Technical Writing Foundations: Mastering the Art of the SME Interview

As much as we’d like to think otherwise, it’s impossible for us to know everything we need to when that new technical writing project comes along. So at some point, we have to ask questions—and that means extracting information from one or more subject matter experts (SME) by means of an interview.  If you’re a technical writer easily overcome by stage fright or who clams up in conversations with mere acquaintances, conducting an interview with a SME can seem as intimidating as scaling Mount Everest. Interviewing SMEs is one part art, one part preparation, and one part social science experiment.  It’s a soft skill that can pay big dividends well beyond the immediate technical communication project.

In 2009, STC Fellow Rich Maggiani noted in a Summit presentation that “Interviewing is research as a social act,” which may qualify technical communication practitioners to wear yet another hat:  social science researcher.

Like other research more readily conducted via the internet or in labs, the SME interview comprises three basic components:

  1. Prepare for the Interview
  2. Conduct the Interview
  3. Summarize Key Points and Follow up on the Interview

However, these three steps can mask a multitude of tasks of varying complexity. If you’re new to interviewing SMEs to gather information you need for your technical content, or if you just need a refresher, try setting up a document (in your content creation tool of choice) that outlines the following tasks.

 

How a Technical Writer Prepares for SME Interviews

Determine the goal of the specific interview

On the surface, this seems like a “duh” statement—you’re gathering information.  But you need to be clear on the whys of gathering information so that you can frame the questions to be asked.  Maggiani defined two types of interviews:

  • Recovery interviews add to personal knowledge or support institutional knowledge retention.  These interviews aim to capture knowledge that could be lost through attrition or over time.
  • Discovery interviews aim to capture new knowledge or new insights on a topic, or as is often the case in technical communication, a new product, service, or process that is under development or design.

As technical communicators are more often called upon to provide expertise beyond product and user support, another interview type is becoming more common. If you are assigned to work on change management or process improvement initiatives, your goal in conducting interviews may be to achieve consensus. Most likely, you will be doing a series of interviews to uncover trends, opinions, cultural norms, etc.  As companies become more user-focused, consensus interviews can also play a valuable role in product design and user experience decisions.

The goal of your interview—the interview type—determines both the kind of secondary research you’ll want to do and how you organize and frame your questions

Homework for technical communicators

It almost goes without saying that in preparing to interview an SME, you must do your homework, and that means doing the background research.  Generally, you have quite a number of secondary research sources when you are planning recovery or discovery interviews.  Search out existing technical, promotional and informational documents to provide an overview of the product or service.  Start with the company intranet, network directories, and even bookshelves that might contain hard copy information, and expand your search to the internet to get publicly available information.

Development documentation, such as scope, requirements, and design documents will be critical to understanding the product/service and the overall framework for developing and delivering that product. Try wherever possible to acquire marketing documents such as proposals, sales collateral, and existing specification or data sheets so that you begin to get a sense of how the product is being positioned, and what features are resonating with customers or potential customers.  Review the customer facing website, and any press or commentary the company and its products have received. Finally, look for project documentation that can indicate where and how design decisions have been made, and risks and issues in play.

Remember that it helps to have some background on the SME you plan to interview.  Find out what role he plays on the project team, known areas of expertise, and recent activities to help you anticipate how the interview will flow.  If possible, find out a bit about the SME on a more personal level, such as interests, anniversary with the company, or recent promotions, to form the small talk questions that set the right tone for the interview.

Now you’re ready to gather this information together and organize it around general topics that meet your goal.  For example, if you’re doing discovery interviews on the upcoming release of an existing product, consider developing a matrix to record key pieces of information that relate to such areas as current features, product roadmap, customer enhancement requests and complaints, known issues, marketing messaging, technical support statistics, change management objectives, business partners and suppliers, and so on.  As you continue to gather this information, you can begin to organize s around the goal and assumptions from research into two or three topic areas

Prepare the Interview Questions

Those skilled talking heads you see on the talk show may look as though their questions are top-of—the-head, but rest assured, the questions were prepared and rehearsed in advance. Make use of the matrix of research you’ve collected to start preparing the questions.  This approach allows you to group the questions in a logical outline to follow in the interview. You may want to start with the 5Ws and 1H used by journalists (Who, What, When, Where, Why and How) to ensure that you cover the most important areas first.

Write your questions in a way that will elicit relevant information—make them open-ended or leading to guide them in a direction to make a follow-up question easier to formulate. Each question should focus on one thought to reduce the chances of rambling.  As you develop questions, anticipate possible directions the interview could go, and note them so that you can come back to the original framework.

Schedule the Interview

Before you send the meeting request to your SME, decide whether you will record the interview.  Weigh the pros and cons of the possibility of intimidating an interviewee with a recording or ensuring that information is correctly captured and allowing you to focus on listening versus taking notes.  If you choose to record, remember to ask the interviewee’s permission and test your recording device prior to the interview.

Here are some other must-dos for scheduling a SME interview:

  • Set aside no more than an hour, and include two or three options for a date and time in the initial request.
  • Provide high level topic areas in advance so the interviewee can adequately prepare.  Determine whether the detailed list of questions will help them prepare or stifle the discussion.
  • Be prepared to ask for a follow-up meeting after you’ve had a chance to compile your notes and determine any gaps.
  • Schedule the interview for a conference or meeting room to minimize walk-by distractions.

Conduct the Interview

Most technical communicators with experience in conducting SME interviews would probably agree on the following guidelines for conducting the interview:

  • Start on time.  Respect the time of the person who has consented to be interviewed. Mute your cell phone and ask the interviewee to do the same.
  • Begin with some “small talk” to set a comfortable tone and atmosphere and put the interviewee at ease.
  • Acknowledge the subject’s expertise … and your own.  Your interview is an SME for a reason, and most people are more likely to open up if you acknowledge their expertise. To help set the direction and expectation, be confident in your own expertise.  Remember, you’re the professional communicator.
  • State the goal upfront and remind the interview of the topic areas you plan to cover
  • Guide the flow: Relax and be confident as you ask questions, “derail the tangents”
  • Practice active listening to keep the interviewee engaged and the knowledge flowing. You’ll want to use reflective techniques to confirm the answers being provided, such as “So if I understand correctly, the frabjom must be set to ‘ready’ before …” If the meeting room has a white board, encourage the interviewee to illustrate their points, and capture and confirm concepts and issues as they come up. If your mobile device has a camera, you can take pictures of the white board.
  • Observe body language and adjust your style and questions accordingly.  You may need to adjust your own body language to indicate openness, or gently guide questions in a different direction. Also, maintain a calm and positive approach.
  • Tune out distractions. As you develop a good rapport with the interviewee, it can be easy to get sidetracked. Remember to keep taking notes throughout the conversation to maintain your focus.
  • Learn to avoid anticipating answers, remain objective, and refrain from criticism or argument.  This reduces the risk of omissions or gaps as well as the amount of follow-up you’ll need.
  • Ask the interviewee for additional thoughts or suggestions before moving to the next topic and before you close out the interview.
  • Review and confirm any action items you and the interviewee have agreed to take.
  • Thank the interviewee for their time at the conclusion of the meeting.

 

SME Interview Success Depends on Follow up and Debrief

Whew, the interview is finished and you’re back at your desk ready to tackle other items on your technical writing to-do list.  Hold on.  While everything is still fresh, take some time to write up a summary of the main points covered.  List any questions that still need to be answered and confirm that you’ve listed all the action items.  As soon as possible, send an email to your interviewee, again thanking them for their time, reminding them of action items, and if you have them, some of your follow-up questions.

You often end up interviewing several SMEs during the research phase of a technical writing project.  Sometimes the answers provided by one SME don’t gibe with those provided by another.  That means additional follow-up may be necessary to address conflicting information.  Subsequent emails, hallway conversations, or formal meetings between several SMEs may end up on your agenda.

To improve on your ability to conduct an effective SME interview, you should take some time to debrief on the one you just completed.  Sit down with your manager or a trusted colleague and discuss how the interview went (here’s another place where a recording can be very helpful). What kind of obstacles caused you to stumble?  What kind of changes in body language and voice tone did you notice? Recognize how you may be perceived as you conduct an interview, and practice ways to overcome habits that may be preventing the free flow of information.

Producing effective technical communication content requires that you’re ready to seek out the experts, ask the relevant questions, and mold the answers into content that your audience wants and needs to consume. Interviewing SMEs is an art as much as a technique and skill at eliciting relevant information from unwilling or unwitting sources of information comes with practice.

 

Resources for Interviewing Skills

http://uxmatters.com/mt/archives/2011/02/developing-your-interview-skills-part-ii-during-the-interview.php

http://uxmatters.com/mt/archives/2011/01/developing-your-interviewing-skills-part-i-preparing-for-an-interview.php

http://www.uxmatters.com/mt/archives/2007/09/conducting-successful-interviews-with-project-stakeholders.php

http://www.whitepapersource.com/writing/artofinterviewing/

http://www.writersblock.ca/summer1997/feature2.htm

http://www.stcsig.org/usability/newsletter/0505-sme.html

http://www.wadeware.net/technical-documentation/how-to-interview-a-subject-matter-expert/

http://www.slideshare.net/RichMaggiani/effective-interviewing-of-subject-matter-experts

http://www.uxmatters.com/mt/archives/2011/02/subject-matter-experts-putting-users-at-the-center-of-the-design-process.php

Connie Giordano

Connie Giordano is a partner in INKtopia Limited and editor of TechWhirl's Tech Writer Today online magazine. She has been a list member and contributor since the days when 14,400 baud was high speed communications, and Windows 95 was state-of-the-art.

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