Improve your knowledge base Information Architecture by hacking expectations

Nicholas Graziade | April 30, 2020

Information Architecture describes the way we organize data in a website, knowledge base, wiki, software interface, or information technology system. However, as an abstraction of what you actually build, you might encounter challenges when turning that vision into something more tangible. You may ask, “how can I take this blueprint of my knowledge base and actually get my users to find what they need?” 

Sometimes the answer is simple. A search field or a navigation pane are common solutions. These solutions, however, both do something remarkably similar. Both solutions hack into what our users have already learned to guide them to find the content they need to learn.

Understanding user expectations

Think about the last time you purchased a smart phone, tablet, computer, or any other technological gizmo. As you unpacked your shiny new device – perhaps eagerly and with a healthy dose of anticipation – what do you remember finding in the box? Take a second and write down (or make a mental note) of anything you found.

You inevitably had your new device, perhaps a charging cord or USB cable, and a varied array of different packaging paper, Styrofoam, plastic wrapping tape, and so forth. I’ll venture to guess that you did not find a vast documentation package. You may have found a few basic inserts with regulatory details or even a quick-start guide, but probably little more beyond these. I’m almost certain that you did not find a user manual, especially the sort of user manual I’ve encountered in musty file cabinets in the basements of government offices. These are the notoriously unintelligible spiral-bound tomes that collect a squalid layer of dust and decay from a generation of neglect.

It’s no wonder that these types of manuals fell out of vogue ages ago. We have Knowledge Bases that eliminate the need for pulp-based media, after all. But look behind what we already have and you will see a simple truth that underlies this example: we expect our users to understand some fundamental concepts about information technology; we expect our users employ their a priori knowledge from the immaterial zeitgeist of modern technology. We have no need for physical manuals because our collective experience has made them obsolete. 

However, just as we expect our users to carry some implicit knowledge of the ins-and-outs of our products, our users assume that we, as providers of services, will create an experience that builds on those expectations. They expect that we will predict what they need within a knowledge base before they even know they need it!

The basic assumptions people make

What are some other common expectations? Here’s a few I jotted down:

  • When I open a textbook, you I expect to find a table of contents in the first few pages.
  • When I read a news article online, I expect to see the author’s name.
  • When I see movie, I expect to see the full credits at the end of the film.
  • When I buy a new album, I expect to see the songwriting credits in the liner notes.

However, what do I expect when I open a webpage? One thing: Structure.

It may seem too obvious to even consider at first glance, but one of the most common mistakes for a knowledge-centered website is a complete lack of structure. While I won’t name any specific organizations, I have seen several help desk sites (internally- and externally-facing) that were little more than a hodgepodge of how-to articles arranged by the date someone thought to create them. And while I might discern from the ten articles on cyber security from February 2014 that it was a particularly bad month for phishing schemes, any other deductive analysis will probably reveal nothing else.

Even a basic structure can go a long way. Look at the images below:

Navigation Panel 1

Navigation Panel 2

Navigation Panel 1 doesn’t reveal much about the organizational structure of this knowledge base. If we assume that everything is organized in a linear fashion, the page seems to be little more than an alphabetical arrangement of topics.

Navigation Panel 2 shows a simple-but-effective structure. Again, if we assume that the panel reflects the site structure, it’s easy to see that the page’s creators had a clean strategy for categorizing content.

Simply put, do not take site structure for granted. Your users expect structure. They do not expect to navigate a maze of scattered content! Find ways to make navigating your architectural scheme intuitive, and rest easily knowing that your users will find what they need.

Another way to hack user expectations

While intuitive web navigation is always preferred, think about your knowledge base and ask a simple question: how do I easily guide my users toward the information they need?

Let’s look at a simple example that illustrates a successful way to incorporate user expectations into your information architecture. Imagine you are perusing a knowledge base and open an article that has a clear PDF icon, monitor icon, and a text hyperlink that reads “Information Architecture.” What three assumptions can you make from these icons?

  • When users see a PDF Icon, they expect to have an option to download a PDF copy of the page or other content from that page.
  • When users see a monitor icon, they expect video content
  • When users see a hyperlink that reads “Information Architecture,” they expect the content to relate to the wider subject and that the hyperlink will help navigate to similar content.

We can define icons and hyperlinks with these characteristics as knowledge tags. In the broadest sense, knowledge tags are metadata that collect information into common groupings (often known as an ontology in information science). However, we also see that these tags can both orient your users to the underlying scheme of the information you need to share and support navigation within that scheme. More importantly, they are one example of how you can directly map your information architecture in a way your users expect.

Ways to use expectations to improve your Information Architecture

Now that we have couple solid examples, I would like to end with some simple thing you can do to improve your site’s underlying blueprints.

Think about your content and try to divide it into a handful of categories (no more than five or six!). Next, look at how you organize your content. Have you arranged your content in a way that easily reflects these categories? If not, consider some ways you can group like content together.

Try to answer some of your frequent user questions using your knowledge base. Can you find the answers quickly? Or, if you can’t, are there ways to redirect users to the correct answers? If you find that you are clicking on every navigation link you have to get to the final answer, consider using a metadata tag to organize your content more broadly. Think about adding a feature that links similar articles.

If your content is easy to find, but feels buried, regrouping content can offer users a way to the same information with fewer mouse clicks. Using your knowledge base metrics or site analytics can do wonders.

Make sure you do not overwhelm your users with too many navigation features. Related articles, search bars, navigation sidebars, and so forth can be helpful tools. However, you can easily have too much of a good thing. Find one or two methods that appeal to your audience and have proven successful within your structure and stick to them! When your users know where to look and which tools to use, they will never question how to find the information they need. Whether or not they can troubleshoot issues with their email signatures…well, that’s a topic for another time.

If you’d like to try out some new knowledge base software, sign up for a free trial of KnowledgeOwl right now. 

About the author
Nicholas Graziade
Nicholas Graziade

Nicholas is a technical writer, instructional designer, and knowledge management expert from Upstate New York's Capital District. He began using KnowledgeOwl in 2016 and has been a dedicated fanboy ever since! 

When not obsessing over the nuances of a web page's navigation sidebar, he is also a professional bassist and a practitioner of Japanese sword arts.

You can contact Nick at his website or on LinkedIn.

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