Subject Matter Experts (SMEs) are essential to enable you the technical author to write that document. Without their input you will struggle. So, how does an experienced technical writer consider approaching and interviewing SME?
I base my advice on my personal experiences of talking to and working with SMEs. You will no doubt find, like me, that some SMEs are difficult while others are happy to help.
Approaching and Interviewing SMEs
- Make sure you schedule a meeting with the SME in advance, do not turn up at their desk and expect to talk. Most SMEs are busy and might work on an important task.
- Make sure you know the SMEs area of ability and their role within the company
- If you collaborate with other technical writer’s check any project management plans or ask if they have already spoken to that SME
- If yes check the information to see if it applies to you. It will save time asking the SME twice for the same information and prevent any stern reminders that they have already discussed ‘XYZ.’
- I use a dictaphone to record interviews because it means if I have any queries I can always run the recording back. To date, no SME has objected to me recording the conversation.
- If they DO, it will mean listening intently and writing the information
- Approach the Interview at the appointed time:
- Do not be surprised if the SME cancels the meeting because of other demands
- If so, reschedule the meeting
- Always regard the interview as another knowledge capture exercise, which adds to your experience, do not assume you know everything before you get there, even if you do.
- The SME will assume that you know what they are talking about; if not – stop the interview, and either request a less technical explanation or if you still do not understand then you need to reassess your ability to do the job.
- Only schedule an hour for the interview but clarify that if there are any points which are not clear, you will need to reschedule more time
- Be clear – there will be a peer review required, but you will let them know in advance when the document is ready for review
If the SME is not aware of your role or why you need their comments to introduce the project and you if you have not already done so introduce yourself
- The SME may not know everything and may need to refer you to another SME for information
- When you return to your desk, start writing up the document. Do not wait for a few days, even if you have recorded the interview
- Carry a pad and pen. You may need to ask the SME to draw the infrastructure