Dealing with SMEs in Technical Communications and User Assistance

Dr. Kevin C. Moore, the Chief Learning Officer at Tier1 Performance Solutions, presented at WritersUA on the neuroscience of knowledge transfer, and Dealing with Subject Matter Experts (SMEs) in the Design Process using the same approach, a basis of understanding the mind.

Dr. Moore started his SME discussion with four letters—A, O, K and B—Attitude, Opinion, Knowledge and Behavior. Whatever you learned from his session, he said that those are the four critical things to take away. AOKB of you, your SMEs and your users.

You need knowledge from SMEs who think differently than you—a user assistance (UA) writer—or your users. So you have to understand how to elicit SME knowledge and how your users will leverage that knowledge when they need help.  But how do you get at that tacit knowledge? How do you work through language barriers or technical terms? How do you get a SME to go beyond the granular information to a big-picture view, to the information that your user will need?

Keep in mind that for your user, there is value in knowledge, but acquiring expertise is not the goal. Thus the focus should be on speed, timing and user performance, not completion. You as technical communicator must be able to take the “hodgepodge” of continuously changing SME knowledge, organize and develop it, then store, deliver and asses that knowledge. Moore depicted this process as a diagram.

Your SMEs have an analysis and evaluation role throughout a product life cycle—business case, high-level learning design, detail-level learning design, development, implementation, and maintenance and administration. Dr. Moore said, “The number one mistake in dealing with subject matter experts…we try to get all their information all at one time…a big brain dump.” To get to the knowledge you need for your users, you should tell your SMEs specifically what you want from them, not broadly ask what they know—because they know a lot.

Dr. Moore recommended a dose of realism, working with SMEs may not get better or easier, but since you should expect to need them more, you need to be more precise on matters or “discrete things.” Rather than trying to schedule a two-hour meeting that they won’t be able make time for, Moore suggests accessing a SME in more digestible 15- or 20-minute intervals—intervals that you lead with very specific objectives. While this may seem like a drawn-out method, these short spurts are far more effective than long meetings covering a lot of territory.

According to Dr. Moore, technical writers need more than authoring tools, they need a scientific or research-oriented approach to gathering and compiling information into effective user assistance. Such an approach helps emphasize the value of what UA writers bring to the table.

Think in terms of using SMEs to make eLearning evidence-based. At the same time, recognize that SMEs need your expertise and perspective because they are generally too close to the material to be able do your job better than you can.

SMEs do not tend to credit themselves with the user experience in a product’s performance, and typically do not understand the skill and knowledge required by a user, largely because they employ different schema for handling the product. “They chunk things in more complex ways, and past errors have lost meaning” for SMEs says Dr. Moore. SMEs tell good stories, but for effective user assistance, you must pick out what will actually be useful for users and identify gaps for users—you are the “great filter” who needs to apply the 80/20 rule: SMEs talk about stuff that is of interest, but only about 20 percent may add value to your end users.

Meeting in short spurts to conduct multiple passes through the information at many levels also helps you to get SMEs to think in simpler chunks. Another suggestion is to have SMEs participate in field tests that can open their eyes to who the end user is. Try to get variety in the SMEs you choose to cull information from—select a “newbie,” one who would be closer to a high-end user, and an expert because garnering fresh perspectives is important.

Remember that your goal is to accomplish user-centered design, which means achieving goals in several areas. The first is attitude and opinion. If your attitude is poor you won’t be successful; if the SME’s attitude about the project is poor, you will face even more difficulties. You need to fight poor attitude. Consider an intervention—communicating why the project is important, using a different SME or going to their boss if their attitude gets in the way. Dr. Moore suggests, at the start of the project, that you write down a SME’s name, their attitude about your project, and steps/interventions for improving the attitude. Determine their opinion about what the end user needs to know at the beginning also, and then use your opinion and observations as the big filter of information while labeling the SME’s opinion as such.

Using Cognitive Task Analysis with SMEs

Dr. Moore believes that cognitive task analysis is a great way to elicit information on how things get done. Overlay a detailed process map with a knowledge map (where the knowledge is in an organization) and overlay that with a decision map, to produce a cognitive task analysis. Moore shared this simple table for aligning a user and a SME’s cognitive task analysis:

Effective cognitive task analysis yields a mental model of both how users and SMEs look at the world relative to the content you put before them. For this, the good question is not whether they get it right, but where they go to discover the right way when they get it wrong. Look at Bloom’s taxonomy and the revised Anderson Bloom’s taxonomy  for help in understanding SMEs and their mental models. Bloom was also a point of reference for Phylise Banner during the STC’s Instructional Design for e-Learning certification course, so exploring his work will be of value in multiple ways.

Dr. Moore strongly recommends that you prepare for meetings with SMEs, because being unprepared will completely change the SME’s attitude. Your prepared pitch may focus on the importance of project, but you must also specify exactly what you need from them, and acknowledge that time requirments may vary but that you will make the best use of their time.

Cull from the information obtained ensuring that only what end user needs is passed on. Using templates can afford reliability in data collected from multiple SMEs and by partners who also interview SMEs. Maintain respect for your SME’s knowledge and position within a company to foster the kind of respect you want in return. Attitude, opinions, knowledge, behavior (AOKB): know these things about yourself and record these things about your SMEs to help ensure success.

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