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In the implementation of our companies new website, we have a help page which lists all of our knowledge base articles and allows users to search through them to allow them to help themselves before having to contact us. At the moment the design coming from the designers has been implemented however I and another developer are thinking it's not as good as it could be in terms of usability.

Here's the current implementation:

Current design

With this, the categories of the knowledge base topics are in an inline list long the top and the topics themselves are down the side. When one of these topics is clicked it dynamically updates the copy on the right with the contents of the topic.

The alternative design that we've come up with is a little bit different, and unfortunately I only have it jotted down on paper at the moment:

Proposed solution

Here, the categories are listed along the side and the topics are condensed into a dropdown box. When a topic is selected from the dropdown, the content is automatically updated to match.

Obviously, we're developers, not UX experts, and we'd love to hear some feedback on what the best way to implement this would be.

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My personal opinion:

Placing the topics in the dropdown makes them less 'discoverable' at a glance, making the user go through an extra step to see the topics for the category they just selected.

If you were to list the categories in the left column, I would suggest listing each topic for the category in the right column, with a short summary (or first 'x' characters) beneath the title.

Clicking the topic would expand the item, displaying the entire topic content.

Update +1 to Anna Prenzel (Cannot upvote on this site yet) - The example from her answer is exactly what I had in mind.

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Your design, in my opinion, puts too much emphasis on category. To expand upon what Anna Prenzel is saying, I suggest you think of the user stories behind the interface...

Typically when I search a knowledge base, I think of categories as a secondary or even unnecessary feature for me to get what I want.

Think of the experience of using a help desk, which is what you hope a knowledge base UI simulates: You walk to a counter and ask a knowledgeable person a question. They answer the question.

Now think of an automated phone tree experience: In order for the computer on the other end of the line to know how to help you, it needs you to select from a list of categories. You wait through a slow reading of all the categories before selecting one (or once you hear it, you press its number). You can go through this several times before getting where you want. (I usually say "agent" to skip this process, don't you?)

So I expect the text I enter to lead me to similar topics. I all but ignore categories. It may help me a little down the line, but I likely wouldn't miss it if it were absent.

Instead, I expect the interface to act as a knowledgeable concierge, with an understanding of which category and content has most to do with my query. All I would need to do is ask my question, and I'd get a slew of possible answers. In other words, If the intelligence built into the backend of this interface is doing most of the heavy lifting, the interface can be simple and accurate. And this, of course, is the ideal.

Now I am a "user set of one", as they say, so don't take my word for it... Have you asked your customers how they use the knowledge base, or looked at a handful of other Knowledge base UI designs? This is where UX people will typically go to get inspiration for their work.

Short version: If you do end up using categories, diminish their size, and put the focus on the search results.

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In order to provide a good user experience, unneccessary steps have to be avoided as far as possible. In general, if the user has to choose one out of several options, you should provide him information that allow him to decide with which option he will achieve his goal.

In the ideal case, the user should find the topic that solves his problem straightaway. The topic title is often not sufficient for this purpose. You often find topic lists that provide a preview on the content or other additional information characterizing the content. The picture below shows an example from the microsoft office support page.

Summarizing, you should make sure that enough information is provided to find the most suitable topic with a few clicks.

enter image description here

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