How we chose a knowledge base product for our start up

This week we decided to add a knowledge base for our users and spent a considerable amount of time assessing the leading vendors that are focused on growing new businesses like our own.

We thought it might be useful to share our process in the hope that it might save some similar companies a bit of time. Nickelled is a next-gen interactive guide product so we spend a lot of time working with our customers' knowledge bases so this might give us a little more insight but we really we are just like any other business looking to build a better resource for our customers. But we did have come specific reasons for starting this selection process.

First, we're huge fans of self-service support at Nickelled. A recent Forrester report found that in 2014, FAQs and knowledge bases took over phone support as the most used support channel by consumers. Frankly it was looking a bit weird as company involved in driving customer education did not have one.

Secondly, James Gill (of GoSquared) recently eloquently blogged about customer service marketing. Another topic close to our hearts. In essence, don't simply think of your support resources as aids for lost customers (reactive customer support): great self-service resources prevent future customer problems through education (proactive customer support), they help drive inbound links and traffic (Google juice) and answer prospective customers questions (sales).

Thirdly, our own next-gen interactive guide service works amazingly well with knowledge bases and we wanted to show that off. For example, one way that Gumtree has been using Nickelled is adding guide widgets to their FAQ pages. Here's an example widget below...

So we had a crystal clear use case – and like any good SaaS company should we were on our way to building our own knowledge base. What we didn't have was a product selected so we decided to lay out our requirements.

Knowledge base checklist for start-ups

We're big on trackable customer support. It's an area that we spend a lot of time honing in our own product. How can you possibly improve what you're not tracking? So we track everything. For us, as a minimum we'd need some level of basic analytics within the tool we use but it would be ace if the knowledge base had Google Analytics integration.

We wanted our knowledge base to exist at help.nickelled.com so a custom domain is essential. Something easy to remember for ourselves and for our customers.

From talking to our own customers, one of their biggest pain points is keeping customer documentation upto date with your software. The software that we select must be easy to use and quick to learn and update. A WYSIWYG editor is a must, non-technical people should be able to update pages in a heart beat.

Simple customization and branding is all we need: logo upload and changing branding colours is about all we're looking for.

Our Nickelled guide widgets exist as iframes, every guide you create has a widget. Our knowledge base must be able to support additional media (other than text): hyperlinks, images, iframes etc.

How we selected from the leading SaaS knowledge base vendors

We quickly zoned in on what peers and the Internet told us were the 4 major SaaS knowledge base providers for small businesses:

We took a look at each in turn to evaluate if they met our requirements.

Although each of these support products offer knowledge bases, it's not their core focus. Zendesk for example is a huge platform: live chat (through Zopim chat), email support, phone integration AND knowledge base and we only need a tiny little piece of it.

Here are our summary conclusions on each...

Zendesk

Zendesk promises better customer support through better customer relationships – sounds great on the surface. As a whole, the Zendesk platform is comprehensive and continually growing as more apps sign up to the ecosystem.

Upon signing up and being greeted by a lovely interactive guide (nice one Zendesk!), the knowledge base tools were easy to find.

Getting a theme setup with some simple customizations (logo, favicon, branding colours) was a breeze. The trouble came when adding content. Zendesk relies on an information structure of 'Category > Section > Article' which is impossible to break. Your content exists within an article but you must develop sections and categories before you can build an article. There is an additional 'Arrange content' page, which seems like a logical place to let you edit your content from.

The theme I had chosen had made it difficult to navigate to some of the sections to remove – I didn't want the default sections within our help center. All these little complications had me chasing my tail when developing the Zendesk knowledge base.

Desk.com

Desk.com was fairly easy to setup although the knowledge base features take are definitely a secondary considersation for the Desk.com team – the management of articles was good but hidden under layers of navigation. The customization options were comprehensive allowing companies to develop their own themes. Unfortunately it didn't support iframe media out-of-the-box which limits our use of Nickelled widgets within knowledge base articles – maybe there is a way to get this activated?

Groove

With Groove we had our first knowledge base article up in minutes. It felt like the easiest to create and manage content, certainly the quickest! GrooveHQ has the ability to create articles in markdown – a very nice feature for more technical teams.

The knowledge base has good viewing data too, plus I was also assured that Google Analytics integration is on the way.

Freshdesk

Freshdesk was extremely customizable. They allow you to build your own 'FreshTheme' using variable placeholders for your content. Above and beyond our needs but potentially valuable for future help desk iterations.

Groove's simplicity wins the knowledge base selection race

We just want a knowledge base! Unfortunately I was unable to find a product that just allowed us to create organised, searchable articles without a comprehensive email management system alongside it.

We ultimately decided on Groove. It was the quickest to get content up and easiest to create an initial information structure.

But hey, maybe we'll use all those support email management features one day.

How we decided on what content to put in our knowledge base

Our initial content is based on regular queries and content we already distribute: FAQs, getting start guides etc. Our content is (for the time being) a little thin on the ground but that's the beauty with the technology we've chosen: we can easily add to it as queries come in.

Next time we get a query to do X, we can create a Nickelled guide, place a widget in a knowledge base article and send it our customer. Then the guide is in our knowledge base allowing future customers to solve the same problem.

Our knowledge base and guide tracking and analytics will let us determine where customers have problems in our application. Providing valuable data for our product design team to learn from – potentially building in permanent fixes.

Longer term we'll be seeking to conduct usability testing and user research to ensure the content we're providing is accessible to customers. Similarly the data we collect will give us a picture about which content is being used and which is not: allowing us to remove unused content keeping the knowledge base succint and highly useful.

How we decided on the look/feel of our knowledge

To date, we've done little to change the appearance of our new help desk. Simply, adding a logo, updating the header to resemble our self-developed web app. We plan on adding some popular Nickelled guides to the front page to help confused customers faster.

Lessons we learned in selecting our knowledge base

Selecting a knowledge base is not plain sailing, unfortunately the products we tested do not offer standalone knowledge bases and we had to settle for slightly bloated software (for our requirements).

Before selecting, consider your customer support requirements and the integration possibilities between knowledge base and alternative support channels.

Groove is our knowledge base CMS for the time being. You can check out our new knowledge base here.

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