Help Is on the Way
By Anand Narayanaswamy
Nowadays, customers of various service providers, especially Web hosting, depend on articles and tutorials posted on a support portal, popularly called a knowledge base. This helps providers as they need not have to reply to the same repeated questions raised by customers through e-mail. When I reviewed InstantKB.NET 1.3 several years ago, it had the ability to post only articles under a specific category with a limited set of features (http://www.aspnetpro.com/productreviews/2005/10/asp200510an_p/asp200510an_p.asp). Moreover, the interface was not very attractive, nor user friendly. InstantKB.NET recently released version 2.0 of the product, with tons of new features.
I tested the product by downloading it from the secured client area. My first impression was that the vendor did a great job to produce a rich and powerful knowledge base collaboration application. I would like to see the vendor implement a Web-based installation wizard procedure, as this would simplify the initial task involved with the setup and configuration of the product especially for beginners. The current build requires manual execution of SQL script and editing of the configuration file, as in the previous version, which I feel is too time consuming.
A key feature of the product is that it ships with five extra modules in to addition the knowledge base module, including troubleshooter, downloads, full-text search (including attachments), tags, and glossary. RSS and security trimmed results are also included (see Figure 1).
Figure 1: A view of the home page.
The look and feel of the articles posted in the knowledge base has been completely changed with tooltips and a ratings display. Moreover, you can sort articles based on title and date by clicking the relevant links located on the header bar. I noticed that the product displays the articles quickly because of its implementation of AJAX. The troubleshooter module provides a step-by-step guide to solve a particular issue, and will be helpful if you wand to find a solution quickly rather than manually browsing each article. The download module helps you upload manuals and other documentation in either PDF or Word format. The vendor has implemented robust search functionality with a wide range of options (see Figure 2).
Figure 2: User interface of the search module.
The tags module displays a cloud of keywords fetched from each article posted in the knowledge base. You should note that tags will not be displayed until it is specified while posting an article. I feel that users can quickly find relevant content upon clicking the appropriate tag. As the name suggests, the glossary module displays a list of terms with its meaning categorized alphabetically (see Figure 3). The product initially shows all terms, but users can perform sorting by clicking each alphabet letter displayed on the top of the page.
Figure 3: The glossary module in action.
A unique feature of this module is that the relevant explanation for each term is shown in a pop-up window. InstantKB.NET ships with a powerful registration module, through which users can register on the site to submit content.
The vendor has completely modified the administration area and redesigned it from scratch. As soon as I logged in I was able to see an Edit icon beside each article. The relevant article management page will be displayed upon clicking on it, which I hope will simplify the editing task. The control panel has been separated into two sections: Staff and Admin. While the staff control panel enables you to add/update/manage articles, downloads, and other modules, the admin control panel helps an administrator manage staff, departments, profiles, and the settings associated with the entire system. A complete list of all the features can be viewed at http://www.instantasp.co.uk/Products/InstantForum/Features.aspx.
A unique feature of the product is the implementation of custom fields (see Figure 4). With the help of this feature, the site administrator can add fields using any one of the standard HTML controls, as well as add the caption of their choice to the knowledge base, troubleshooter, and downloads module. The content posted to the knowledge base and downloads can be filed under different types based on the relevance of the subject matter. Even though the new version is more flexible than its previous build, you need to make sure to host it with a good Web hosting provider who provides support for .NET applications.
Figure 4: A view of the various content types.
The vendor hosts a live demo of the product (http://demos.instantasp.co.uk/InstantKB20/Default.aspx), which enables you to experience all the included features without any hassles. I would suggest the vendor implement a ticket-based support module through which end users can post support-related queries and interact with the administrator. I would also prefer to see more skins in the next edition of the product. It would be nice if the vendor provides several modules as add-on to the core package. For instance, a module can be developed to display Announcements posted by the administrator and should appear on the right side of the home page as and when it is installed from the administrator control panel. I would also recommend the vendor integrate their forum software (InstantForum.NET) into the product, as it will facilitate much better networking between the provider and their customers.
I am impressed with the overall quality of the product and I highly recommend it for any service provider who needs to establish a close working relationship with their customers by providing resources that can be accessed any time, any where.
Web Site: http://www.instantasp.co.uk/
Price: Starting from US$199
Anand Narayanaswamy, a Microsoft Most Valuable Professional (MVP), works as an independent consultant and chief technical editor for http://ASPAlliance.com based in Trivandrum, India. He has published several articles related to .NET for various Web sites and is the author of Community Server Quickly (http://www.packtpub.com/community-server/book). He runs http://www.learnxpress.com, http://www.dotnetalbum.com,http://www.csharpfaq.com, http://www.computerbookreviews.org, and http://www.devreviews.com. He loves to play with gadgets during free time and he maintains a portal (http://www.digitalgadget.info) dedicated to digital hardware. Anand blogs at http://www.visualanand.net and can be reached at mailto:[email protected].