Knowledge Base Software – The Definitive Guide
This definitive guide will cover everything you need to know about knowledge base software. From the definitions and the pros and cons of different types of knowledge base software, to tips on choosing and designing your own, this guide will answer all your questions about knowledge base software and provide useful links to further resources.
Many companies are aware of help desk software and the broader category of Knowledge Management Software. While many companies may not yet have heard of knowledge base software, getting to grips with it can provide immense business value.
Knowledge base software is a distinct category of software in its own right. In this post, we’ll be covering exactly what knowledge base software is, what it’s used for, the benefits of knowledge base software compared to similar solutions, and we’ll provide many links to further information.
What is knowledge base software?
Knowledge base software is defined by TechTarget as:
…a machine-readable resource for the dissemination of information, generally online or with the capacity to be put online… a knowledge base is used to optimize information collection, organization, and retrieval for an organization, or for the general public.
That’s the wider definition of a knowledge base, but SaaS knowledge base software has a slightly more specific purpose.
According to Atlassian:
“A knowledge base is a self-serve online library of information about a product, service, department, or topic.”
Knowledge base software falls under the discipline of Knowledge Management and the Knowledge Management software category. It is a distinct type of software compared to internal collaboration tools (like Microsoft SharePoint) or other document management tools developed for in-house teams.
Knowledge base software is different to a wiki site. A wiki is a documentation portal maintained by a community of users, while a knowledge base in our case is typically maintained by a limited central team. The documentation, on the other hand, can still be consumed by a potentially unlimited audience.
Add-on or enterprise knowledge bases
The knowledge base software industry is rapidly growing. Knowledge base software is replacing add-on knowledge bases that are part of the larger help desk software stack, and enterprise Knowledge Management solutions with a prohibitive price tag for businesses.
Software as a Service
In our case, knowledge bases are typically sold using the Software as a Service (SaaS) model. SaaS customers pay a subscription to access their software over an internet connection. It requires no up-front investment, on-premise installations or ongoing maintenance from the customer.
The number of users of your SaaS knowledge base can potentially scale limitlessly as your company grows.
Why you need knowledge base software?
It’s common for most types of companies to have an online knowledge base these days. This is especially true for fast-growing SaaS startups with a large amount of documentation, but the purpose of these knowledge bases can vary.
Self-service customer support
Knowledge base software usually falls under the realm of customer support and it helps companies with their customer self-service.
If they can direct customers towards a knowledge base, your support agents can then spend more time handling complex queries – and less time answering standard questions.
In this case, your company knowledge base is usually public and indexable by Google. These also tend to be product knowledge bases intended for self-service, so customers can find your documentation when troubleshooting online. This has a number of benefits for both SEO and marketing.
Team collaboration and knowledge-sharing
Knowledge base software can also be used for an internal knowledge base. This could be for your support staff to share crucial information about support tickets with each other, or for the benefit of anyone in the company who needs access to a shared information repository.
Your knowledge base can also be made private behind a login page or accessible only through a particular IP address. This is the case for many internal knowledge bases with sensitive information.
Knowledge base software is useful in this case because it has all the functionality you need out-of-the-box. You don’t have to hack together an unwieldy solution like SharePoint. It’s also handy if you already have a ticketing system you feel happy with, and just need some knowledge base software.
Knowledge base software features
Knowledge base software is very useful and it also has unique features that sets it apart from similar types of software like Content Management Systems (CMS).
Most CMS software is designed for blogs, ecommerce sites, or company brand sites (think WordPress or Squarespace). These platforms don’t have the functionality required for them to be a self-service or internal knowledge base. They lack advanced Information Architecture and editorial functionality.
The key features of knowledge base software are the front-end experience for customers, and the back-end of the software interface for users. For example, in Document360 you can collaborate more effectively with other authors through commenting and multiple role permissions.
The front end of your knowledge base is much like a normal website, except with a focus on categories, navigation and documentation formatting.
Here are the main front-end features:
- Main page focused on top-level categories and search
- Clear navigation menu with multi-layer categories visible
- Article call-outs, code snippets, warnings, and article metadata
The back-end of your knowledge base should have an editorial workflow, version control, and content organisation capabilities.
Here are the main back-end features:
- Multiple role permissions
- Assign authors to articles
- Article lifecycle
- Internal tagging
- Drag and drop reorganisation
Back-end configuration is how you set up the software for your specific needs.
Here are the main groups of features:
- Integrations with key software such as Intercom or Slack
- Import and export documentation
- Custom domain mapping
- Article redirect features
- Automatic backup and restore
The main differences between knowledge base software and a regular website CMS is the extensive editorial control, organisational capabilities, robust search functionality and formatting for articles.
Hosted or self–hosted software solution
Some companies know they need to invest in knowledge base software, but they’re not sure whether to host their own knowledge base in-house, or rely on another company to host it for them.
We’ll explain the two options now.
Self-hosting means you host the knowledge base software on your own company servers.
You’re responsible for the upkeep and maintenance of your software, as well as handling security concerns and fixing bugs if anything goes wrong. This approach can be good if you want more control over security, privacy and uptime.
An on-site software installation is always self-hosted, as in the case of enterprise software as a capital investment. You don’t necessarily own the code you’ve bought, but you are still responsible for the software upkeep. Some companies legally may required to opt for this software model for legal compliance.
Open source software is usually self-hosted, but you also own the software code. Open source software is also often free of charge.
You can develop extensions, customisations, and manage your own data. You have extreme flexibility over your solution, but that also means you need to retain IT resources in-house or outsource to contractors in order to develop and manage your software solution. This isn’t actually a cost-saving option.
The Software as a Service (SaaS) model outsources some of your IT operations. When you invest in a SaaS knowledge base, you receive a unique log in (or number of accounts) and the software is delivered over an internet connection.
SaaS knowledge bases solutions are always hosted by the vendor. You do not have any rights to modify or reuse the code, but they are responsible for all software development, maintenance and fixes.
Types of knowledge base customers
While any type of company can benefit from knowledge base software, it can be helpful to distinguish between the enterprise, startups and small business customer.
Small businesses are looking for low-cost software solutions on a relatively fixed pricing model. This requires a low capital investment and predictability in financial forecasting. They might want to pay for a set number of users and use the software in a relatively stable way.
Enterprise customers typically need a large number of software users, extensive support and customisations, account management and compliance. Pricing is not usually as much of a concern, and this means that enterprise software is usually very expensive.
Startups need relatively low-cost software that can scale massively with their company. This means that they need the flexibility to change their number of software users and data bandwidth at very short notice.
Document360 has been developed with all categories of customer in mind and can scale with your business. Prices begin at $49 per knowledge base per month with two users. This increases to $99 per month for five users and $249 per month for 25 users. You can choose anytime to upgraded your plan.
This pricing model is common for dedicated knowledge base software solutions, which makes this type of software affordable for small but growing companies.
The difference between help desks and knowledge bases
One of the most important points for any company to understand about knowledge base software is what makes it distinct from help desk software.
Defining help desk software
Help desk software defined as a ticketing system that enables large teams of support agents to collaborate on customer support. Zendesk is one example of a popular help desk solution, and so is Help Scout. Help desk software comes with lots of functionality and an accompanying price tag.
Add-on knowledge bases
Many companies need their knowledge base software to integrate with their existing help desk solution, for example so they can easily turn tickets into documentation.
That’s partly why some help desk vendors now offer add-on knowledge bases for their customers. Zendesk’s Guide is one example – but you can’t use this knowledge base software without being a Zendesk customer. You have to pay for the full software stack before you can use Guide.
Dedicated knowledge base
Some companies still allow you to use their add-on knowledge base with becoming a full customer, but this software isn’t as sophisticated as a dedicated knowledge base solution.
Dedicated knowledge base software is cheaper than investing in a help desk ticketing system. It also has also the functionality you need for an effective self-service strategy.
Relationship to Knowledge Management
Knowledge base software usually falls under the umbrella of Knowledge Management. Searching for “Knowledge Management software” on the popular review sites means you’ll probably discover many more solutions than for the specific term “knowledge base”.
Defining Knowledge Management
Knowledge Management is about collecting and curating the internal knowledge of your company so your employees can more effectively learn and share. This is about creating business value and competitive edge.
Why it’s more than Knowledge Management
This classification of knowledge base software has its limits. Many knowledge bases relate to product documentation, and are for customers outside the company.
Most knowledge base software also has extra functionality such as support widgets or integrations with popular customer support software, making it unsuitable for classification as Knowledge Management software.
Knowledge Management is a field that also encompasses internal collaboration tools and intranet software. It’s not just limited to knowledge bases. Internal collaboration tools are more about using existing knowledge rather than curating new knowledge, and includes tools like Slack or SharePoint.
You should be aware of how knowledge base software fits into this category, but don’t assume that every tool under the Knowledge Management umbrella is what you’re looking for.
Read more on Internal collaboration tools
SaaS knowledge base software reviews
Most of us have used Yelp or Tripadvisor to look for somewhere to go for dinner or stay on holiday. Did you know you can dedicated websites devoted to SaaS reviews?
There are a number of options to choose from, and it’s best to compare them all since each has pros and cons.
Capterra is the one-stop-shop for software reviews with more than 300 categories of software. Their interface is very simple and it’s a good introduction to the different software solutions out there.
G2 Crowd has a lot of category options and can be a little overwhelming for beginners. Apart from this, G2 Crowd also publishes software research that compares different solutions in the same market.
It’s worth noting that Capterra, Software Advice and G2 Crowd owned by the same company!
GetApp is another one of the main software review sites. Its biggest advantage is having a dedicated knowledge base category, which sets it apart from the other sites.
There is quite a large variety of software include within its knowledge base category, including wikis and intranets. Unfortunately, it’s not specific enough to create a meaningful picture.
ProductHunt is a site for startups that want to find better software, and focuses heavily on software launches. It’s good if you’re looking to find the latest software products, but it’s not necessarily useful for finding industry staples.
Recognising a good review
Good reviews are usually around four out of five stars, and they tend to give a detailed and balanced account of what the customer did (or did not) like about using the software.
In many cases a software solution isn’t suitable for someone, which can lead to frustrated customers giving excessively bad reviews. Remember to take everything in context.
Choosing the right knowledge base software
Even if you research your options well, investing in any new software solution is usually a gamble. The advantage of choosing a SaaS knowledge base is that you’re not locked in to a contract. You can often take your software for a free trial before deciding.
To improve your chances of success, make sure you understand the knowledge base software industry and the nature of the exact type of software that you need.
Questions to ask about knowledge base software
Here are some questions to ask yourself; do you need
- Wiki software to crowdsource your documentation?
- Version control system for developers that also has good documentation capabilities?
- Internal collaboration tool for your team productivity?
- Content Management System for your company website?
- Fully-fledged product knowledge base for customer support or internal Knowledge Management?
Answering “yes” to the last question suggests you need knowledge base software.
Choosing the right knowledge base software
Here are some of the questions you need to ask yourself to determine which knowledge base solution is best for you.
- What are your pricing limitations?
- What software integrations might you need?
- How much customisation do you require?
- What are your security requirements?
- What number of software users do you need?
- How quickly do you expect to scale your company?
- What is your preferred documentation format?
Note down your answers to all of these questions before you research the different solutions out there. They will influence the solution you choose.
Instead of a knowledge base
Other solutions to consider are:
- MediaWiki – a wiki is a type of software intended for a potentially unlimited number of users to collaboratively create pages in a browser (MediaWiki is the software underlying Wikipedia).
- SharePoint – SharePoint is the Microsoft solution for internal collaboration and can be hacked together to provide a knowledge base. See our post on SharePoint.
- Hubspot – Hubspot provides all manner of CRM and marketing software, and they also offer an add-on knowledge base for their customers. See our post on Hubspot.
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Using WordPress as a knowledge base
Even when you know what software you need, it’s also important to integrate your software stack as much as possible.
That’s why many companies who use WordPress as the Content Management System for their main website also want to use WordPress for their knowledge base.
This is because WordPress is relatively easy to use, customisable, and there is a robust ecosystem of WordPress products and developers. You can customise your website by changing the “theme”, and you can use a knowledge base theme such as KnowAll by HeroThemes.
Disadvantages of WordPress
Most companies want their knowledge base to be fully integrated with their main branded site and on the same domain. This is hard to do without a lot of work behind the scenes, and how you set up WordPress also affects the users for your site. Changing your website theme means changing the whole site, so you can’t have your knowledge base on the same CMS as your main website.
You can add a knowledge base to your website using a “plug-in” which is bit like a power up or a widget. “Knowledge Base for Documents and FAQs” is one example of a knowledge base plugin. Plugins are not as powerful as an actual website.
If you try to do everything within the WordPress ecosystem this can be limiting and complicated in terms of set up. Eventually, companies who want a really effective knowledge base platform opt for specialist software instead of WordPress customisations.
Free knowledge base software
There are a number of companies who would like to use software for their knowledge base that they don’t have to pay any money for.
But apart from a free trial for most SaaS solutions, there isn’t really much that you can get for “free” that wouldn’t become rapidly unsuitable for your needs. As the amount of documentation you have grows, free software will prove too basic.
Other software companies claim to offer “free” knowledge base software, but it’s really an add-on for their main product.
Here are the main options:
- Zendesk’s Guide – knowledge base solution that comes with Zendesk ticketing system
- Freshdesk’s knowledge base – knowledge base that comes with Freshdesk ticketing system
- Drift Help – more of a feature of Drift’s chatbot system rather than an independent knowledge base
- Hubspot’s knowledge base – Hubspot’s knowledge base that is part of their CRM and marketing software ecosystem
- Dropbox Paper – free knowledge base solution that comes with DropBox’s project management software
These options aren’t really free because you need to pay for the rest of the software.
Another option is to go for a “free” plugin for WordPress, which you can use if you are already hosting a site. It just adds right on to your WordPress install and you can use the plugin as a knowledge base.
Free software always limited in terms of customisation, User Experience and product support. In this case, Information Architecture and ability to categorise content is useful for a very limited amount of content.
If you have any ambition at all for your knowledge base, “free” is not going to cut it – unless you plan to go open source.
Open source knowledge base software
Open source software is software where you can modify the code, but it isn’t necessarily free of charge. It is actually a philosophy based on collaboration and sharing in whatever domain it is applied.
Opensource.com defines it as:
“The term “open source” refers to something people can modify and share because its design is publicly accessible.”
In our case open source refers to software. There is a range of open source knowledge base software on the market.
The main benefits of open source mean you don’t have to deal with proprietary software models where the code is owned and controlled by someone else. You can access the code directly and modify it, and use that code to make your own knowledge base exactly as you want it.
You’ll host and maintain your own knowledge base without support from the designer of the code – unless they offer support for a fee. This means you will have full control over the software and your data.
You’ll need development resources and time manage this software in-house and ensure it’s up to standard. If your developers are busy then this project may get left by the wayside.
It probably won’t have a WYSIWYG Content Management System for non-developers. This means that every time someone wants to update the content they will need to ask your developers to help them.
Open source software doesn’t usually have the best User Experience design either.
Design your knowledge base
If you invest in the right knowledge base software it will come preloaded with carefully researched templates that have been designed for content discovery.
Usually you can customise these templates to suit your needs and reflect your company brand. You’ll still need to consider the basics of good design for your knowledge base, such as:
- Visual design – colours, fonts, spacing, shapes, “white space”
- Formatting – thoughtful use of call-outs, interlinking, warnings, headers, and tables
- Navigation – intuitive menu with layered categories that give some sense of Information Architecture (see next section)
- Search – supplement the powerful search engine by using the right keywords and tagging articles intelligently
Knowledge base software comes with variations of an in-built template that includes:
- Homepage with prominent search bar
- Minimum 3 top-level categories displayed on homepage
- Navigation menu anchored at left or top of the page
- Collapsible categories that can go up to 6 levels deep
These templates are designed with good User Experience for self-service in mind – that means content is clearly laid out, users can discover or search for content, and it’s interlinked appropriately.
Stripe has a fantastic knowledge base to provide inspiration for your own design, and so does Twilio.
Knowledge base Information Architecture
Information Architecture is the way that your information is presented, and it also refers to the behind-the-scenes structure that makes your content seem coherent.
Peter Morville defines Information Architecture as:
- Organization Schemes and Structures: The categorisation and structure of your content
- Labeling Systems: Organizing way of representing the information
- Navigation Systems: The way for users to browse through or explore information
- Search Systems: The way that users can actively find information they want
It’s a combination of meaningfully naming categories and content, and signs or symbols that instruct your user on where they are and where they could go next. It’s distinct from “canonical navigation”, which is the defined order of your content and categories.
Increment Magazine describes it very well:
“The canonical index is the parent-child hierarchy in a table in your database. The information architecture is the visual representation of this structure for users of the knowledge base, and it pulls from the canonical index as the source of truth.”
Your Knowledge base Information Architecture is very important for content discoverability, which is an important subset of the User Experience of your knowledge base. IA empowers users to take charge of their own learning by hinting that there is a coherent structure governing the information in front of them.
We hope you found this guide useful. Remember, it’s all about understanding exactly what your needs are, and then finding a software solution that meets them.
Knowledge base software is a category of its own, but this fact isn’t necessarily reflected in the top resources out there. Do your own research and understand the difference between similar types of software, such as wikis and internal collaboration tools.
Take the principles we have outlined above and apply them in choosing your knowledge base software.