The Top 3 Help Center Design Patterns And When You Need Them

Whether you’re designing a new help center, or updating an existing one, it’s important to have a solid grasp on common design patterns that are at your disposal.  In this article, we will not only walk you through the three most common help center design patterns, but we will also explain what they mean for you.

Let us know in comments if we missed something and we’ll be sure to update this article accordingly.

Frequently Asked Question (FAQ) List

What is it? A FAQ list is just what the name implies – a list of the most frequently asked questions and their answers.  FAQ lists are usually relatively short (think less than 20 entries) and can be examined rather quickly (a user can find their answer in about 5 minutes).

When should I use it?   A FAQ list’s small size makes it a great fit at the early stages of any product/service.  It’s also a great place to start if you have an existing product and no self-support options.

Knowledge Base (KB)

What is it? A KB is any complex collection of information.  Although a KB can be completely unstructured, they are most useful to the self-support process when they are well organized and thoughtfully structured.  We recommend using categories to create a tree structure and tags to split the content into sets that target different versions, languages, and/or platforms.

When should I use it? KB’s are useful when you need a more complex structure to organize your help.  They are also great when you want to try and optimize the process of finding solutions to the problems that plague your audience.  A KB structure is always a good next step for your help center after you’ve outgrown the limitations of a FAQ list.

The Stack Exchange-Style

What is it? Stack Exchange is a community of sites focused on questions and answers for a variety of topics.  The most popular Stack Exchange community is Stack Overflow, a site where users can ask, or browse, programming-centric questions and their corresponding answers.  Although the content of each site may differ, they all share the following common features:

  • Efficient content searches,
  • Organization by category tags,
  • Organization by groupings (e.g., featured, latest, top-ranked, etc.),
  • A voting system that allows people to rank the quality of a specific question and its responses.

When should I use it? Once your library of content gets past a certain size (think > 30 entries) and a certain complexity (think > 10 categories) you’re going to find that both you and your audience are better served by this model.  It requires a bit more maintenance than the previous patterns but, the amount of effort required will be offset drastically by the amount of time that it saves you.

A Note About Voting And Search

Although both voting and searching are only discussed as part of the last pattern, it bears mentioning that they should be considered as something that can accompany any of the above patterns.  Search-tracking provides you with the ability to see what your audience is searching for and the words they’re using to search for it.  By knowing the “what” and the “how,” you can add new content and tune existing content using the vocabulary of the people you’re trying to help (this is a key component to maximizing the savings that your help center provides you with).

Additionally, if you implement a solution like CrazyEgg or Google’s In-Page Analytics, then you will see whether or not scrolling and clicking precede searching. If people click around and browse before searching, that means either they couldn’t find the content they were looking for fast enough, or they couldn’t find the content at all.

Finally, voting provides you with keen insight into the quality of your content.  If you have a low-rated, frequently viewed entry, it’s probably time to re-work your solution.  On the other hand, if you have a highly-rated, seldom viewed entry, it might be time to re-arrange your layout so that people can find it sooner.

How will I know that I chose the right layout?

Most of us will intuitively pick something that already fits the content we have.  For some of us, there isn’t necessarily one right solution.  For example, at Supportify we currently use both the FAQ list and Knowledge Base patterns.  In the future, we plan on moving our help list to a Stack Exchange-style layout once we have enough entries.

Ultimately your help center should be tailored to best fit your content and the style of customer service that you want to provide.  Experiment with what works for you.  As long a as you’re using a tool like Supportify, it’s never too late (or too hard) to change and go with another pattern.

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