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 third installment details how we can overcome the paradoxical challenges that surface when we do our best work to craft resources that—due to their elegant design—appear simplistic to our audience and colleagues.

When a designer successfully balances function and form to achieve rare beauty we laud the creation as being elegant. In the realms of art, literature, architecture, furniture building, cooking and fashion we are eager to recognize and value this achievement. Though we don’t expect to be wowed by every piece in a gallery, we do expect to encounter many creations that spark our interest. And it is our interest that shapes future effort as our feedback incents the designers to push for creative excellence. Moreover, even though tastes and materials change, that which is truly exquisite becomes timeless and inspirational.

Unfortunately, such appreciation is not common in the arena of knowledge sharing and that lack of discriminating feedback is to our collective detriment. By failing to recognize the very best resources, we don’t compel content creators to advance the state of the art. This article asserts that a major obstacle to creative excellence in crafting useful content is that we fail to acknowledge that which is outstanding because we—as both knowledge providers and consumers—have unrealistic expectations.

Image: Luggage Cart Rental
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In practice, we expect that a set of important instructions (or a much-needed description) be clear, useful and as painless as possible to digest. Given our experiences, is this reasonable? Consider a set of instructions for renting a luggage cart at an international airport. We expect explicit —but simple and easy to understand —instructions suited to our time-critical needs. Never mind that the older Middle Eastern customer ahead of us and the teenage European traveler behind us have the same expectations but vastly different needs. Each of us are apt to be bothered by either the complexity of the instructions or the lack of sufficient detail. If we are having a tough day, we may be frustrated by the ineptness of the customer who is delaying us and/or embarrassed by our inability to extract a cart in front of strangers.

However, should the Gods smile upon us and we encounter a spectacularly wonderful set of instructions –elegant in simplicity and universal meaning –would we be appreciative? Doubtful… after all, the three-step process illustrated with childish pictures is such an obvious solution that anybody with half a brain and an hour could have done it, right?

The curse of elegance is that the better we content creators craft knowledge base resources, the more simplistic and obvious our solutions appear.

Fortunately, there are practical techniques one can employ to become a more discerning and appreciative provider and consumer of knowledge resources:

  1. Recognize the Primacy of the Question. Ask a silly question…get a useless answer. Those who espouse that there are no inane questions have probably not spent hours on end trying to answer them. Put more affirmatively, those who take pride in framing perceptive questions invariably derive better results than those who do not.

    Tip for knowledge providers: If your knowledge base is equipped with a sophisticated search engine, e.g. Google Search Appliance, take advantage of its powerful correlating logic. Every time a search query is made and a particular resource is selected from displayed results, that resource is weighted algorithmically to be more prominent in future results to a similar query. When your support team reps have slack time, a good use of it is to have them re-run real-world queries you’ve captured and have them select the most appropriate resource.

    Note: Ask IT to configure the search engine to give more weight to the activity of call center personnel.

    Tip for knowledge consumers: Keyword search is maddeningly inconsistent and does not leverage the potential of sophisticated search engines. For example, let’s say you are a small business owner and you want to confirm your IRS tax deadlines. You could try combining various keywords and wade through the results or you could inquire with a well-framed question, “When are the 2016 federal tax deadlines for small businesses?”

  2. Calibrate the Target Audience.The usefulness of knowledge resources is enhanced when they are crafted to meet the needs of information consumers stereotyped into target audiences. Yes, it is true that stereotyping – in this context – is a step toward better service. Just as a staff member scheduled to present to the C-level receives copious guidance on how best to shape and convey information to that audience, that same diligence is warranted for our deserving customers, partners and colleagues. This can be readily accomplished by identifying advocates for target audiences and providing incentives for them to contribute their insights.

    Tip for providers: Look for under-served audiences. Telemetry and questions/feedback will help identify groups who find navigation/discovery difficult. A particularly useful and cost-effective approach is to assemble and curate collections of complimentary resources appropriate to the target audience, e.g. expense reporting collections for frequent and infrequent travelers.

    Tip for consumers: Recognize your audience status and seek appropriate content. It is unlikely that a typical tax payer will find a knowledge base for Certified Public Accountants to be useful. Don’t spin your wheels; seek alternative sources geared to your expertise.

  3. Reward Excellence. The quickest and most cost-effective way to improve knowledge resources is to recognize outstanding work.

    Tips for providers: Challenge your team to be diligent critics of the resources upon which they rely. Establish the expectation that leadership will recognize and reward efforts to improve them. Put this into practice by tracking the deficient resources your team flagged and following up to ensure responsiveness. Negate the sting of criticism by volunteering to preview new and revised resources prior to publication. And, most importantly, make sure your resource authors are rewarded and recognized for outstanding performance as they refine their work.

    Tip for consumers: If you encounter excellent instructions on how to return a product to a vendor, take a moment to acknowledge its usefulness; it’s likely you already do this when engaging a human by phone. When you encounter a terrific resource, rate it or take a moment to jot a note via the feedback mechanism. You’ll make someone’s day and you’ll help the organization calibrate that which works.

It’s to our collective benefit for us to recognize that one’s appreciation for elegant design in a particular field is an acquired taste typically gained by learning from the artists and experts who have generously shared their perspectives. When time permits, we content wranglers owe it to our colleagues and audiences to help advance their appreciation for that which has been wonderfully crafted. The payoff is likely to be an excellent return on your investment; in my case, making it a practice to recognize and acknowledge the excellent work of other content creators has sparked my own creativity beyond measure.

Last Week: In case you missed it, here’s a link to Problem-Solving Toolkits, part two of the twelve part series.

Next Week: Robert’s fourth of twelve articles, (Im)-Proper Care & Feeding of Experts, examines the fundamental problems causing our topical experts to balk at documenting their knowledge for our online help websites.

Image: Subject matters experts discussing problem
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