Re: Interviewing Subject Matter Experts

Subject: Re: Interviewing Subject Matter Experts
From: "Bondira:Joan" <jbondira -at- reesebros -dot- com>
To: "TECHWR-L" <techwr-l -at- lists -dot- raycomm -dot- com>
Date: Wed, 16 May 2001 11:28:59 -0400

Bruce Byfield wrote:

"Well, I wouldn't go quite this far. But I would say that the writer has
to provide the focus rather than the SME. Many writers don't realize
this fact - especially when just starting out."

...and then followed with a story to illustrate his point.

Yes, indeed! I've only been working as a TW for a year and a half, with no
previous experience in the IT world, and none that remotely prepared me for
interviewing SMEs. As a lone writer in a company that hadn't the faintest
legacy of legitimate documentation, it took me about six months to figure
out that I even *had* the power to impose focus on the "priests and
reverends". I used to allow SMEs to babble endlessly, go off in directions
that had nothing to do with my task at hand, ignore sequence, and mingle
minutiae with mega-headings.

I eventually realized that I couldn't continue to allow them to do this to
me, then go back to my desk with jumbled, incomprehensible notes, holding my
head and trying to pull it all together into some kind of logical form. I'm
still working on controlling the process better, but in the meantime, I've
found a very simple approach that's greatly improved the quality of
information I get, and minimizes the amount of time I use in getting it.
Maybe this strategy was obvious to all of you from the get-go, but it sure
wasn't to me at first, so I thought it might be helpful to pass along to

I let them *see* what I'm trying to do--I lost the legal pads, and replaced
them with whiteboards and/or those poster-sized Post-it notes. (I find the
latter preferable--they save a lot of tedious copying later, and are easily
transported to show someone else.) When the person I'm interviewing can
*see* me start an outline, begin to sketch a diagram, or initiate whatever
device I choose to bring some structure to the process, they usually get
with "my" program quickly. Often, it also helps them to think more clearly
about what they want to say, or reminds them of parts that they might have
otherwise left out. (Warning: make sure that you have full control of all
the magic markers, and never let them get their hands on one.) If they do
start drifting off into irrelevant areas, I stop writing or sketching, and
they usually get the hint.

With respect to the problem of actually getting them to sit in front of the
whiteboard in the first place, I have no brilliant solutions, but I've found
that once they've seen that I'm much better at organizing information than
they are, and that I can make the experience less painful than it might
otherwise be, they're more willing to make time for me in the future.
Becoming more "techie" certainly helps as well, so I am constantly reading
and taking courses to raise my level of understanding, but it seems that
what earns me the most respect from SMEs is my innate ability to arrange
ideas, develop models, recognize patterns and relationships, categorize,, and to represent these schemes clearly. I thought at first that IT
people would be very good at those sort of things as well, but at least
here, those abilities appear to be very rare. Who ever thought I'd find a
small pond where I'd get to be "special" because I simply make sense? Go

Joan Bondira
jbondira -at- reesebros -dot- com


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