Creating a Knowledge Base from Scratch – How to Plan the Technical Documentation You'll Need

11 min read

So you’re considering building a knowledge base for your company. This can be a huge task, but when done well, can reap huge rewards.

Essentially, the knowledge base is the support system for your customers. It helps them be successful with your products or services, ensuring they want to continue buying, leaving great reviews, and recommending to their friends. At its core, a knowledge base is a hub of kb articles informing customers on everything from purchase and setup to advanced skills and troubleshooting. Depending on how many products or services you offer, this could wind up being hundreds of articles.

But don’t feel intimated by the thought of writing that much content. Because with proper planning, you can slowly evolve the content at your own pace.

But what does it mean to “start from scratch?”

Many companies already have a knowledge base or list of content on their site that they can work with. But often, startups have essentially zero technical documentation available to their customers. This is usually because beginning companies allocate more resources toward development, sales, and marketing. This forces them to handle customer support on a one-on-one basis. This is ok at first when dealing with only a few customers, but once your company gains traction and more customers need support, you need a more scalable way to help everyone without making phone calls with each customer. That’s where a knowledge base comes in.  

But how can I tackle planning all of the technical documentation I will need? In this blog, we will cover seven simple steps to get your knowledge base started.

Step 1: Research top contact drivers & plan the content you need

The first step to creating your knowledge base is planning what content you will need to cover. Essentially, your knowledge base should cover these bases:

  • Your products and services: List out everything your business sells, including past models, current models, subscription services, apps, software, or anything else.
  • Your features: Now, what features do these products or services offer? While you don’t need to list out every single detail, start by jotting down the main features and functionalities of each of your products and services. Think about the different ways you market these products. Are you advertising that your tablet has a fingerprint ID? If so, that’s a feature that customers will need a kb article on. Try creating a tree with all of your products then branch out the top features of each.
  • Account management: If you offer any online services or apps, aside from your products, your customers will also need to understand some basic things like creating an account, changing passwords, updating email and contact info, etc. List out these outliers to make sure you cover every base.
  • Audience needs: Finally, once you have all of the products, features, and account details listed out, it’s time to consider your audience levels. Do you support customers, partners, dealers, or installers? Do these groups of people need different information? Maybe you support different advancement levels or have subscription tiers and want to offer content for each. List out all of your audiences as well as the different sorts of content they may each need.
Plan the content you will need for your technical documentation knowledge base for any audience

Define your top contact drivers

Now, in order to properly cover each of those bases, it’s important to analyze your top content drivers. By doing so, you can climb into your customers' heads and better understand what they often need. Here are a few ways you can understand how your customers think:

  • Support tickets: Analyze your frequent support tickets to see what customers often have trouble with and ask questions about.
  • Search queries: Check out the site search terms that pop up first when you Google your company or product. Consider using a keyword tool as well. If customers frequently google a question about your product, it’s important to answer that with a kb article.
  • Reviews: Check product reviews to see common reasons customers leave poor reviews. If it’s a simple question or feature they struggle with, make sure you prevent it from occurring again by adding it to your planned content list.  
  • Feedback: If you already have feedback forms in place, go ahead and check through your responses and make note of any common questions that arise.
  • Surveys: Try sending out a survey asking customers what they struggle with most. Or ask what they would like to see in new support content.
  • Interviews: Pick a few customers to have a conversation with. Ask them about their experiences with your products including the purchase and setup process, any troubleshooting, problems they’ve experienced, or times they’ve needed to contact support.

You may unearth a lot of questions you need to answer, but it’s important to first focus on the most common ones. A good rule of thumb is to pick the top 20% of questions that make up an 80% volume in support tickets. These are your MVPs.

Step 2: Plan your content structure

Now that you’ve listed out all of the content you will need to cover, it’s time to make some sense of this. The list may feel quite overwhelming, but breaking it into manageable chunks can help you learn how to get started.

The first thing you should do is decide how you want to organize the knowledge base as a whole. Do you want kb articles to be broken up by your products? Maybe they’re broken up by topic, like getting started or troubleshooting. You could even divide them by audience type. Or you could do all three of these things and let your visitors choose which route is easiest for them using different filter options surrounding the content.

Regardless, you will want to begin grouping article ideas into these main categories: product, topic/process, and audience. If you support multiple brands, regions, or languages, keep in mind your content may also differ across these dimensions as well.

Plan your product knowledge content structure around brands and processes

Consider using tools like Trello, AirTable, Jira, or the ServiceTarget Matrix to organize your content across multiple dimensions. You can also use these tools to establish progress tracking to monitor which articles have been drafted, what’s under review, publish status, and more. We will talk about this process in more depth in the next section.

Step 3: Identify subject matter experts

Writing an entire technical documentation knowledge base by yourself is a huge task. Odds are, you have other writers or content creators on your team who can help. Or, you may even have your development team or product managers pitch in as well. Sometimes, it can be especially helpful to get people from the product-end of the business to contribute to super-technical or advanced topics your writers may not understand.

But, it’s important to nail down an effective process for creating content across a team. You don’t want inconsistent content, but that is hard when there are multiple writers. And, you don’t want team members accidentally re-writing things that are already complete.

To keep the writing process efficient & consistent:

  1. First, evaluate and assign your team. Decide who will be content writers, who will do research, who will bullet point ideas, who will polish the writing, who will create images, and who will review. In some cases, this might all be one person, or it might be an assembly line team of employees who each serve a different function.
  2. Nail down the process. It’s important to create a system for planning, writing, and finalizing content ahead of time. Determine where you will track content statuses and how different articles should progress. A standard process might be: Planned → Researched → Outlined → Drafting → Final drafting → Adding media → Needs Review → Published.
  3. Streamline communication. Decide how you will communicate, edit, and revise articles. Will you use commenting within the article, will you email each other notes, can you keep track of edits within the same system that you are tracking all of your articles? Regardless of how you communicate, it’s important that you have a consistent way of doing so.
  4. Create a style guide. Now before sending off your team, it’s important that they all write articles in a similar way. This includes everything from the article structure and design to tone, voice, and even particular language and grammar usage. Not only should you choose a preferred style, like MLA, AP, APA, Chicago, etc. but you should also be sure to personalize these rules to your own business. Are there certain words employees should never use? Do you capitalize product and feature names? How do you handle internal linking? What fonts, colors, and sizes are acceptable? Be sure to cover every scenario necessary in your style guide so writers can easily refer back to it when creating a document. For more information, read our blog about creating a style guide.

Step 4: Perform a content audit on your product knowledge materials

Now, just because you’re starting from scratch doesn’t mean you’re literally starting with nothing. Odds are you have tons of helpful information surrounding your products and services that are either for internal eyes only, hard copies, or maybe were tailored to a specific customer.

This might include:

  • Product manuals
  • PDFs
  • Product development documentation
  • Recorded training videos
  • Troubleshooting or setup emails
  • FAQs
  • Product/service specs, images, and details
  • Any content stored across external platforms, like:
Perform content audit on all of your existing product knowledge and technical documentation sources

Now you shouldn’t just copy and paste this content into a kb article and call it a day. But all of this can still be useful in the research and writing process. It can also help you gauge how much you really have versus what you will need. So before you waste time re-writing content you have, it’s important to discover the knowledge your company has already curated. Then, consider creating a spreadsheet, jot titles down in your notes, or collect URLs all in one folder for easy access when you start writing.

Step 5: Make it more discoverable using knowledge base tools

Technical documentation is only helpful if your customers can find it. Posting huge lists of kb articles on your site with no organization or search functions will often intimidate customers. No one wants to spend hours scrolling through article titles to find the one they need. And you don’t want all of this work to go to waste.

The best way to make your content easier to find is by implementing a knowledge base. This aggregates all of your articles into a single hub that customers can sort and filter through. But building this successfully on your own is not an easy task.

Luckily, there are tons of knowledge base tools that can get you started with a simple template. Then, you can just upload all of your articles as well as how you want the content to be broken up. And voila, you now have a knowledge base that is searchable and easy for customers to navigate through to find all of their answers.

When shopping for a knowledge base tool, consider the following features you may need:

  • Intelligent search tool
  • Import, export, and integration capabilities
  • Team collaboration functions (comments, edits, etc.)
  • FAQs and featured articles
  • Article categorization
  • Integrated contact options
  • Easy publishing process
  • Article analytics & reporting
  • Maintenance and up-keep needs

Some knowledge base software solutions, like ServiceTarget’s knowledge base templates, can even guide customers through targeted questions and do the searching for them. For example, you could ask your customer what product they own, what feature they need help with, and what audience they associate with and instantly aggregate the perfect list of articles for their needs.

Servicetarget knowledge base tools allow you to easily aggregate technical documentation into kb guides
Example of ServiceTarget Knowledge Base

Step 6: Write & publish kb articles

Great, now you are finally ready to start writing! But where exactly should you start? You could potentially have quite the large list of articles, maybe even hundreds. But you don’t want to spend years writing every single article before you can release the knowledge base.

1: Start with the lowest hanging fruit

Instead, you should cover some of the most important topics. Select the common processes that your customers must complete, popular products, and the necessary features. These are all of the topics that customers need to learn about most often.

Rather than writing every single article you can think of about a single, outdated product, begin with the lowest hanging fruit. Pick a handful of the most important questions your customers need answers to and start there. Then, you can go ahead and publish before all of your content is even complete.

2: Continue building knowledge-centered support materials

Now that the most common topics are covered, continue working down the list. Hit your critical items first then move on to the less common features, outdated products, or super-advanced topics.

Depending on how many articles you have planned and how many writers are on your team, this process could take months or even years. But that is ok because the most important content is already out there, helping your customers.

Read our article on writing a KB article to learn more tips on authoring successful content.

Step 7: Continue evolving

Creating a knowledge base and writing technical content is an ongoing process. Even if you’ve written everything on your list, it is still never going to be “complete.” Your company is always evolving, products change, customer needs change, even the market changes. So your documentation must evolve as well.  

Here are some different ways you should always consider evolving your technical documentation:

  • Update content if products are updated. This is especially important with online services, apps, or software that often experience UI changes as the software is updated. Your old articles may need new images or instructions to match current screens.
  • Add content as you release new products or product features.
  • Continue writing content surrounding more advanced and technical details.
  • Plan new content to answer any additional questions you are receiving from customers.
  • Add some surveys, reviews, or comment sections at the bottom of your articles so customers can rate how effective the content is. Then focus on improving any articles with low scores or negative feedback. Or, send surveys that ask your customers what content they would like to see.
Gather guide feedback to continue evolving kb guides technical documentation content
  • Go back through current content regularly with fresh eyes to improve the writing style when you can. Consider trimming extraneous words, adding more personality to your tone, or including new ideas for tips and tricks.
  • Work on linking content together to make everything more discoverable. And be sure to update these internal links whenever you add a new article.
  • Update your knowledge management system to be more interactive and helpful as needs evolve.

Now that you’re prepared to build your knowledge base from scratch, learn about the 6 steps to writing a kb article and check out some examples of effective technical documentation content!

David Hayden
Software entrepreneur who enjoys building products that empower business people to create and evolve enterprise applications without code.

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