Interviewing Subject Matter Experts

Most technical writers end up working with Subject Matter Experts (SMEs) as they produce company texts and documentation. Unfortunately, not all technical writers or SMEs have positive, productive communication, and frustrations between the two parties can be common.

Researcher Debbie Walkowski interviewed 19 software engineers and determined that technical experts are often frustrated by writers who ask uninformed questions or pretend to understand technical concepts. In a survey of 31 writers, Martha Lee and Brad Mehlenbacher found that technical writers grow frustrated with the lack of time and accessibility offered by some SMEs, poor SME communication skills, and a concern that “the SMEs did not respect the writer’s role in the development process.”

Despite these frustrations, writers and SMEs can have productive relationships. The advice from practitioners and experts about conducting good SME interview practices tends to boil down to preparing, asking good questions and then listening actively, and behaving professionally.

Most experts recommend that SME interviews will be much more productive if the writer prepares heavily in advance. As Connie Malamed writes in “How to Brain Sync with a Subject Matter Expert“:

At all costs, don’t walk into a meeting with a SME knowing nothing about the subject. Your questions will be more intelligent and you’ll be better able to drill down if you are a little knowledgeable about the content.

Many writers find it helpful to gather previous documentation related to the project or similar project, or to review documents previously written by or with the SME. Warren Singer’s Intercom article “How to Interview Subject Matter Experts” suggests:

reading up on existing material related to the project: the system requirements specifications or marketing documentation, other internal documents, or relevant memos. If you are interviewing a new client, then check out the client’s Web site and look at previous manuals to gather background product information.

Writers should also become at least somewhat conversant in the key technical terms surrounding the project. That will save time in defining those terms during the interview and help the writer ask more productive questions.

When creating questions, writers should think carefully about their objectives for the project and also ask the SME about their objectives for the project. The writer needs to comprehend the technical aspects of the project as well. A terrific question comes from Abigail Wheeler’s helpful SME Content Collection Form (available at the bottom of Malabed’s article) is “What images, metaphors, models, or diagrams are useful for understanding the information and skill?” However, to avoid being overwhelmed with technical information, focus on what the document user will need to know in order to complete the desired tasks.

Regardless of their subject matter, questions should be open-ended and followed up by active listening, where the writer engages the SME by nodding, making eye contact, and observing the SME’s body language and tone. The interview “Effective Communication with Subject Matter Experts” offers this advice:

Open-ended questions are the only way to make sure that you and the SMEs are on the same page. If you just ask close-ended questions, you may think you have an understanding when you really do not. Open-ended questions and active listening are the only way to ensure that you have the same understanding. It is very costly if I tell you something, you say OK, then go off and do it without clearly understanding.

During the interview, writers should paraphrase the answers back to the SME to ensure that everyone is on the same page. Walter Singer offers a method of reflecting an SME’s answers in the writer’s own words:

In this method, you repeat back what the person has said to you in your own words. For example, you may say, “So what you are saying is that if the user wants to add a record to the database, he needs to first….” This is a great technique not only for clarifying what someone else has said, but also for committing it to memory.

In addition to asking questions, many experts suggest visual modeling or brainstorming between the writer and SME during the meeting. Ryan Berg’s article “How to Interview a Subject Matter Expert” commands writers to “Go to the Whiteboard!” with the SME to diagram the project:

You should ask the SME to frame what specific content they want conveyed in a diagramed form. The whiteboard process should be a loose, free-flowing exercise that captures the many different areas of interest the document might address. You will gather more information than you will likely use, but this exercise helps clarify what the SME wants in the document, as well as what they don’t want.

Whether you have a whiteboard or not, employing visuals is often a great idea. Writers or SME can illustrate key concepts on paper, or plan and draft what documents might look like. Writers should summarize the visual to ensure that they understand it as the SME does. Be sure to take or copy the visuals, and make sure to photograph any whiteboard or chalkboard drawings before erasing them.

Treating the SME with basic professional courtesy throughout the project process will also greatly improve writer/SME interactions. Schedule short meetings at the SME’s convenience. Many experts recommend meeting in a neutral location to balance out any power dynamics, but ultimately, writers should meet a location most convenient for the SME. Show respect for the SME’s knowledge and appreciation for their time. At the same time, keep the interview focused and on-track to make sure all vital information is covered. Be sure to establish a channel for further communication and questions.

Working with SMEs can be frustrating, but writers can greatly improve the situation by being prepared and professional. In addition to the articles above, these videos offer great advice for working with SMEs:

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