Editor’s Note:  The Content Wrangler is presenting a weekly series of twelve articles that provide useful insights and practical guidance for those who produce online help websites. Columnist Robert Norris shares how to overcome operational challenges related to harvesting, publishing and maintaining online help knowledge bases. His second installment details how we can develop special purpose collections that serve as, “Problem Solving Toolkits.”  

By Robert Norris, special to The Content Wrangler

When we engage a knowledge base website to seek problem-solving resources, the ideal outcome is that we find a carefully tended collection of timely, useful content (instructions, policies, templates, links to internal and external resources, tutorials, warnings, exceptions, etc.). This article provides practical guidance for both content curators and content technologists interested in creating useful problem solving collections of content (toolkits).

In practice, the collection’s curator judiciously selects resources representing the knowledge of subject matter experts (SMEs) filtered by awareness of the needs of the specific audience. This approach recognizes that the ideal set of resources for experienced users will differ markedly from those needed by novices. Key to this effort is the need for user advocates; namely those with keen insights into the needs of the audience. Also required is the willingness to dive deeply into available resources (not unlike the machete-wielding guide in an overgrown jungle). Granted, it’s time consuming and challenging, but the experience can be both enjoyable and professionally rewarding.

Note: Issues with quality control—currency, duplication, etc.—will doubtless surface; be sure to invoke a process for documenting, tracking, and repairing problems as they arise.

Problem Solving Toolkits: Insights for content curators

The following insights will be helpful for curators:

  • Leverage personal experience. Doubtless you and your work friends have had to plumb the depths of a knowledge base (perhaps your intranet) and engaged experts to find the information and resources needed to accomplish an unfamiliar task, e.g. your first international trip for the company. This makes you a user advocate with real-world knowledge of the problem solving process as it stands today.  Take that opportunity to put together a toolkit of guidance, forms, links and advice for the next novice. The experience will introduce you to the web publishing process, surface limitations you must consider, and help you test the waters of office politics regarding the effort to improve the knowledge base.
  • Enjoy developing and sharing insights. As a collection builder, you have the opportunity to peruse available resources from across the knowledge base. As such, you are the personal knowledge shopper for the toolkit’s future users. This can be a very productive use of your time and energy since you are gaining rare expertise about what is—and what is not—available on the topic. And, as an added bonus, you will likely discover quality control problems. Thus equipped with valuable information, you can share your discoveries with topic owners and support center reps and elicit their insightful feedback in return. Moreover, it’s enjoyable to build something useful.
  • Make it intuitive. A well-conceived collection is intuitive to navigate, requiring minimal instructions. It may help to think of your creation as a virtual bookshelf of labeled resources the user simply scans. When explanatory text is necessary—rather than cluttering the interface—it is often better to create a separate resource and add it to the collection, e.g. a web-page overview of a particular process.
  • Collections of collections. Invariably, as you and your colleagues develop individual collections, the best item to enhance one will be another collection. Let’s say you are working on fundraising resources. As you put together a collection of resources related to running a capital campaign, you realize that you can add an existing collection of resources related to donation record-keeping. This is terrific as it indicates that the project is approaching a key inflection point where productivity rapidly increases.

Problem Solving Toolkits: Insights for content technologists

When considering feasibility and design, it will help to share these tips with your technical team:

  • Invoke virtual copies. A fundamental content quality control no-no is to allow duplicates of authoritative resources. Duplicates lurk in the knowledge base and tend to rear their mutant heads at the worst possible times. A solid quality control program requires that each resource is owned and maintained. But, for the purpose of collection-building, virtual copies are a godsend. Example: Your organization has a standard waiver that must be used for a wide array of events. You certainly would not want to duplicate the waiver across the knowledge base as it would be a maintenance nightmare. But, you can configure your system to allow the collection-builder to spawn a virtual copy of it (link and metadata for the link). Let’s say it is a downloadable file and — because you have good quality control — there is only one authoritative published version of the file. The virtual copy appears in the collection and connects the user to the authentic file. But what if the original is titled and described in a way that wound be confusing in the context of the collection? Easy fix. You allow the collection builder to override the default title and description via the virtual copy’s record. It’s the publishing equivalent of having your cake and eating it, too. You do not need to own or duplicate the actual resource; you are simply creating a virtual copy of it and may re-title and re-describe it as needed. Note: Logic is straightforward: If the original is updated, the virtual copy automatically points to the new version; if the original is retired, the virtual copy disappears; if the collection builder deletes the virtual copy, it has no impact on the original.
  • Declutter using publishing status. It is very useful to invoke discretionary publishing status and allow items that are not visible to users be added to a collection that is visible, even prominent. Let’s say you have a number of related resources that a user will need, but independently, these resources have little value. For example, take a set of house plans. You have dozens of drawings, plans, photos and lists, none very useful in a stand-alone format. With a collection, you can aggregate them all and publish them as a group, and yet, publish none of them singly so that you are not cluttering the user-interface. This approach is akin to putting all the items in a folder. But, the collection approach is vastly superior because you can aggregate multiple content types, e.g. downloads, FAQs, links, images, videos, events, other collections and more, and each item has descriptive metadata that will appear in the context of the collection.
  • Managing collections. Do collections ever become unwieldy? Yes, particularly when the collection builder fails to balance usability with being informative. In this context, collections do not represent every available resource related to a given topic, but rather a subset of the topical resources the user needs to accomplish a particular task. Fortunately, it’s easy to trim the collection by deleting virtual copies and/or creating complimentary—more focused—collections. Let telemetry and feedback guide your decision-making.  A useful collection is being actively engaged (in demand) which the data will confirm. Of course, the day may come when the number of collections becomes daunting, but that is a happy problem you can solve with a directory —a topic for another article, eh?

Last Week: In case you missed it, here’s a link to “Think Like a Librarian When Creating Online Help Websites”, part one of the twelve part series.

Next Week: Robert’s third of twelve articles, “The Curse of Elegance,” shares how to overcome the paradoxical challenges faced by content creators in that the more elegantly we craft our resources, the easier our labors look to our audience and those who oversee our effort.

Image: The curse of elegance
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