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Documentation Process: Maximizing Effectiveness of the SME Interview

In the technical communicator's world, the subject matter expert (SME) is the engineer, developer, programmer, operator, or support person that has experience with, and knowledge of, the products and information that technical writers and instructional designers need to learn about in order to do their jobs. It’s these SMEs that give us the insight into issues that can make the difference between our delivering a good documentation product and a great documentation product. For this reason, a large part of our personal successes developing content hinge on the relationships we foster with our SMEs.

SME InterviewTechnical communicators interview the SMEs to extract information and convert it into a form suitable for their audience. The SMEs are then required to check the drafts for accuracy and to sign off on the documents or training developed. Many times, these same SMEs can also be the source of our frustration when they won’t budge on getting rid of unnecessary information or when they have their own ideas on how we should design our training. The purpose of this post is to identify some of the interviewing techniques that I’ve used over my career to create an empathy with SMEs and to maximize the effectiveness of the SME interview.

There is a wide variety of factors that can affect your SME interview. In most cases, the SME will have moved on from your project and is knee-deep in a new assignment. Taking time out from his or her busy schedule to talk with you may not be a high priority. It’s critical, therefore, that you make sure you’re on time for your appointment and you’re well prepared so that you can optimize your interview time. One habit I developed as a follow up to interviews is to provide good feedback to each SME as well as to his or her boss. Doing so will serve you well on your immediate project and make it easier should you need more of the SME’s time down the road.

The following is a summary of some basic actions you can take before, during, and after your interview to maximize the effectiveness of your SME interview.

Prepare for the interview:

  • Find out any background information on the SME that might help you set the tone for your interview
  • Understand the SME’s role on the project, including areas of his or her expertise
  • Do your homework by learning as much as you can about your project
  • Prepare a list of potential questions that include objectives for the project
  • Flag items that need clarification
  • Be respectful of the SMEs time and give the SME a briefing as to the purpose of the interview and how long you anticipate your meeting will take
  • Create a preliminary agenda, prioritizing your topics, and provide it to the SME in advance of your meeting

Conduct the interview:

  • Be prompt for your meeting
  • Behave professionally
  • Stay focused on the information you need
  • Explain the SME's role in the interview
  • Explain to the SME what you are trying to accomplish and why
  • Ask the SME about their objectives for the project
  • Explain how the data you gather will be used
  • Ask probing questions and then be an active listener and learn from your SME
  •  Should you find yourself short on time, make sure the information you have is correct and reschedule another interview to follow up

Follow up on the interview: 

  • Recap what has been discussed during the interview
  • If anything doesn't make sense to you, let the SME know that you don't understand and ask for clarification
  • Take notes and label them with the project name, task name, SME’s name, and the date of the interview to avoid confusion
  • Close the interview with a polite thank you and answer any additional questions the SME might have
  • When you finish your interview transcribe your notes immediately so that their meaning is fresh in your mind
  • Create your drafts in a timely manner
  • Schedule another meeting for the SME to review your draft and make any required changes
  • Establish a channel for further communication, questions, and approvals

A face-to-face interview with the SME is generally the preferred way to gather information. However, you may have to conduct some interviews by phone or webcam. Whenever scheduling meetings, make sure they are short and the location or method is convenient for the SME. Always show respect for the SME’s knowledge and appreciation for his or her time. Also, keep the interview focused and on-track to make sure all vital information is covered.

Attribute: Image above courtesy of photostock at

9 Tips for Improving Writer/SME Interactions

  1. Treat the SME with basic professional courtesy throughout the project process. You will need to talk with the SME in the research phase of your project to get your facts straight and you will need to involve him or her in the technical validation of your drafts to make sure that your interpretation of information matches theirs.

  2. Whatever you do, never walk into a meeting with an SME knowing nothing about the subject. Your questions will be more intelligent and you’ll be better able to better understand if you are familiar with the content and purpose of the project.

  3. Use a recording device wherever possible to capture the nuances of your interview. Make sure you get the SME’s approval ahead of time to record the interview. Explain that it dramatically increases the accuracy and time efficiency of the entire project.

  4. Take notes (hand-written or electronically) to provide visual clues to your discussion. The notes will serve as a reminder of what's been discussed so that you can ask follow-up questions, or return to key topics that might need clarification.

  5. Always have a camera available...just in case. "A picture is worth a thousand words" still holds true.

  6. Ask the SME questions such as:
    -- What is the most important thing that the audience should know about this topic or product?
    -- Who are the different types of people likely to use the content?
    -- What are the benefits to each type of user?

  7. When creating additional questions, think carefully about their objectives for the project. Discuss the need for images, diagrams or screenshots required to support the content. Focus on what the document user will need to know in order to complete desired tasks.

  8. Consider asking the SME to frame what specific content they want conveyed in a drawing format. This can be an exercise that helps clarify what the SME wants to see in the document.

  9. Respect the SME's time. If you promised to end your meeting in 30 minutes, try hard to keep to that schedule. If you find that you still need to obtain more information from the SME, arrange for a follow-up meeting.

Remember a good rapport with your SME is critical to completing a productive and successful project. Think of and treat the SME as part of your team, you’ll increase their sense of value, help tear down any existing walls, and enrich your project.

Have you had a bad outcome for a project because of a conflict with an SME? Share your personal experiences in the comments below.

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