Fine Tuning: "Blueprinting" your Help Center

Fine Tuning is a day-long discussion about a specific topic, hosted by a member of the Customer Success team. See all of the Fine Tuning series discussions .

Blueprinting your Help Center

If you build it, they will come right?

Architects develop blueprints to ensure construction crews build houses according to plan, which ultimately pleases their customers. Blueprints evolve through clear direction and input from key the stakeholders, in this case - members of the family planning to leverage the home for everyday living (and satisfaction). Various meetings with the family ensure that the architects have a clear understanding of desired household experience, needs, wants, budget, expected value, etc.

The same applies to “blueprinting” your Help Center - to build a rich, useful Help Center that encourages your customers to self-serve, you need to invest time up front to get organized and make a plan. This Fine Tuning session with Lisa Painter focuses on empowering you to build a Help Center that will pave the way to great customer experiences, while also providing value to your organization.

Lisa joined Zendesk in early 2014 with 17 years of Customer Support Leadership & Account Management experience. Although versed in all aspects of customer service, Lisa is most noted for her expertise in knowledge management.

Please join the discussion and share your experiences with “blueprinting” and planning for Help Center deployments in the comments below. This Fine Tuning session will cover:

  • Gathering your Help Center Wish List
  • Getting Down to Business
  • Executing by the Blueprint

Part 1: Gathering your Help Center "Wish List"

When a family starts thinking about building a home, they do things like browse magazines, pin dream concepts on Pinterest, and watch HGTV to get inspired. When I meet with customers planning to rollout Help Center, we start by doing the same thing. We “window shop” to get ideas and develop a wish list.

Below I’ll outline how to organize a Help Center window shopping activity that will help you create a list of requirements for your own Help Center. We’ll review some key concepts for building a team, creating your Help Center review checklist, building a list of Help Centers to review for inspiration, and planning for and holding your window shopping session.

Build your “Dream Team”

  • A team is typically 5-8 people and includes roles such as: a Support Exec, Manager, Support Agent, Product Manager, Knowledge Manager, Web Master, Data Scientist, and if you’re brave, a customer.
  • Selecting a combination of roles will result in a team that ensures you’re considering the customer experience from every angle
  • Tip: Why not name your team? It make things more official (and fun!).

Create your Help Center window shopping checklist

Your window shopping checklist will be comprised of functionalities your customers have requested, that you’ve experienced as a customer yourself, or that your organization discusses frequently as a way to improve customer experience. Creating a checklist of different elements or features that a Help Center has will help you take inventory of each Help Center you review for inspiration.

It’s important to create and use a standard checklist to review each Help Center in order  to help keep the team on track and ensure that your reviews are consistent. Below is an example checklist, though you should note that yours may have more rows, depending on what the functionalities the team selects to review in each Help Center.

Over the years, I’ve seen some great Help Centers, and they typically include some standard, yet key, elements.  Although your initial Help Center may not include all of these elements, they are all good to consider:

  • Peer-to-peer interactions (aka: communities or forums)
  • Great findability through either search or navigation
  • Personalized Experience & Segmentation  (i.e. products owned, language your activities)
  • Exclusive Information & Updates (product info, customer events, blogs, etc)

Tip: Spreadsheets are great for checklists because you can later sort and filter the list. For example, you can later sort by priority and revisit some of the Help Centers to help fine tune your requirements for each functionality/enablement.

Note: Prioritizing will come later in the process. For now, just worry about getting your checklist setup.

Example Checklist

Build a list of Help Centers for the team to review

Reviewing a variety of Help Centers is a great way to inspire the team about all the possibilities, and when the focus moves from discussions to seeing functionality/enablement in action, it can be very exciting. This activity will also provide new ideas worth considering for your own future Help Center.

Tip : Reviewing more than ten Help Centers can overwhelm the team.

There are a few ways to find Zendesk Help Centers to consider adding to your list:

  • Check out some Best Help Centers we showcased in this March 2015 blog post
  • Take a look at our Beautiful Help Centers Pinterest board
  • Google _“/hc/en-us” _ to find more Help Centers powered by Zendesk
  • Refer to this Zendesk article where customers shared some of their favorite Help Centers
  • Visit 1-2 non-Zendesk Help Centers that you personally consider great or that you’ve visited yourself as a consumer (i.e. Apple Support)
  • Why not visit your main competitor’s Help Center? Nothing wrong with that!
  • Tour the Zendesk Help Center (I’m confident your team will be impressed!)

Plan your Help Center tour session

Decide how much time you will spend reviewing each Help Center, so you can allot the appropriate time for your session.

Generally, plan to spend anywhere from 5-15 minutes reviewing each Help Center on your review list. I tend to favor gathering “gut” reactions to Help Centers opposed to diving too deep into each one.

Tip: Customers tend to judge Help Centers upon arrival, so remember to think like your customer for this initial phase.

Assign review session responsibilities for each team member

  • Pick someone to lead the session to ensure you stay on schedule
  • Pick someone to “drive” and do the tour of each Help Center
  • Pick someone to update your checklist for each site and gather general comments on each. Note: I don’t suggest everyone fill out the checklist separately, but I’ve seen this done.

Arm the team with important information before the meeting

  • Clearly articulate the agenda in the meeting invite, so your team knows what to expect
  • Share the checklist prior to your session, so your team can suggest additions now vs. taking up precious session time later

Holding your Help Center review session

The fun day is here and you’re ready to window shop your predetermined list of Help Centers!

Here are a few tips to make sure that your review session goes smoothly and that you get the most value out it.

  • Remind everyone how much time is allotted for each Help Center and the importance of staying on schedule
  • As you browse through each Help Center, check off items on the check list and gather “gut” reactions & general feedback
  • If there is a strong difference in opinion on any element or feature of a specific Help Center, take note of it and move on

Part 2: Let's Get Down to Business

So, your team spent quality time together Help Center “window shopping” and now you have documented feedback to review. Just like the family providing ideas about their dream home to an architect, it’s now time to get down to the business and start making smart decisions based on reality.

The blueprint is the most critical part of building, since it details all of the elements needed to make the home come together. The blueprint allows you to understand the cost, efforts, and timelines associated with the project. The same applies to your Help Center blueprint.

Post window shopping session:

Before diving into an official project plan, I suggest bringing your Help Center team together (with or without stakeholders) for a “pre-project” collaboration session. This session allows you to get a nice gauge on how people are feeling coming out of the “window shopping” phase, and encourages some additional open dialog.

Here are some things to focus on in post session:

Place value on each of the checklist items and collaborate

It’s time to clearly articulate the expected value of each functionality/enablement you inventoried with your team. This forces the team to really think about each item and how it applies to the needs and expectations for your Help Center. If the expected value is low for a particular item on your checklist, your team can consider this during the prioritizing stage.

  • i.e, the knowledge base would help with deflecting tickets while also lending itself to increased customer satisfaction
  • i.e.  providing a list of upcoming customer events lends itself to better engagement with your customers

Prioritize the checklist

  • Think about your corporate or department business goals to help you prioritize the list. For example, if decreasing operating costs is a top priority, a knowledge base and/or community might be more valuable than links to the customers activities.
  • Consider the expected value when prioritizing your list.
  • Keep in mind, a multi-phase Help Center rollout is okay...no need to boil the ocean. By establishing priorities and building out your Help Center over time,  your organization will experience immediate value in a few key areas. This will also give you a chance to gather focused feedback from your customers.

Developing your Blueprint

Getting down to business means developing a concrete project plan (aka blueprint). The window shopping phase may only take a week or two to complete, but the blueprint phase can take months, as it involves a lot of details, discussions, cost planning/approvals, and possible changes to resources.

It’s absolutely pertinent that you assign a Project Manager (PM) to the Help Center project. The PM will be intimately involved with creating the blueprint (project plan), but, more importantly, executing it. He or she is ultimately responsible for tracking progress, ensuring resource coverage, and reporting any delays to the Help Center team and stakeholders.

Typical phases of a Help Center project plan include:

Project conception and initiation

The project is carefully examined to determine whether or not it benefits the organization. During this phase, the stakeholders will identify whether the project can realistically be completed (or afforded)Project definition and planning

Project definition and planning

The blueprint (project plan) should be put in writing so stakeholders can prioritize the project, calculate a budget and schedule, and determine what resources are needed

Note: We will discuss project plan steps 3-5 in “Part 3: Executing by the Blueprint”

Project Launch

Resources' tasks are distributed and teams are informed of responsibilities. This is a good time to bring up important project related information.

Project Performance and Control

The project manager will compare project status/progress to the actual plan during the project. During this phase, PMs may need to adjust schedules and take necessary measures to keep things on track

Project Close

Once tasks are completed and the team approves the outcomes, an evaluation is necessary to highlight project success and/or learn from project history

Project conception and initiation

During this first project phase, the team focuses mainly on the reality and the benefits of a Help Center to your organization.

This is a good time to leverage Zendesk to assist with demonstrations to the executive buyer signing off on the budget for the Help Center and executives in other areas of your business that will benefit from your Help Center rollout (i.e. Sales and Account Management). We all know happy customers = $$$

Tip: The more visibility you give to your Help Center plans, better the chance your project will be funded!

It’s also a great idea to include executives from divisions that may wish to use Zendesk in other areas of the business (IT, HR, Operations, etc). This avoids multiple technology purchases that address the same business problems and needs. During this phase, you can connect your executive buyer and/or sponsors with other Zendesk customers that can speak to the value Help Center is bringing to their organization. Zendesk Customer Success is always happy to make those connections.

Prototypes and visual concepts of your Help Center typically come together during the first phase. A lot of customers set up a sandbox of Zendesk after seeing the demo. This gives your organization the opportunity to get acclimated with the functionality, configuration, and overall openness to the platform. This will also give you a better idea about the areas your organization will handle during the project vs. bill out to Zendesk or a Zendesk Partner

Tip: Make sure you understand how Zendesk Help Center enables visibility to the outside world.  We had a customer build a bunch of test content without restricting access and Google indexed it!

Project definition and planning

During this second project phase, the actual project plan is put together in writing, a budget is calculated, and resources are determined. For example, if a knowledge base will be part of the initial rollout of Help Center, resources will need to be sourced and outlined, so it’s clear what people and processes need to be involved (all = $$$$).

At this phase, you will also figure out which functionality/enablement is out-of-the-box vs. the need for customization. Any work related to integrations to other technologies will be considered here also.

We won’t plan to go into details about creating a project plan in this discussion, but perhaps we can have someone from Zendesk Professional Services team host a future Fine Tuning discussion.  If that sounds good, sound off in our comment section!

The first two phases of the project basically determine if more steps in the project will continue; it’s the defining moment.

Part 3: Executing by the Blueprint

When the blueprint of the home is completed and construction is set to begin, the excitement mounts - but so do the expectations and the stress.

Just as it’s critical for the family and architect to openly communicate at this stage, to set mutual expectations and prepare for surprises, the same goes for your Help Center team. Making a decision to apply budget and resources to a project can often be stressful, because it comes along with high expectations for success and return on investment.

In this section, we’ll discuss the last three steps of a typical Help Center project plan: Project Launch and Execution, Project Performance and Control, and Project Close.

Project Launch

This is where the rubber hits the road! The team is brought together so the Project Manager (PM) and stakeholder(s) can explain everyone’s roles, discuss timelines, deadlines, and set clear expectations.  The project plan (blueprint) will provide a clear picture during the project kickoff meeting.

Typical roles in a Help Center rollout project include:

  • Project Manager(s)
  • Support Stakeholder (PM takes guidance from this person)
  • Technical Resource/Engineers
  • Knowledge Manager
  • Graphic Designer
  • Tools Manager
  • Data Scientist
  • Customer (again, if you are brave and very transparent)

*In some cases you may have a project team from Zendesk assisting with your project.  Zendesk provides a Project Manager and in many cases technical resources to help code, integration, etc.

During Help Center projects, the Project Managers (PMs) tend to focus on the technical aspects of the rollout, while the Support Stakeholder(s) and Knowledge Manager handle the process tasks such as:

  • Knowledge and Content creation
  • Continuously communicating with Zendesk
  • Design oversight
  • Initial analytics needs

Project Performance and Control

This part of the process can be a bit stressful since it’s all about hitting deadlines, trying to avoid delays, and deliver on promises.

With so many moving parts and people involved, the Project Manager and stakeholders are constantly monitoring the situation and sometimes resetting expectations.  The good news is, since you’re a Zendesk customer and the technology is flexible and beautifully simple, you will face less technical stress than you would with other, complex platforms. Of course, some delays are unavoidable, such as when resources being pulled for other projects, so it’s best for the team to discuss the ways you will deal with those delays and perhaps have some “plan Bs” in mind.

In this section, we won’t dive into the nitty gritty details of a project, but instead, I’ll speak to some of the ways other Zendesk customers have successfully rolled out their Help Centers.

Get a Helping Hand

Some Zendesk customers fund additional dollars in the project to leverage Zendesk Professional Services or a Zendesk Partner to do most of the work,  while others choose to do most of the “heavy lifting” with only minimal billable oversight by Zendesk. Typical tasks Zendesk customers may outsource to Zendesk or a partner include:

  • Project Manager oversight
  • Configuration of the system
  • Graphic design and UI customization
  • Integration and API work

Many Zendesk customers chose to do it alone and leverage Zendesk’s Help Center which provides a wealth of online information and knowledge that encourages self service and empowerment. There is an entire section committed to providing tools and assistance with setting up and configuring Help Center .*

*Note: I’ve been in this space for a very long time and this amount of information provided is actually not the norm.  When I came to Zendesk a year ago, I was very impressed with the knowledge share on the Help Center

Stay Agile, Review Continuously

Your original team should get together frequently to evaluate the Help Center as you progress. This way, if the team notices a confusing user flow or other issue, you can feed those changes into the project plan as you work towards completion, as opposed to all at once at the project “end.” If you are providing a knowledge base as part of your Help Center, this is the time when knowledge is being created and reviewed for “prime time”. Most customers assign a group of authors to seed the knowledge base with answers to the most popular questions coming into the assisted support model. These authors will build knowledge based on analysis of tickets.This article from the Zendesk Help Center, is a great best practices resource for not only building your initial knowledge base, but also for the ongoing care and feeding of your knowledge base.  One additional resource includes this Zendesk contributor guide which provide steps on how to do things such as adding articles, reordering them, embedding videos, restricting access to articles...lots of great information!

If your organization already has structured knowledge assets (i.e. in another knowledge system),  take the time to analyze the usefulness of the knowledge and determine how much will be migrated over to Zendesk.  Many times, your analysis will show you only really depend on a subset of the knowledge and the rest is outdated or irrelevant.  If the useful knowledge is only a small portion, you may decide to manually input the knowledge (opposed to paying for a migration)

  • Deploying a new Help Center is the perfect opportunity spring clean, but remember to consider both the time/effort involved with this analysis along with understanding the technical efforts

You may choose to provide early access to some of your key customers and gather their feedback on the effectiveness of the knowledge, the flow of the site, and overall functionality/enablement available with the first phase of your Help Center.

  • If you chose to do this, it’s very important to accommodate this in the project phase and allow ample time to take action on some of the feedback (i.e. need more knowledge for a certain product or area of the product)
  • It’s also important to consider which customers you choose for early access. Do you want to pick your highly opinionated customers for early access?

While the Help Center project unfolds, it’s also important to strategize on the ways you will market your new Help Center to customers, employees, and if applicable, your partner network.  We all hope we will build a Help Center and people will just come to benefit, but reality isn’t so accomodating.  You will typically start with your employees and get them energized and excited about benefits of the Help Center followed by external marketing.  Customers typically talk about their Help Center on their IVR messages, within email campaigns, and at user groups and conferences.  Of course, the best kind of marketing will be word of mouth, once your customers start realizing the value of your Help Center.

Allow Extra Time for Add-ons

If your initial project phase includes integrations to a chat or telephony platform, be sure you allow appropriate time and focus to test all aspects. Integrations require extra testing and therefore I recommend them for later phases (unless you have a lot of resources and time-to-production doesn’t need to be short term).

Project Close

Well, you have a living and breathing Help Center; congratulations! And just like the family that is excited to move into their new, custom home, you are ready for your customers, employees, and partners to live in and depend on your Help Center. This is a very exciting time so take the time to really enjoy the fruits of your labor.

Since you followed your project plan (aka blueprint), now is the time to meet as a team to ensure that you achieved the key tasks you initially intended. There may be outstanding tasks that were determined to be important, but able to be delayed until a further date or project.

In most cases, you will rollout your Help Center to your customers before closing out the project. It’s a best practice to have your project team on standby for a week or two to handle any unexpected needs or issues. The project team will not be heads down on project tasks for the Help Center anymore, but at least they can be cautious about the potential need to handle some last minute tweaking or configurations (better to be safe than sorry!)

What stage are you at in blueprinting your Help Center or executing by your Help Center blueprint? Share in the comments below.


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    Hi everyone:  I'm online and awaiting any questions or comments you may have about Part 1. Looking forward to collaborating today!

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    Part 2 is now posted and I'm standing by for comments and questions.  


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    @Lisa - I've worked with quite a few Help Centers and have built quite a few and so far your spot on with your post.  Its very important to plan everything in advance and when I'm building one out for a client I spend alot of time getting to know their product, user base, and design taste before doing some mock-ups.  Thanks for all the great tips as I'm sure this will help others when they get ready to build out their Help Center.

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    Thanks Wes....appreciate the feedback!  Since you have experience with Help Center planning and rollouts, do you have any "gotchas" or "lessons learned" you would like to share?  I'm always amazed with all the new things I learn each time I go through this process with a customer.   

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    Our final portion (Part 3) is posted!   If you have been reviewing my posts today, I hope it's been giving you ideas, tips, and inspiration.   If you have stories of building a Help Center, suggestions, or even dreams about your future Help Center, don't be shy...we want to hear from you :)

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    @Lisa - Each client is different therefore there is no one solution that works across the board.  You must be ready to adapt on the fly and make sure that you build plenty of time for customization's and design and get lots of feedback as I find the client likes it one way but then once they see live want it a different way.  This sometimes leads to scope creep so make sure you add plenty of time for this.  I would just say to keep an open mind and just because the process worked on your last client doesn't mean its going to work on your current client.  You offered some great tips and hopefully people will take advantage of these tips when building out their Help Center.

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    Nice chatting with you Wes and thanks for being a Community Moderator (we really appreciate it!)

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    Great article - thanks, Lisa!

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    Great article Lisa! Planning ahead is definitely the way to go.

    Although it isn't quite the same as starting from scratch, when we (Zendesk Support) moved from Web portal to Help Center we went through many of the same steps. In case anyone finds it useful, below is an overview of our migration process. Hopefully it's helpful to those who are considering migrating to Help Center from Web portal or another knowledge base product. 

    First we started by gathering a team that included multiple members from Documentation, Support, Training, Creative, Product, and Engineering. We then named a Project Manager to help us stay on track and organize communication between the teams and to put together a project page for notes and a SmartSheet for the timeline. 

    We then moved to auditing our existing Web portal content: categories were renamed, forums were consolidated, ancient content was archived, access settings were reevaluated. We divided up responsibility for sorting content to teams according to their familiarity with the content. We updated many of our translations and translated newer content. Scripts for automatically updating links from the old Web portal URLs were created (this doesn’t need to be done as links redirect, but we knew we’d eventually want everything to be streamlined), as were scripts for posting translated content quickly.   

    Our process was more complex than other migrations because we were also going to use many new Help Center features before they would eventually make their way to customers. We had to allot time for testing and feedback on those new features separate from the content and design work that was being done. (In case anyone is looking for these features, you can find out more about them in the Community v2 beta topic.) 

    With work from the design team wrapped up, new features complete, old content properly organized and new content ready to go, we started testing the site internally. Testing lasted for a week. Our Support Advocates played with it and reported bugs and formatting issues and the Product, Documentation and Training teams provided workflow and usability feedback. Once most of these concerns were ironed out we set a “flip-the-switch” moment: early on a Sunday morning, Pacific time, the quietest time in our forums. Doing this gave us a day to sort out any unforeseen issues before customers started heading back to work on Monday (or Sunday evening, Pacific time).

    The reason we were able to manage this project successfully was that we laid out our goals and everyone's responsibilities up front—we decided on our “must-haves” and our “can-make-dos” together (literally, with points and rankings). We synced in weekly meetings as an entire team and then in small groups more frequently as required by intermediate goals. Communication was constant, even across timezones, and we made sure that we knew what our next steps were at the end of each meeting. 

    Ok, that’s a long enough comment, if anyone has questions, let us know! 

    Good luck creating your Help Center!

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    I read somewhere that things will get messy, but they almost have to before they will get great...where did I read that??  I need that inspiration right now!

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    Great post, thanks!

    We are currently going through some internal knowledge base auditing sessions. Do you have any tips on how to conduct those sessions?

    Several team members will be on the look for all inconsistencies that our KB has.

    Thanks so much in advance!


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    Hi Federico:  Thanks for reviewing my post!  

    I do encourage you include the core team that helped you "blue print" your Help Center throughout your KM lifecycle, but of course knowledge comes from all areas of the business and therefore an audit should include a number of folks.  

    I've leveraged portions of this PDF in the past to assist with collecting my thoughts and organizing the audit.  It's a goody I've shared with various customers and perhaps you would find it valuable.  

    Let me know what you think and sorry about my delayed response (lots of business travel the past few weeks).  


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    Thanks so much @Lisa, awesome document!

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