MPj04358880000[1] KB articles are a system of "we think the product or process will break in this way" bodies of work that try to anticipate the questions you are going to ask when you need support. The problem with this system is that companies do a really poor job of knowing what customers are going to ask.

You can see a lot of potential though in trying to guess what customers will ask. Automated answering systems are trying to find their way into simple customer scenarios where you might have a refined set of questions that are easy to repeat and are often repeated by many customers. This would be for questions like "How much do I owe on my cell phone bill?" or "I need to change my mailing address." By looking for key terms in the question that is asked - like owe, or how much, or change and mailing address, automated systems are essentially performing a search against your natural language query, and trying to provide content based on that question.

This system works well when there is a refined set of repeatable questions. However, when any complexity is added by a scenario, the system breaks down. The more caveats that are added - the harder it is to provide a complete answer automatically.

Behold - the magic of forums.

Forums allow people to post personalized questions that include any of the nuances they wish to include to get a more complete answer. If I have a question about how to fix a specific error message, I can post that question and receive an answer. More importantly - when the answer doesn't work, I can further interact with others to determine what will actually solve my problem. This is the failure of knowledge bases. The lack of regular, semi-real-time interaction reduces the meaningfulness of content because as soon as the content doesn't work for me, I don't know where to go next.

Forums are searchable, and they provide a real-time account of whether or not solutions are working. People will post back into a forum to say that something suggested did or did not work, and a dialog continues.

Microsoft is doing some interesting stuff with forums that I'd like to see elsewhere. They have a system of question and answer pairs where you can mark a post as "this post solved my problem" and it will be paired with the original forum post question. I recently experienced this myself with Windows Home Server. You can check out the forum thread here. What's great is that I was able to go back and tell the forum that a specific post solved my problem, and the forum then highlights that post as the one that solves my problem. That coupled with reputation (the ability to see how often and how accurate someone's information is) is a very compelling thing.

As always, there are problems with all content types. Here are some core issues with forums:

  • Forums are labor intensive. This is true if you plan to have your support personnel in the forums solving issues. Eventually, the community of users will start solving their own issues, but you'll still want to have auditors to make sure false or inflammatory statements are culled.
  • Make sure that frequent, accurate posters are rewarded. They're already rewarded via their ego boost, but sometimes additional recognition is a good idea. That can mean something simple like a rating system for users (like the XBOX Live "prefer this player" reputation) or just showing the number of posts a user has completed can help show their value. You can always give stuff away to them too.
  • Be okay with a lack of control. Sometimes forums go in odd directions - if you over-police it, users won't feel like they can have a community.
  • Be prepared to go where your customers already are. Microsoft and other companies suffer from "not built here" syndrome. If something isn't built by you or your group - it's not good enough. This is especially problematic when there might already be a thriving community on a different platform. For example, if your customers are spending a lot of time in Google Groups, consider creating a formal presence there rather than build your own infrastructure.
  • Figure out a way for users to tell others what solved an issue. Maybe it's as simple as asking people to reply with "Hey, that fixed it!" or something more complex like Microsoft has with their forum.

Do you have a forum infrastructure in your organization today? What are the issues you've seen? Post a comment here to start a discussion.

Hunter Donald
Program Manager - Knowledge Management Strategy
Commercial Technical Support