposition behind using a help center in the first place (let alone one that comes with automation bundled in like Supportify).

7. How frequent is it going to be updated?

Agile content is king.

Changing products, maturing processes, and growing teams/customer bases all require continual adaptation.  If your content doesn’t keep the pace with this adaptation, then how can it truly be relied upon to reduce the load on your support team?

Ask yourself the following questions when thinking about update schedules:

  • How often will your product be changing?  Are you releasing new features every day?
  • Does your help center software come with the ability to create content from e-mails or trouble ticket responses?
  • Can your help center content be instantaneously updated?  Or, does it require a regular publishing workflow?
  • Who has available time to groom existing comment and review help center analytics?

All of these questions will enable you and your team to understand and plan for the on-going commitment that your help center will require.

That’s it!

We hope that this list has been helpful.  Think that there are other questions to consider when building a help center? Or, maybe your experience differs from how we’ve helped customers build content? Shoot us a message, send us a tweet,  or leave us a comment below, and we’ll include your ideas.