Tag Archives: business

Why do you have a ‘Knowledge Base’ on your website?

Question 1. Which of the following are indicated by having a ‘Knowledge Base’ on your company’s ‘support’ pages?

  • (a) A lack of the discipline needed to write proper documentation.

  • (b) Insufficient staff to provide proper support.

  • (c) Inadequate engineers to provide a reliable product.

  • (d) A poor user-interface experience in your product.

  • (e) All of the above.


The best thing about creating a website in blog format, I’ve always thought, is that you don’t need to maintain it to nearly the same degree as you would most other sites. Why? Because everything has a date, and that date is paramount; it is clearly marked. This makes it obvious to the reader that a post was written in a particular context, and, while the content may still be useful some years later, you can’t blame the author for not being able to predict the future if it’s no longer accurate or relevant now! As an author, therefore, you don’t need to be constantly re-reading, deleting, updating, clarifying, as you would with most other forms of documentation.

The appeal of the so-called ‘Knowledge Base’ — a searchable database of support articles on a company website — is that it also promises an alternative solution to this challenge of maintaining structured documentation, but instead of using old Father Time to winnow out inaccurate material, it uses a search engine to help you ignore it.

If you force your customers to type things into the Knowledge Base search box before you let them get anywhere near the page with your phone numbers or email addresses, there’s even a chance they may find out the answer to their question and not bother you! Bliss!

What’s the problem?

Search engines are wonderful things, of course, and this isn’t a bad idea in theory, but if your experience is anything like mine, these knowledge bases are chiefly a source of frustration for customers.

Why is this?

  1. Users don’t know what to search for. They may not know the phrases you use internally to categorise certain issues. A human support person would know that when you said you had an issue with your mouse, you might be referring to a problem labelled ‘trackpad’ or ‘cursor’ in the docs.

  2. The articles aren’t well-indexed. Do you, for example, make sure that the error message the user actually sees appears in plain text in the articles, so the search engine has a chance of finding it? Do your articles have extensive tagging with relevant keywords which may not be in the text? If the error is slightly different because they used a different filename, will it still be found?

  3. The search engines aren’t good enough. We’ve been spoiled by Google. Does your search engine understand synonyms? Does it rank pages well? Does it show a good summary so your users don’t have to read all 26 articles returned by their query?

  4. The content is outdated. If the user actually succeeds in finding a relevant article, is it clear that it only refers to version 4.2 of the product running on Android, and not version 5.0 running on iOS, because the latter didn’t exist at the time it was written? Will they know that the solution it proposes can’t possibly work for them? Because this advice is buried in a database, it may be harder for your support staff to know this is a problem.

How to fix it!

I have four pieces of advice for anyone who has, or is considering implementing, a Knowledge Base on their website:

  1. Make sure the full text of your knowledge base is searchable by Google. They will do a better job than you do.

  2. Allocate more, not less, in the way of resources, if you want your documentation in this form. Knowledge Bases are not like blogs. You can’t dump things in there and forget them. Articles need to be reviewed, re-written, re-indexed, re-keyworded and regularly purged if the contents are to remain useful. You need to do this in addition to writing the actually text itself. Customers will not thank you for anything which suggests you believe that their time is much less important than yours. If they have to search through dozens of articles to try and find an answer, it probably indicates you aren’t doing your job. There may be good reasons for using this format for your documentation. Cheapness isn’t one of them.

  3. If you insist on putting your users through this and they still contact you, you should provide better support once they do. For heaven’s sake, don’t just connect them to somebody in a remote location who only has access to the same information! Don’t offer a chat link to somebody who is ‘Very sorry to hear about your problem’ but knows less about it than they do. Connect them to the engineers who produced the flawed product, or the writers who produced the inadequate documentation.

  4. This is the key one: The bigger your Knowledge Base, the worse job you are doing. In most situations, an entry in your Knowledge Base indicates a failure in communication elsewhere. Insufficient documentation, unhelpful errors, unreliable products. Your users won’t generally be consulting a Knowledge Base if everything is going well for them. Treat it as an issue-ticketing system, and reward those whose work means that articles can be removed from it. And make sure you have the processes in place that this actually happens!

A coming revolution in startup financing?

I remember when my parents got their first credit cards. This new method of paying for things materialised in the UK in the mid-60s, shortly before I did, but they only became widespread in the 70s and 80s, and my childhood was filled with advertisements for them. Anyone else here old enough to remember “Access – your flexible friend”?

American Express was also desperately promoting its alternative charge-card model with advertisements promising the earth. These were nicely satirised by the brilliant team from Not the Nine O’Clock News.

For some reason, it was a very memorable sketch for a young teenage boy, not used to seeing anything like that on British TV at the time!

Two other things, though, made a lasting impression on me at that age:

  • The first was a presenter on a humorous BBC radio programme starting a new section with these words: “Credit, of course, is a nice new word for the nasty old situation we used to call debt”.

  • The second was a speaker at a youth camp who gave some exceedingly good advice, which I have followed ever since, and strongly recommend to the youth of today: “Never borrow money for anything smaller than a house.” Seriously, I recommend it.

Debt, however, is not always bad. If you’re a business with reasonably predictable future revenues, debt-based financing can be attractive when compared with the alternatives, but in the tech industry of the last couple of decades, it has very seldom been a viable option for small companies and we’ve had to resort to venture capital instead.

But in a fascinating article entitled ‘Debt is coming’, Alex Danco suggests that this may be about to change, and that the trend for technology products and services to move to subscription-based models opens up new ways of financing startups, that may not depend on selling your company’s soul to the VCs.

Here is a widely believed cause-and-effect relationship I bet you’ve never thought to invert before: because most startups fail, therefore equity is the best way to finance them. Have you ever considered: because equity is how we finance startups, therefore most startups fail?

The article’s worth reading in full if you’re at all interested in this area.

Maybe, if I can get over my dislike of subscriptions, I’ll also be able to get over my dislike of debt!

Thanks to Pilgrim Beart and Tim O’Reilly for the link to Alex’s article.

Reflections on Inflections

“I expect our sales”, says the marketing manager confidently, “to have an inflection point in Q1 next year”.

This is a pet peeve of mine. I’ve often heard sales and marketing types, and even economists and scientists who should know better, use ‘inflection point’ simply to mean ‘a sudden change in the direction I’d prefer’. Perhaps they think an inflection point is the sharp bend in a hockey-stick-type curve, or the lowest point on a line that is about to turn upwards.

In fact, an inflection (or occasionally ‘inflexion’) point on a graph is technically where the second derivative is zero and changes sign: i.e. where the gradient changes from decreasing (or increasing) to increasing (or decreasing). Another way to think of it is that, viewed from the side, the line changes from concave to convex, or vice versa.

So, typically, an inflection point looks like this:

But, when touting your sales figures, remember that this is also an inflection point:

And so is this:

Doing a quick search, I came across an article from Thoughtworks all about inflection points and how they are important to your business. Sadly, they get it completely wrong.

As a technology leader, a portion of your analysis should revolve around determining inflection points, the critical phases of transitions along a technology’s journey from an abstract idea to maturity.
Inflection points are the points at which a product becomes a trend (something that will be used by a critical mass and therefore likely to drive value) instead of a fad (something that will fizzle out).

And here’s their illustration:

But you, gentle reader, know better. That’s not an inflection point! This is an inflection point:

And if your strategy was to catch technologies there, I think you’d write a rather different article.

The Subscription Dilemma

money

Ten years ago, I wrote a piece for the IEE Review entitled “If You Love Your Data, Set it Free”, where I warned that Microsoft and other similar companies were experimenting with a subscription-based model of software.

This is a perfectly reasonable way of running the IT economy, but it has an important implication. If your data is stored in a proprietary format tied to one software package, as much of it probably is today, you may not have access to it if you don’t keep paying. Do you want to finish working on that book you started a few years ago? Sorry, that will cost you. In such a world, it’s worth asking yourself who actually owns your creative work…

Well, it’s taken a while, but Microsoft and Adobe are now actively pushing the subscription-based ‘Office 365’ and ‘Creative Cloud’ respectively. If you go to their web sites, it’s getting harder and harder to find a traditional buy-and-install product.

Software prices have been dropping dramatically recently, and it must be hard to persuade people who are used to paying under a fiver for the latest iPad app that it’s worth dropping hundreds on the latest Office or Creative Suite, however good those may be. This is particularly true if they already have an older copy. I’ve never felt a desire to upgrade my Office 2008 or Photoshop CS3, but I don’t use them very often. However, my wife, who uses Word all day, every day, also has no reason to upgrade, and in fact would probably view it as a retrograde step. So they had little choice. When you can’t innovate enough in your product, you have to innovate in your marketing.

Now, the subscriptions are not extravagant (at least compared to these companies’ traditional prices). If I used the software on a regular basis I wouldn’t mind paying. The problem is that you’re not just paying for upgrades, you’re paying for continued use. If you stop paying, you don’t, as in the past, continue happily using your current version. You get dramatically reduced functionality, in the case of Microsoft, or none at all, in the case of Adobe. So this is not a decision to pay for ongoing updates, it’s a commitment to continue paying indefinitely unless you want to go through the process of exporting all of your documents to some other format. The issue is particularly acute since these are apps into which you are likely to pour a large amount of your creative output, something you’re unlikely to want to discard. If you want to keep upgrading your software to the latest version, the pricing isn’t bad. But what you’re losing is any option about whether or not to keep upgrading.

So, on the one hand, this spurs me on to even greater enthusiasm for open file formats. And on the other, it makes me wonder about upgrading my copy of Office. Why? Well, it looks as if I won’t have the option very much longer of buying Office 2011, which, though already two years old, may be the last version for which I only have to pay once…

FreeAgent

Here’s a quick and unsolicited recommendation. When I first set up Telemarq, I was looking for some accounting software that I could use on my Mac, since MYOB, of which I was rather fond, is no longer in existence.

I tried GnuCash, which is free, and now really quite good. I used Ledger for a bit, which is splendid if you’re a geek who likes everything in text files. Both of these gave me a lot of control, but they also swallowed a great deal of my time.

Friends suggested I should look at cloud-based offerings, and after experimenting with a few I came across FreeAgent.

I was, I must admit, rather hesitant about this. As a limited company, albeit a very small one, we needed to pay their top rate of £25/month plus VAT. A total of £360 per year. That’s quite a lot for accounting software in a small company. (If anyone decides to try it as a result of this post, please click this link and you might save me a few pennies!).

In addition, I understood ‘real’ double-entry bookkeeping, and this hid a lot of that behind the scenes, so it couldn’t be a real accounts package, could it?

Well, several months on, I just love it. It saves me a huge amount of time – much more than 30 quid’s worth per month, I suspect – does almost everything I need, and is very UK-oriented (so it tells me when my VAT returns and annual company returns are due). It produces nice invoices and send them to our clients, along with links for electronic payment options if they want to use them. It’s very good at importing my bank statements with minimal manual intervention, it makes submitting VAT returns a breeze, and on the rare occasions when I’ve contacted support, they’ve been very prompt and helpful.

Finally, there’s a good API, and various apps for smartphones which make it really easy to log expenses and timesheets.

There are some things I’d like changed: I wish the pricing was a bit more competitive for small companies, I wish they offered a low-cost ‘personal’ version because I’d like to use it on my own accounts, I’d like a few more options when configuring invoices… but all in all, it comes highly recommended.

© Copyright Quentin Stafford-Fraser