How to Interview a Subject Matter Expert

March 31, 2011 by Ryan Berg in Technical Documentation

Gathering information for a writing assignment can be a very straightforward process. You are given (or pointed to) resources and collateral that provide you with product or project background, and you begin your investigation. Sometimes, however, when there just isn’t enough information to work with, you will likely need to interview a subject-matter expert (SME) to get the information you need.

Getting helpful and pertinent information from a SME is essential for producing useful, targeted technical documentation. A SME likely knows a tremendous amount about the subject area you’re interested in, but because SMEs also tend to be busy, overburdened people, it’s best to capture as much of the needed information as possible when you interview them. Gathering unfocused, cumbersome information tends to create churn in the overall review cycle and possible client dissatisfaction with your work.

When I interview SMEs, the following guidelines help me ensure the interview is as productive as possible.

Familiarize yourself with available collateral and resources before the interview

Familiarizing yourself with whatever material is available will better ground your understanding of the topic you will be writing about. Even if the provided materials are scarce or seemingly incomplete, reviewing them will help you gain knowledge about the subject matter before you talk to the SME. If no collateral is provided, go online and search for whatever public-facing material you can find on the topic. Older material can also serve as a touchstone, as it may be what you’ll be asked to replace.

Create a list of questions to ask the SME

You want to be as engaged, curious, and knowledgeable as possible in the interview, and questions give you a starting point from which to work from. Even if the questions turn out to not be directly relevant to the content you need to create, they can still help frame a cursory understanding from which to work from.

Meet face-to-face whenever possible

Meeting face-to-face helps the overall communication and allows for a richer interview experience. It also allows for a shared whiteboard experience (see below). When meeting, be sure to ask these three questions:

  • “What do you want the document to say?”
    The SME is in a unique position. Not only do they have the knowledge you’re looking for, they also likely know what the focus of your work should be. Be sure to get the SME to boil down the topic matter to two or three salient, overarching points that they feel must be made. These points will serve as your pillars as you develop the content.
  • “Who is the audience?”
    Determining the audience as precisely as possible helps frame the scope and technical depth of the paper and reduce churn during the review process. It may be only one very specific group of people, or it may be quite a few (business decision makers (BDMs), technical decision makers (TDMs), end users, IT pros, etc.). When you know the audience, the development path that your content will take typically becomes much clearer.
  • “What will this document be used for?”
    This question helps determine tone as well as scope and technical depth. For example, if the document will be used as presentation material, it will often take a marketing tone and focus. If it is used to supplement a reader’s understanding of the product or project, it may take the shape of a user assistance/help-based resource.

Go to the whiteboard

After answering those three questions, the brainstorming begins. You should ask the SME to frame what specific content they want conveyed in a diagramed form. The whiteboard process should be a loose, free-flowing exercise that captures the many different areas of interest the document might address. You will gather more information than you will likely use, but this exercise helps clarify what the SME wants in the document, as well as what they don’t want.

For example, they may want the documentation to be used by a marketer to sell a BDM on the product. However, during the whiteboard exercise the SME might realize they want to include a level of technical knowledge that is beyond the scope of a marketing presentation. This realization can mean one of many things: the scope and audience of the document needs to change and/or expand; the technical information needs to be summarized in an appendix at the end of the document; the document should not go into as much technical depth to keep aligned with the original scope and audience and should not be included; or this particular information merits its own separate document with a different scope and audience entirely.

IT IS VITAL that you take notes and capture what you think the SME is saying during the whiteboard exercise. Be sure to also practice your active listening skills, a communication technique in which you attempt to actively understand, interpret, and evaluate what you hear. More information about active listening is available at: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Active_listening.

Verbally summarize what you think you heard the SME say and diagram on the whiteboard

Summarizing what you heard the SME say and diagram serves two purposes: First, it ensures that you followed the presentation of content correctly and, if not, allows you to course correct with the SME there to help you in real time. Second, it gives you a rough outline to begin your work from after you and the SME reach consensus on your summary.

Take pictures of the whiteboard diagrams and material

Taking pictures of what the SME diagrammed on the whiteboard helps clarify and crystalize the notes you took and also serves as a record of what occurred and what was discussed.

After the interview

There are a few follow-up tasks you can perform to better ensure the technical documentation project is a success, such as those in the following list:

  • Set up a first draft outline handoff date with the SME. A handoff date sets expectations of delivery and helps reinforce the notion that developing documentation is a joint effort.
  • Ask the SME for any other reviewers/partners they believe should be on the review loop and include them in the handoff. Doing so can help reduce churn during the project by causing decisions about content to be made earlier rather than later.
  • Head back to the office and get crackin’! :)