Tips for Technical Writers to Consider for an SME Interview

Every detail that a technical writer assimilates and delivers in their product documentation comes after several levels of meetings and discussions with the Subject Matter Experts (SMEs). I would say, the technical writer-SME relationship is similar to a driver using GPS to locate a place. Here, in this example, even though the driver knows how to drive, the help of the GPS is sought to drive to an unknown destination.

The SMEs help tech writers understand the major goals achieved in an application or a product and convert them into a useful document. A collaborative effort between a writer and an SME is required to design and construct good documentation. Both parties must come out of their comfort zones and share insights. As a technical writer, how can we keep this relationship organized and smooth?

Who is a Subject Matter Expert?

Let us first understand who is a Subject Matter Expert (SME). A Subject Matter Expert:

  • Has a broad vision and understanding of a particular area or topic.
  • Provides recommendations to improve or enhance a product/service/process.
  • Describes the abnormalities and irregularities they observe and have the decision-making authority to rectify the flaws.

Now, who are the SMEs for technical writers in the software industry? They are mainly the Developers, Product Managers, and Quality Assurance teams. We interact with them daily to get our queries clarified or to understand the latest changes in the product.

Standard Technical Writing Process

As a technical writer, we follow a certain process while documenting details. You can check my previous blog to read more.

How to Interview Your SMEs?

Let me now come to the crux of the matter and explain certain key points that you can keep in mind while interviewing your SME.

Prepare: Get ready to interview your SME by doing the following:

  • Do basic homework.
  • Research and obtain an understanding of the new feature or improvement.
  • Prepare a set of questions: What, Where, When, Why, and How? For example, you can include questions such as:
    - What is the use of the new feature?
    - Why would a customer need that feature?
    - How does the product’s enhancement or improvement differ from its previous version?

Ask: Yes, it is now time for you to interview your SME and gather details. OK, so, is it enough if you just ask a certain set of questions and then start documenting? No! As technical writers, we always must place ourselves in the shoes of the audience and devise our content. Hence, derive questions that will have productive content. For a smooth and productive SME meeting, try practicing the following:

  • Schedule your meeting with the SME in advance.
  • Better meet only one SME at a time. You may have to meet many SMEs to gather the required details.
  • As a best practice, send your questions to the SME before the meeting.
  • Record the details shared by the SME in the form of audio recordings or text. You can use the recorded details on a later date.
  • Clarify your doubts during the meeting itself.
  • Summarize the details shared by the SME before you end the meeting.
  • If required, schedule follow-up sessions with the SME.

Another important point to be noted while meeting the SME is to break down the technical terms or jargon used by the SME. Usually, technical writers do not use the jargon or terms used by developers in the product documentation. Ensure that you understand what those terms are and use them appropriately.

Review: Finally, the document is now sent for review. Ensure that you agree upon the review comments shared by the SME to avoid any future conflict. You can always ask them for any additional details that are worth mentioning in the document apart from what you have already documented.

Thank You: It is always a kind gesture to thank your SMEs for taking out valuable time and helping with the documentation.

I am not concluding or claiming these as the most effective ways for a smooth SME interview. There can be certain transactional challenges involved such as timeline issues or packed calendars. However, I have always followed the above steps and have been able to complete tasks on time and I hope, following the above becomes of significant help to you.

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