Inter­view­ing sub­ject mat­ter experts (SMEs) is one of the most com­mon and use­ful meth­ods for obtain­ing the infor­ma­tion needed to cre­ate qual­ity doc­u­ments. Suc­cess­ful SME inter­views require care­ful research and prepa­ra­tion in advance.

Dur­ing the inter­view, good lis­ten­ing skills, crit­i­cal analy­sis, and the abil­ity to main­tain con­trol of the range and depth of the inter­view with appro­pri­ate tact are cru­cial to suc­cess­ful outcomes.

After the inter­view, give prompt atten­tion to notes and any required follow-through. When work­ing with hos­tile SMEs or those with poor com­mu­ni­ca­tion skills, empha­size the strengths of the rela­tion­ship and develop strate­gies to work around any weaknesses.

INTRODUCTION

Per­haps the most uni­ver­sal and basic method for a tech­ni­cal com­mu­ni­ca­tor to gather infor­ma­tion is a face-to– face inter­view with a sub­ject mat­ter expert (SME). SMEs may be engi­neers, devel­op­ers, pro­gram­mers, oper­a­tors, clerks, or cus­tomer sup­port per­son­nel. They are the peo­ple who have expe­ri­ence with and knowl­edge of a par­tic­u­lar sys­tem, appli­ca­tion, prod­uct, process, or task that you need to learn about.

There is a wide vari­ety of fac­tors that can affect SME inter­views. In most cases, the SME has a job to do beyond tak­ing time out of his or her busy day to talk with you. It is there­fore crit­i­cal to get the right infor­ma­tion and opti­mize your inter­view time. (This is par­tic­u­larly cru­cial if you work on smaller projects or if you are an off-site con­sul­tant; in these cases your con­tact with your SME may be restricted even fur­ther.) This arti­cle explains some of the inter­view tech­niques that I have used over the years as a tech­ni­cal writer and com­mu­ni­ca­tor. It includes steps you can take before, dur­ing, and after the inter­view to max­i­mize its effec­tive­ness, as well as some tips for han­dling prob­lem­atic SME inter­views and rela­tion­ships. The major­ity of these tech­niques will apply whether you are a free­lancer, a con­sul­tant, or a cap­tive writer.

BEFORE THE INTERVIEW

Even before the inter­view­ing begins, there are things that you can do to build a good foun­da­tion for a pro­duc­tive inter­view experience.

 Define your objectives.

 Research the sub­ject matter.

 Assem­ble your inter­view “toolkit.”

 Be on time for the interview.

DURING THE INTERVIEW

Often, the face-to-face inter­view affords you the best oppor­tu­nity to get con­tent infor­ma­tion for your doc­u­men­ta­tion project. (In some cases, the inter­view may be the only oppor­tu­nity you will have.) It is
impor­tant to man­age the inter­view flow so that you will have the time to cover the ques­tions you need to get answered.

 Use active lis­ten­ing skills.

 Ask open-ended questions.

 (Politely) con­trol the interview.

 Para­phrase infor­ma­tion and repeat it back to the SME.

 Use crit­i­cal think­ing skills to iden­tify gaps in the information.

 Be accurate.

 Orga­nize your materials.

 Do not make any promises to the SME that you are not autho­rized to make.

CLOSING THE INTERVIEW

At the end of the inter­view, there are still a few things you can do to rein­force suc­cess. Ide­ally, at this point you and the SME have estab­lished a good work­ing rela­tion­ship and you feel pretty good about the infor­ma­tion you got dur­ing the interview.

 Thank the SME for their time.

 Ask for per­mis­sion to fol­low up.

AFTER THE INTERVIEW

The fol­low­ing tech­niques mostly deal with follow-through, and it goes with­out say­ing that follow-through is crit­i­cal in tech­ni­cal writing.

 Review your notes while the inter­view is fresh.

 Sched­ule follow-up as necessary.

CONCLUSION

A suc­cess­ful SME inter­view is achiev­able through prepa­ra­tion and fore­thought, orga­ni­za­tion, and proper man­age­ment of the inter­view process.

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