Re: Interviewing Subject Matter Experts

Subject: Re: Interviewing Subject Matter Experts
From: Jo Baer <jbaer -at- mailbox1 -dot- tcfbank -dot- com>
To: "TECHWR-L" <techwr-l -at- lists -dot- raycomm -dot- com>
Date: Tue, 15 May 2001 12:54:15 -0500

Tina Lison wrote:

> Hi All,
> I am a Technical Writer and am currently enrolled in a technical
> communications class, ?Writing Strategies for Technical and Professional
> Communications.? For a class project, I chose to write about interviewing
> and establishing good relations with the Subject Matter Experts (SMEs) with
> whom you work.
> I am seeking the thoughts and ideas of fellow Technical Writers about this
> topic and about any of the following questions to which you would like to
> respond:
> * What advice would you give to a new Technical Writer about interviewing
> SMEs?

My answer to this and the next two questions is the same. Be prepared. Be
specific. Be respectful of the SME's time. Have all necessary materials
assembled and marked. Don't ask for all the information at once.

Actually, I don't interview SMEs in person all that often. I use a question and
answer template that I developed (took about ten minutes) and submit written
questions along with any relevant written materials, such as a project
requirements document or a draft of a manual chapter. I make my written
questions as specific as possible, and often give a page (and sometimes
paragraph) reference so the SME can go back to the document in question.

On the question and answer document I leave plenty of blank space after the
question for a written answer. I keep questions in the order that the material
appears in the document. If I'm asking an SME to answer questions about a rough
draft of a manual, I include the current table of contents so the SME doesn't
have to guess about whether I'll cover a topic more thoroughly, or at all, in
another part of the manual.

If I'm asking an SME to answer questions about a manual, I break the manual into
chapters, put a cover page and copy of the TOC on each, and give a specific
deadline. I have a stamp that says PLEASE MAKE ALL MARKS IN RED so I don't have
to go back to an SME who wrote his or her remarks in very light pencil and ask
to have the remarks read aloud to me.

I find that giving SMEs written questions and answers in the context of the
document I'm either writing or working from allows them to use their time
efficiently and on their own schedules. I might schedule meetings with all of
the SMEs on a project as necessary to clarify points and tie concepts together,
but these rarely last more than an hour and I usually bring food.

If a question has me at a standstill, I call or email the pertinent SME.

> * What tips on interviewing SMEs would you give to an experienced Technical
> Writer?

See above

> * What have you done or would you recommend doing to establish a good
> working relationship with the SMEs with whom you will be working? What would
> you recommend doing to maintain the relationship?

See above. The most crucial thing, in my opinion, is respect for the other
person's time.

> * If you have ever had difficulty getting information from non-responsive
> SMEs, what is the most effective way you have found to resolve the problem?

My experience has been that SMEs are 99.9% cooperative when you use methods that
respect their time and schedules, and make it easy for them to respond. You can
always run into a jerk who is unresponsive to your best and most professional
efforts. Find a bigger hammer. Depending on the importance of the project and
the information being withheld, and the proximity of the deadline, go as far up
the ladder IN YOUR DEPARTMENT as you need to. Don't skip levels. Don't go to the
SME's boss, even if you have a good working relationship with her/him. Document
your efforts to get the information and the responses you got. Some things are
just out of your hands. If the project is important enough, someone will get the
SME to cooperate. Chocolate and/or alcohol can go only so far. ;-)

> * If you have ever had difficulty getting information from non-responsive
> SMEs, what is the most creative way you have found to resolve the problem?

See above.

> * What pitfalls do you think that Technical Writers often fall into in
> their interviews and relations with SMEs?

Not having specific goals and not being organized. As you can tell by my initial
response, I think that organization and specific quetions are big keys to
success in this area. What you can't tell is that I've spent years honing the
approach I use, and I've found by experience (much of it as a lone writer) what
works and what doesn't. You have to find your own way, and you have to consider
how you interact with people. You have to analyze the structure of your
organization, how projects work, and from that develop your approach to getting
information from SMEs. At this moment I'm working with that .1% SME who just
came to me and said that all of my questions are good but I don't need the
answers to all of them. You'll encounter your version of this person, learn all
about logging every nit-picky detail of your interaction with her/him, and get
on with things.

Best of luck. It can be a wonderful, interesting, maddening, satisfying

Jo Baer
Senior Technical Writer
TCF National Bank
Minneapolis, Minnesota
jbaer -at- mailbox1 -dot- tcfbank -dot- com

If you can remain calm, you
just don't have all the facts.

> Thank you for sharing your experience and knowledge!
> Tina Lison
> tina_lison -at- hotmail -dot- com


*** Deva(tm) Tools for Dreamweaver and Deva(tm) Search ***
Build Contents, Indexes, and Search for Web Sites and Help Systems
Available now at or info -at- devahelp -dot- com

Sponsored by Information Mapping, Inc., a professional services firm
specializing in Knowledge Management and e-content solutions. See or 800-463-6627 for more about our solutions.

You are currently subscribed to techwr-l as: archive -at- raycomm -dot- com
To unsubscribe send a blank email to leave-techwr-l-obscured -at- lists -dot- raycomm -dot- com
Send administrative questions to ejray -at- raycomm -dot- com -dot- Visit for more resources and info.


Interviewing Subject Matter Experts: From: Tina Lison

Previous by Author: Re: New TECHWR-L Poll Question
Next by Author: RE: Interviewing Subject Matter Experts
Previous by Thread: Interviewing Subject Matter Experts
Next by Thread: Re: Interviewing Subject Matter Experts

What this post helpful? Share it with friends and colleagues:

Sponsored Ads