Dealing with Difficult SMEs

No technical writer is an island: although we can research, experiment, and fiddle with the technology to figure out mostly how it works (or how it’s supposed to work), we still need to sit with the developers, the testers, the trainers, or product designers to gain more insight into the product. These people are often fondly referred to as SMEs (Subject Matter Experts).

While most of these people are happy to spend time with the technical writer to share their insight, there are some people who are so pressed for time that they can spare precious little time with the writer. Often times, these are precisely the people you NEED to speak with to get the information you’ll need for your documentation, or worse, perform a technical review of the drafts.

It’s rarely worth the effort to try to convince these people otherwise. There is often a perception in the development community that spending time with the writers is a waste of time (as the saying goes “Nobody reads the Guides anyways!”). The only thing you can do is make the best of the bad situation.

Some would say that any success dealing with SMEs must come on the basis of personal initiative, ingenuity, charm, back-scratching, and arm-twisting. But I’ve found if you tighten-up your interviewing techniques, they’ll be more open to working with you. Sometimes the SMEs are afraid you’re going to take too much of their time, so they’ll refuse to give you ANY time.

Approach the SME and say “I’ve got four questions, so it shouldn’t take more than 30 minutes of your time, and it would really help me out. When can you meet with me?”

When you decide on a time to meet, show up promptly! Ask your questions (make sure they’re specific and well thought-out) and make sure you stay inside your predicted amount of time, even if you actually have more questions.

This shows the SME that you respect his time and his workload. Often, if you need more time with the SME, he’ll spend this extra time with you out of his own generous nature.

And then when you’re done, thank the SME for his time profusely. I’ve found that SMEs are always hungry, so if I found they were really helpful, a cookie goes a long way to secure another question session.

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2 Responses to Dealing with Difficult SMEs

  1. badmash says:

    I just signed up to your blogs rss feed. Will you post more on this subject?

  2. mackdaniel says:

    this was a really nice post, thanks

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