How to Structure a Help Center for a Better Customer Experience
In today’s online-centric world, providing a way for your customers to find information and solve problems themselves is vital.
This is true regardless of the industry you’re in: 75% of consumers say that self-service is a convenient way for them to address customer service issues.
Robust and well-structured help centers (also sometimes called knowledge bases) are a huge component of any self-service strategy. This insight is grounded in feedback from customers themselves: 91% say they’d use a help center “if it was available and tailored to their needs.” And 47% of consumers say they always search for information first before contacting customer service, so help centers play a key role in ticket deflection as well.
What does it mean to have a well-structured help center? When we’re talking about help centers, structure refers to how you both organize and present information to your customers, through logical architecture like categories, sections, guides, and articles. It also refers to how customers find that information in your help center, such as by searching using phrases, keywords, and tags.
This is where deeply understanding both your own product and your customers becomes crucial, because a help center structure that works for, say, developers trying to figure out how to create an integration with an app likely won’t work for customers needing to figure out what size shoe to buy from an online store.
Understanding what your audience needs from your help center
Before you can decide on the right structure for your help center, you must understand the specific needs and expectations of your customer base. You need to know their shared pain points and questions as they use your product.
I’d like to say that there’s an easy shortcut to figuring this out, but honestly: the best way to understand your customer’s needs is to be a customer yourself. Understand and use your product or service inside and out, in the same way you’d expect your customers to use it.
If you’ve already got a help center in place and you’re looking to improve it, tools like Help Center Analytics can show you exactly how your customers are engaging with your content. You can also find other insights from mining your support tickets for customer feedback and sentiment,
But nothing beats getting closer to your customers.
If, as from the example above, your primary audience is developers, go through the process of building an integration with your app. What blocks you? What information is readily available in your product, and what do you have to go searching for? Keep a running list of places where you get bogged down in your product and the questions that you need answered in order to have as pain-free an experience with your product as possible.
If instead you’re a shoe company, pick a sample of shoes that you sell and go through the process of researching and buying them. Is it clear what size shoe you should buy? Is it clear how long it will take for them to be shipped? What’s your refund policy? Again, keep a list of information that, if not addressed on the product page itself, your customers would otherwise naturally go looking for in a help center.
Regardless of your industry, the list you come up with will serve as the foundational outline for the content that needs to make up your help center. Once you have a clearer understanding of what your customers need to know in order to be successful with your product, you can begin to determine the best way to present that information to them.
The different types of documentation
This isn’t structure, I hear you saying – but in a way, it is.
As I mentioned above, how you structure your help center will depend on what your product is and what kind of information your customers need. It’s usually easiest to start by determining the type of documentation you’ll be writing, and then deciding how to organize it in your help center.
Here are the common types of documentation you’ll find in knowledge bases:
How-tos. How-tos are goal-oriented; in other words, they help users figure out how to accomplish something they need to do. How-to guides can be technical (such as explaining how to integrate with an app) or non-technical (such as explaining how to order shoes) and can come in the form of an article (a how-to that covers one topic or question) or a guide (a how-to that covers several related topics or questions).
Tutorials. Tutorials are learning-oriented. Tutorials are similar to How-tos, but whereas how-tos are geared toward helping users complete a specific task, tutorials help users learn about something. Tutorials may teach users about a specific topic (such as how to determine your ideal shoe size for any shoe), or it might teach about systems or concepts (such as learning python generally to create an integration). As with how-tos, Tutorials can be technical or non-technical and come in the form of an article or a guide.
Explanations. Explanations are understanding-oriented. You can think of these as deep-dives into a particular subject, meant to give users a more complete grasp of the whys and hows of that subject. Again, explanations can be technical (such as why a company chose python as its language and how that’s impacted overall development of their app) or non-technical (such as why a brand makes their shoes with vegan leather and how that affects care and maintenance of the shoe). Explanations most often come in the form of a guide or a blog post.
Reference. Reference docs are information-oriented; they describe or define the facts and basics of a topic, system, or product. You’re likely sensing a theme at this point: reference docs can be technical (such as API documentation) or non-technical (such as the specific features and measurements of a shoe) and usually have their own specific but consistent format (think a wiki or dictionary entry, or the structure of API documentation).
If you know your help center is going to primarily feature how-tos and tutorials, then you can choose a structure that categorizes similar topics together into sections and then articles. If you know you’ll need explanations, you can organize those into guides, or decide a blog is a better place for that type of information.
And reference documentation often has its own structure that’s very different from how-tos and tutorials, so you may decide to provide reference docs that are alongside but organizationally independent from your help center.
Best practices for structuring help centers
Your help center should be unique to your product, your customers, and the content they need the most. Having said that, there are some best practices you should follow when you’re building your help center.
Organize content logically (and make it easy to navigate)
The two highest priorities for your help center is its navigability and organization, and they go hand in hand.
You don’t have to over-think it or get too fancy with your architecture – remember that the purpose of a help center is to be useful and accessible first and pretty second. Toward that end, here are some recommendations for creating an easy-to-navigate help center:
Go back to the list of topics and questions you developed when you walked through your product as a customer. Break down that list into their highest-level categories (usually 4-6 categories are best, but you may need more or less to cater to your specific user base). Those are the categories that should go on your home page.
Depending on how many topics and questions you have on your list, you may want to further break each category down into sections. But again, don’t overthink this – you can always add sections as you add content.
Organize your articles and guides into their relevant sections and categories. You may want to group how-tos and tutorials together to make them easier to find.
Provide paths back from any article or guide to the help center’s home page. You can do this in a couple of ways:
By using breadcrumbs, which look something like this: Home > Category > Section > Article Title (each part of that path would be a link to its respective element).
By using navigation menus that are present on all help center pages.
Use headers, tables of content, and text formatting to break up content, enable skimming, and direct your customer’s eyes to important information. Headers and tables of content can be particularly useful in guides so that users can skip right to the content they need, and bolding and italics can help the most important content stand out (although in order for this to work, you’ll need to use them strategically and sparingly).
If there are questions or issues that you know customers will want quick answers to, consider featuring links to those articles or guides somewhere on your home page.
Mask sure your help center has a search function that’s available from any page in the help center.
Use language your customers would use in titles, tags, and keywords
A well-structured help center connects with its audience, and the best way to do that is to use the words and phrasing customers themselves would use. Use clear, customer-centric language at every level of your help center, from tagging and keywords to article, section, and category titles.
For how-to, tutorial, or explanation titles, use the language customers use in their tickets or phone calls with your customer service team when they ask questions or explain their problems. Many help center platforms and even website analytics will let you see what phrases customers are using when they search for information – these are also great sources for titles, but especially for tags and keywords.
Speaking of which, most help center platforms will allow you to use tags (which are often visible to customers) and keywords (which are usually not visible to customers) in your help center content. Use tags to help customers find content that’s related to what they’re already viewing, and keywords to ensure the most relevant content shows up higher in customers’ search results.
Help center examples to inspire you
We’ve covered how to identify what your customers need from your knowledge base, the four main types of documentation and what their purposes are, and some best practices for structuring and organizing your content to prioritize usefulness and navigability.
You’ve got the basic tools to get started in building a customer-centric knowledge base, now let’s take a look at a few help centers for inspiration before you begin. Need more inspiration? Check out our previous blog post on examples of great customer help centers.
Django is an open-source framework for website developers, and a great example of a technical knowledge base. Django’s documentation actually uses all four types of documentation, but let’s focus on its reference material for an idea of how you can structure your own reference content.
In their application reference guide, you can see they’re using a combination of strategies to structure the content in a way that’s most useful to their audience: headers to break up the content into individual sections, bolding to indicate names and terms, and a side menu that doubles as both a table of contents and easy navigation.
The top menu is always present on the page, which allows users to get around the knowledge base, and it includes the search function for easy access. There’s also a pop-up menu in the lower right that allows the user to select what documentation version they need (in this example, the docs for Django 4.2) and to change their language (mine is set to English).
Since buying shoes was a well-loved example in this article, let’s take a look at shoe retailer, Rothy’s. Rothy’s help center demonstrates how to prioritize your customer needs in a help center: by putting order status and returns and exchanges at the top of the home page, they’ve provided quick access to actions their customers are most likely to be looking for when they go to the help center.
This strategy of getting customers to actionable information quickly is reflected in their choice of categories as well: FAQs first, then size charts, information about their store locations, and (below) how to wash the shoes and the discount and referral programs.
Although there’s no search function for their help center, they do feature the various ways customers can get in touch with their customer service team and clearly display their customer service hours.
Their articles are simple and short, and include both a breadcrumb at the top of the page (Help Center | FAQs, which link back to each element) and a back button at the bottom for quick navigation.
Lastly, Slack’s Help Center is a good example of a classically-structured knowledge base. Their search function is front and center on the home page - in fact, my cursor was conveniently located in the search bar so I could go straight to searching for the information I needed.
Underneath the search bar, Slack provides quick links to common troubleshooting topics, and at the bottom of the home page are featured articles and Slack tips, which shows that they made an effort to understand their users’ needs and customized the help center to meet those needs.
Article pages use headers, bolding, callouts, and lists to structure content and guide users to the most important information. There’s a table of contents so that users can navigate within the article, as well as a menu above the article that allows users to easily switch between related categories. Users can get back to the help center home page by clicking on Slack Help Center at the top of any page.
Building an effective help center for scalable customer support
Your help center’s structure matters. With each decision you make, you’re influencing the level of effort your customers will need to spend to find the help they’re looking for.
These tips and best practices will be key to delivering a consistently good self-serve customer experience. Once you’ve got a help center structure in place, tools like Help Center Analytics and Help Center Manager are the easiest way to build on that foundation, giving you insights and tools to continually improve.
Start your free trial of them both today!
Written by Steph Lundberg
Steph is a writer and fractional Customer Support leader and consultant. You can usually find her crafting, hanging with her kids, or spending entirely too much time on Tumblr.