Putting users first with knowledge base UX

Catherine Heath | November 8, 2018

The world is full of many wonderful products, but some aren’t particularly fit for purpose. The same goes for knowledge bases. This is typically because not much attention has been paid to the User Experience (UX).

Sadly, many digital products overlook their intended users by over-focusing on organizational objectives. They often prioritize form over function, function over form, are hard to use, or just plain don’t work as they should.

One of their biggest mistakes is making assumptions about what users want or need, that aren’t based in reality.

What is User Experience

User Experience is the discipline that puts the user at the heart of the product.

It focuses on the overall experience a user has with a particular product, and it’s part of the field of human-computer interaction (HCI). Some consider HCI to be the forerunner of UX, although they have important differences.

According to NN Group:

"User experience" encompasses all aspects of the end-user's interaction with the company, its services, and its products.

It’s not HCI

HCI is the province of academia, while UX is practiced in industry.

It’s not UI design

Some people think of UX in terms of the visual design of a product. UX goes much further than the User Interface (UI), although UI design is an essential aspect of UX.

It’s not usability

Every single product has UX, which is not necessarily related to whether or not it is easy to use. Usability is the concept that your product or web interface is easy to use.

An excellent diagram by Jesse James Garrett may go some way to illuminating UX.

What is UX for

User Experience is naturally geared towards helping your users accomplish their goals as they relate to your product and company, and so is your knowledge base.

UX design means designing for the needs and goals of your users as best fits your organisation’s objectives. It’s closely related to Interaction Design (IxD) and User-Centred Design, as well as several other disciplines.

Many former web designers are now UX designers, and the field shares much overlap with web design although it’s distinct. You may have heard of wire frames and card sorting, which are common techniques of UX designers.

UX directly contributes to the success or failure of your product, and ties together the many different teams within your organization.

How can UX help your knowledge base

UX is usually thought about in relation to content-based digital products like websites and apps, although the field is rapidly expanding. Since UX is applied to the realm of human-computer interaction, this also includes knowledge base websites.

A knowledge base is usually intended to supplement your flagship product to improve the experience. Applying the concept of UX our knowledge base almost takes us into the realm of “meta UX”. But knowledge bases can be products in themselves.

User Experience is looking at your knowledge base from the perspective of your customers and their goals. This shouldn’t be a brainwave, and at KnowledgeOwl User Experience is part of the foundation of everything we do.

So what are a user’s goals?

In user documentation, the user wants to fix a problem with your product or to accomplish a task they don’t yet understand. They want to find out more information about a certain feature. 

Factors that influence good UX

As we said before, UX is often equated with “usability” but in reality usability is more of a subset of UX. UX is about the holistic view of the product at the intersection of your company and your users.

Documentation UX has no hard and fast rules, and it’s more of an art than a science. You need to view your knowledge base as a product – and treat it in the same way as any other product your company produces.

Image credit: Peter Morville, User Experience honeycomb

Peter Morville developed the User Experience honeycomb after he expanded his focus from Information Architecture to also include UX. I highly recommend checking out the whole article.

According to Morville, your documentation should be useful, usable, desirable, valuable, findable, accessible and credible.

  • Useful – does your knowledge base serve a practical purpose for your users?
  • Usable – is your knowledge base easy to use for a vast majority of users?
  • Desirable – is the design of your knowledge base powerful and memorable?
  • Valuable – does it fulfil organizational objective such as improving customer satisfaction?
  • Findable – can users easily navigate your knowledge base to find what they need?
  • Credible – is your knowledge base considered trustworthy and believable by your users?

Paying attention to each of these priorities creates balance in your UX design. At times you may find some of them in competition – for example the need for a knowledge base with an accessible design compared with a desirable design.

The UK government has invested a lot of resources into making its user documentation useful, usable, desirable, findable, accessible, credible and valuable.

Keep it Simple, Stupid (KISS)

The principle of Keep it Simple, Stupid is a stronghold of the engineering disciplines in general, and it means that your product should be as simple as possible to be easily understood by non-experts.

It doesn’t mean shying away from complexity if necessary, but only including the fewest elements you need for something to make sense.

Design your knowledge base to be as simple as possible in order to fulfil the requirements of UX.

Knowledge base design tips

Here are five tips on knowledge base UX design to optimize for user success.

1. Make content easy to scan

Web reading patterns which distinctly differ from print reading patterns, since in print readers tend to read word for word.

79% of users scan new web pages, so making your content scannable is a must for accessibility and usability. But how do you do that?

To understand this, we have to first consider how users read on the web. Research by NN Group shows that users only read what they consider the most important words or phrases.

Highlight keywords in bold, use only one idea per paragraph in your content, bullet point lists, meaningful subheadings, and half the word count you’d use for print.

2. Interlink as much as you can

Every Page is Page One is a philosophy defined by Technical Writer Mark Baker and it applies very much to knowledge bases. Your users are arriving at your content from a variety of sources, not necessarily directly through your homepage.

Peter Morville also promotes the idea of “findability” in his work as an Information Architect. For Morville, this means dragging your attention away from just the homepage, towards a more holistic vision of your content entry points (SEO).

This also contributes to usability. 

3. Use contrasting colors that are easy on the eyes

Accessibility is becoming a key concern in all digital design, because products are not built with consideration for all users.

Many people who are blind, deaf or physically disabled struggle to use many websites as a consequence of these faulty design patterns.

Remember that 8% of men and 5% of women are color blind, so that means they can’t distinguish red from green as well as most people can. That’s why contrasting colors are a better choice than colors that blend together.

We wrote a whole post based on Carol Stransky’s talk about accessibility in documentation design.

4. Make navigation prominent, easy and consistent

Principles of minimalist modern web design means that too many companies make the mistake of hiding the main navigation in order to make their websites look prettier and cleaner.

Make sure your navigation is always available to use, anchored at the top or the side of your page. Name your categories something meaningful and consistent. Make use of information hierarchy, which gives insight into the overall structure of your knowledge base.

Check out our whole post on categorizing your knowledge base.

5. Make use of whitespace

Elements crammed together can make your knowledge base harder to use.

Using whitespace (also known as negative space) directs your users gaze to important elements, and makes your knowledge base more usable.

An example of a excellent use of white space is like this:

Google makes it perfectly clear what it wants users to do with its use of whitespace on the Google homepage.

Information Architecture

It’s worth taking note of Information Architecture as part of this discussion of UX.

Information Architecture is a subset of your User Experience because it arranges your content in a way that makes sense and guides users towards a goal or purpose.

IA is defined by usability.gov as:

“Information architecture (IA) focuses on organizing, structuring, and labeling content in an effective and sustainable way. The goal is to help users find information and complete tasks. To do this, you need to understand how the pieces fit together to create the larger picture, how items relate to each other within the system.”

It’s a field well worth delving into in order to improve your presentation of information for your users.

Peter Morville is a prominent Information Architect, as is Abby Covert. Check out Morville’s book Information Architecture (co-authored with Louis Rosenfeld) and Covert’s How to Make Sense of Any Mess.

We wrote a whole post on Information Architecture for knowledge bases.

Final remarks

User Experience is a huge field but you can start applying some of the principles to your knowledge base right away.

Take inspiration from Peter Morville’s User Experience honeycomb and make sure you pay attention to the key facets of UX. Treat your knowledge base as a specific product for your users.

KnowledgeOwl is our knowledge base software that gives you control over the user experience. Contact us to see if we can help you design your dream knowledge base.


About the author
Catherine Heath
Catherine Heath

Community builder at KnowledgeOwl. Blogs. Copy. Documentation. Freelance content writer for creative and ethical companies. Contributing to open source and teaching technical tools.

Catherine blogs on her personal websites Away With Words and Awkward Writer. She runs the Write the Docs Northwest meetup group. 


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