There are a lot of general tips and standards you can follow to help make your knowledge articles support your readers’ needs. Use simple language, good structures, helpful graphics, a style guide… All of these are great steps towards user-friendly articles. But there are some user needs that are hard to anticipate when you do not know your users well. What menu structure is most intuitive to them? What information do they need to look up most often? What expert vocabulary are they familiar with?
You can make assumptions on these things based on the content and your own role in the team. But there is a chance that you miss the mark. Then you run the risk of spending needless time making something unintuitive for your readers, which will cause frustration. Frustration you could easily avoid by getting in touch with your readers and learning more about their needs. Let’s take a look at how to gather insights on such needs.
Gather insights passively
The most low-effort way for you to gather insights on your users is to let them approach you with feedback. There are multiple ways you can do that, but not all will yield the results you might be looking for.
What stops users from giving you feedback?
First, just because you offer ways of gathering insights, you might still not get the input you are hoping for. This is because different hurdles are holding your users back:
Have you ever found information that seemed wrong or worth optimizing to you, but not reached out to someone that could make the adjustment? Subconsciously, the effort to go to the length of reaching out to the content creator can seem so big – and having to put yourself forward can seem so exhausting – that it holds us back from giving input. Often, the issue has to be truly relevant to us personally or have a very big impact on others for us to consider actually addressing it.
It can therefor help if you give incentive for reaching out. For example, gamification can help by awarding points and expert titles to users that participate a lot. Or public acknowledgement of valuable contributors. Think about how you can make it worth the contributors’ while and make their input feel appreciated.
On the technology side, any tiny extra step on the way to giving input might be the point where a user feels it is too much effort after all. For example, if a contact form asks for more than basic information, users can get frustrated with how many fields they have to fill in. They might even worry for the security of their data and close the form. But even a minor inconvenience like having to open another page can be too much if the user is not strongly determined to get that feedback to you.
That’s why it’s important to make it as fast and easy as possible to give the input. Include as few steps as possible and make them intuitive and straightforward.
Options to passively gather insights
There are a few popular ways to let your users approach you with feedback:
Many knowledge bases offer a central contact point and ways to directly contact the authors of knowledge articles. But during a full workday, an extra email can still be too much work, if it does not seem to offer benefits. To make it more likely for people to contact you via email, try offering a pre-filled mail (e.g., via an adjusted “mailto” link or a mail template), that users only have to insert their actual input into. Though also consider offering a contact form:
A contact form can feel like a lower hurdle than composing an email. That’s because it already gives a structure and limited input options and you don’t have to explain circumstances, add a subject and a greeting, and so on. But make sure to keep the number of mandatory fields as low as possible, both to lower effort and not make your users feel like you want to collect their data for questionable purposes.
Many applications or pages also offer page rating functions, asking users whether they found the content helpful or not. While this can help identify content that need changes, you otherwise will not learn as much from such ratings as you might hope. Even knowing a piece of content got a lot of bad reviews doesn’t necessarily help fix it, as you first have to identify what exactly makes it so bad.
Of course, you could include a short questionnaire to clear up such questions, but this comes at a time expense not many readers are willing to give. (We’ll hear more about questionnaires and how they can be more helpful when we talk about actively gathering insights.)
The comment section offers easier and faster feedback options than email and contact forms. It is less formal than an email and typically right there, underneath the content. A detriment, however, is that (at least with non-anonymous comments) you are putting your comment out there for other readers to see and potentially judge. That can contribute to the mental hurdle for this feedback option.
Out of these options, a good basic combination is to have a comment section and choosing at least one between email or contact form. That way you give options both for speed and ease, as well as for more private ways of contact.
Rating options or optional questionnaires can help gather some overarching user input but tend to give less helpful input and often also a lower return rate overall. Treat this more as a nice-to-have than a must-have.
Limited types of feedback in passive gathering
Now that we’ve considered some ways of passively gathering insights, another issue becomes apparent with this passive approach: Not only are there many things holding users back from giving input in the first place. It is also likely that the input you do get is limited to certain types, as you are depending on a strong enough motivator for a reader to give feedback. Which means something about the content causes a strong enough reaction in the reader to have that motivation. That makes it likely the cause is errors or other inconveniences in the content.
This can of course yield vital input, such as updates, corrections and structural improvement suggestions. And sometimes you might even get information about user behavior. But the latter are likely to be rare cases. That’s because you are missing out on feedback on things that don’t happen to trigger a strong reaction in the user as they are reading.
So, while you should not ignore the value of comments, emails and contact form submissions you might get, you can get a lot more insights by also using active ways to get input.
Gather insights actively
Instead of only relying on your readers approaching you with feedback, why not actively check into their needs? Here are some options to consider for getting to know your readers better:
Questionnaires somewhat fall in the area between passively and actively gathering insights, depending on how you use them. In the most basic form, a page rating is a questionnaire. On the more active end, you might approach your readers directly, asking them to fill in a questionnaire that asks more specific questions on their needs and work habits. Used with more nuance, they can be a valuable tool to gather insights.
If you get many people to contribute, you can even use this to make a representative survey of your users’ needs. But don’t be afraid to start small. Even very few submissions can give you interesting insights. Just be careful to consider that some of it might be outliers and not the needs of the majority of your readers.
Getting participants for questionnaires can be tricky, because they suffer from the same mental and technical hurdles as the methods above. If you can, consider offering an incentive for participating. Also, make sure the questionnaire doesn’t take up too much time, is easy to navigate, and gives participants a good overview on how far into the questionnaire they have progressed. That way you help limit frustration.
User interviews are a great way to get in touch with your users and gather insights, especially when you’re just getting started with looking into their needs. You can ask questions on any number of subjects you’re curious about, with the freedom of flexible follow-ups and allowing the users to bring up topics of their own. Additionally, it can get you in touch with readers you wouldn’t otherwise interact with personally. If you leave a positive impression, it’s a great promotion for your work as a knowledge manager and you’re more likely to get input again from these readers in the future.
One big concern with interviews is that they take a lot of time. But even within fifteen or just five minutes, you can easily gain valuable insights. Plus, you are more likely to get buy-in from the readers if you do not take up a lot of their time or make it feel like a big commitment.
Another concern, like with surveys, is that you need a certain number of participants to get representative results. But you don’t have to conduct a quantitative usability research. Every single participant is someone you can learn from. Again, just keep in mind that some statements might be outliers and not the norm.
Another great way to get and stay in touch with your readers is to set up or join a regular meeting with them. This doesn’t have to be a dedicated meeting for knowledge base decisions but could be any regular meeting you can join.
Ideally, go for meetings that include frequent readers of the knowledge base as well as management, perhaps even owners of process changes. That allows you to gain insights both on the daily work and needs of your readers as well as management needs and process changes that might affect the knowledge base. You will learn a lot that’ll help you improve the documentation, and you have a space to ask questions in if necessary.
Additionally, you are building relations with the other participants of the meeting, giving you reliable points of contact for any future questions. You are also building trust with them, meaning they will be far more likely to reach out to you for any changes needed in the knowledge base, lowering the hurdles to communication we saw with some feedback mechanisms.
Keep gathering insights
Once you have started some of these ways of gathering insights, keep going. The more you learn, the wider your understanding of the processes and user needs will get, revealing more and more opportunities to improve the knowledge base and make it more helpful for your readers. It might completely change the way you approach doing knowledge management in the future.