Documentation vs. Knowledge Base vs. Forums vs. Support Tickets

The definition and value of each has come up a few times recently, so here’s an easy way to think about it.

Here’s a simplified way to think about it:

  • Documentation (the manual). Documentation is the manual that tells you how to use a product or service. It should cover every feature of the product and how to use it. Documentation is created and maintained by the organisation, not by its audience/members.

Like a manual, it needs to find the balance between providing enough information that the audience can learn everything they need to learn without providing so much information that it becomes overwhelming. More importantly, documentation also needs to be written from the audience’s perspective using the terms the audience would and with empathy for how the audience learns.

  • Knowledge Base (the FAQ). The knowledge base is the troubleshooting guide (or FAQ). It provides up-to-date information and resources to solve the most common questions asked by members. As a result, it’s often created (or co-created) by community members sharing their best advice with one another. When an issue comes up often in the forums or support tickets, it should be turned into a knowledge-based article. The knowledge base helps members get the most from the products by providing the resources members are likely to need.
  • Forums (the experts). Forums give you access to the best experts who can help. They are the place to ask for help when you don’t understand something or are looking for ideas, opinions, and suggestions. Forums connect you with people who have been through your situation and can provide you with advice and support to guide you through whatever situation you’re facing. Forums are unofficial. Sometimes they suggest workarounds a company cannot endorse.
  • Customer support (emergency support). Customer support channels are the emergency services of getting help. They’re the fire brigade, police, or ambulance of the support world. Unless you’re paying for a premium support package (a lot like living in a building with private security), it’s the place you turn to for a) urgent help b) support which requires you to share private information c) when no other channel can help.

To summarise….

Documentation = Learn how a product/service works.

Knowledge base = Solve common problems.

Forums = Get the best advice.

Support = Get urgent help.

There are a few more things to note about each of these channels.

1) Update the documentation. If forum posts and customer support tickets frequently seem confused about how a product feature works, you need to update the documentation for that feature. There should be a constant loop between forum inputs (especially) and updated community documentation.

2) Turn common questions into articles. Common questions in a community should be turned into a knowledge base article (with links to that article in the popular discussions for the topic).

3) Don’t start a knowledge base unless you have a huge audience. You need a huge number of members and queries to sustain a member-curated knowledge base. Many organisations don’t have the audience scale to create, sustain, and maintain one.

4) Promote forums before support channels. If you promote customer support channels more prominently than community, people will use support channels instead of the community.

Also, see this take from UCLA.

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