Interviewing Subject Matter Experts

A common ritual for tech writers is interviewing other people.

Like much in life, interviewing does get easier as the years pass because of:

  • Repetition.
  • People eventually get to know one other better.
  • Growing self confidence.
  • Refining interview techniques.
  • Learning the quirks and habits of other people.
  • Remaining in the same field improves overall knowledge.

One way to help with interviewing is to remember that relationships tend to grow and mature. During a first interview two people might not know each other, but that is not the case thereafter. Familiarity tends to improve comfort.

Another way to improve comfort is enrolling in a local community college course to learn to communicate. Or find a class explicitly designed to teach interview techniques. Practice makes perfect.

Subject matter experts (SMEs) have lives too. Everybody is trying to get through this weird thing called life. Do not be afraid to break the ice with social questions about hobbies and family. An interview is just a conversation. Act like a person and the SME likely will too.

Do not be in a hurry to interview SMEs. Liberally use FIXME tags in documentation. The natural process of writing and revising tends to continually expose changing information, which reduces the number of FIXME tags. Reducing the number of FIXME tags reduces interaction with SMEs.

Before scheduling an interview ask the person for a preferred method. SMEs might be introverts and might prefer methods such as email or phone.

Do not be afraid to interview in oddball places, such as outdoors during a “smoke break,” water coolers, or once in a blue moon, the washroom. Limit these kinds of interviews to a single short question and keep the conversation casual.

Interviews tend to run well when the number of questions is limited. Wading through a long list of questions is gruesome for both people.

One way to avoid formal interviews is asking one question and one question only in an email. ("Give me a ping Vasilly. One ping only please.”)

Before interviewing a person vis-a-vis, send a note or email asking where in current documentation certain information is found. Lots of information is discoverable that way and does not require directly interviewing an SME. As technical writing involves some level of research, this kind of approach should become normal without asking an SME at all. Just dig into the existing references.

Tech writers often become beta testers. Dig into the product. Poke and break things. This method provides information as well as produce good questions. Often this approach helps improve the product or service.

When interviewing any person, remember that the person probably is busy. Do not be late, be courteous, show respect, and be prepared with an actual list of questions. When practical, forward a list of the questions to the SME so the SME can be prepared. Forwarding questions can be used to reduce interview times because busy (and lazy) SMEs will reply with references where to find the information.

Learning is hard. When not understanding an answer try to reword the explanation and ask the SME if the reworded reply is correct.

Earn respect. Many SMEs tend to detest lazy writers. Even the most grumpy SMEs will grow some level of respect for a tech writer if the SME believes the writer is working hard at the RTFM game and striving to learn.

Always remember that everybody is on the same team striving toward the same (company) goals.

Posted: Category: Usability Tagged: Tech Writing

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