Interviewing Subject Matter Experts for your documentation

Catherine Heath | October 23, 2018

Interviewing Subject Matter Experts is a topic of interest in the documentation community. It’s often essential for producing product documentation, or any other type of learning-based content of any depth.

Even seasoned technical writers, with decades of domain-specific experience and in-depth technical knowledge, will find themselves interviewing SMEs. And yet many find this part of their role quite tricky.

Why is interviewing SMEs hard

Your SME is usually the resident authority on any given topic. SMEs can be intimidating since they may have a lot of power and influence in your organization.

The reasons for this could be:

  • SMEs can be busy and hard to pin down for an interview
  • SMEs are usually very close to the product, and as a result they may find it hard to translate their knowledge into a layperson’s terms
  • SMEs have other priorities and may not see the value in producing documentation
  • You may find that your SME doesn’t know what you need them to know

At the risk of falling at the first hurdle, you may even find it a struggle to pin down your SME. In the meantime, you have documentation that needs writing.

Where to start

First of all, you need to think about the documentation you want to produce. Take an inventory of what you already know and existing resources, then identify any gaps.

This is where your SME comes in. But what is an SME?

The Subject Matter Expert is the authority on whatever aspect of the product you are documenting. Perhaps they are the technical lead who was in charge of programming that feature or they are the product manager.

Their role is to provide you with the information you need to produce the best documentation that you can.

Decide who is the given expert on your topic. If you don’t know off the bat, you may need to do a little digging and ask around until you arrive at a clear idea. Research this person and consider how to best approach them.

If you can’t get hold of your first choice, you must at least find someone with good enough knowledge who also has the time and inclination to help you.

How to approach SMEs to interview

Becoming a good interviewer is a process that happens over time as you build your network.

Although many technical writers are likely to be introverted types of people, this can actually be an advantage. You can grow a network without being the world’s biggest socializer – as long as you know how to create meaningful connections.

Make it a point to speak to at least one new person a day, even if it’s just to thank them for a job they did, or follow up on a presentation they gave.

Say hello to everyone you meet. This basic technique is intimidating at first, but opens the door to further conversations down the line. When the time comes to ask for an interview, you’ll find it a lot easier.

If you need to approach someone you have never met, make the introduction quick, polite and to-the-point. Explain why you’re getting in contact and ask the person nicely for a bit of their time.

How to improve your interview technique

Interviewing anyone is a standard skill you can learn, which takes practice and improves upon repetition. It takes time to learn how to be a good interviewer.

People generally like to talk about themselves and their work, so you have to give them a platform to do so – but you have to set the right expectations.

1. Be a good listener

The most important thing to improve is being a good listener. Give occasional feedback to show you are listening (“Mmm hmm” or “Yes” will do) but not enough to interrupt.

Hold space inside yourself for what the other person has to say, without waiting for your turn to speak. This will create a calming atmosphere that elicits them to speak more honestly and with more clarity.

Remember there are people out there who are very shy about being interviewed, too. Give them the option to do an email interview instead, or provide more stimulus during the interview for them to elaborate on.

2. Plan ahead

It’s easy to get derailed so you need to plan the interview ahead of time. Decide what you want to get out of the interaction and send pre-planned interview questions to your SME. Explain the process to them so they know what to expect.

Research and understand the product you’re documenting as much as possible. Learn any information you might need in advance, so you intuitively know when you’ve gotten the right answers from your SME.

3. Control the flow

There’s a natural flow to any conversation and interviewing is no different.

As much as you need to be a good listener, there’s an art to being in control of the conversation. Keep to a pre-planned schedule to avoid spending so much time on one point that you don’t have enough time to cover anything else.

Perfect the art of the segue to smoothly move on to your next point – without acting like you’re running through a checklist.

4. Be an active interviewer

Interviewing is definitely not a passive process. You must come as close as possible to the answers you need beforehand so your SME only has to fill in small gaps. Don’t ask them to do any more thinking than necessary.

Demonstrate clearly that you have done your homework to impress them. If you can show you’ve done your research and become a semi-expert on your topic already, your interviewee will be much more inclined to help you in return.

5. Use psychology

On a basic level, people are motivated to do what is rewarding for them. In this context, that will usually be doing their job as well as they possibly can – or at least things that make their job easier.

Show people what’s in it for them and how documentation makes their job more productive. It’s also may be important to pitch the interview to the person’s level of seniority within the company.

If someone is on the senior team, show them how documentation is strategically significant. If someone is a junior developer, show them how documentation improves feature adoption.

6. Keep it short

Many people are afraid of committing their already limited time to an interview – especially if they don’t really know what to expect.

Half an hour is a good rule of thumb for an interview like this. Minimizing the rambling by controlling the flow will help you keep the interview to half an hour or less. You must have the confidence to interrupt tangents politely, and you can say something like: “You’ll have to tell the whole story over coffee sometime…”

If you respect people’s time they will be more likely to help you again.

7. Be social

Interviewing is fundamentally a social interaction. Although it feels like a weird ritual, that’s all that most socializing boils down to anyway.

Make it fun to talk to you by humanizing yourself or telling a silly joke. Choose a technique that fits with your natural personality and will help you to establish a foundation of trust. Here’s how to turn small talk into meaningful social ritual.

Follow up

Hardly anything ever goes to plan in an interview, and that’s totally fine. Leave the door open for extra follow up questions and an open dialogue for the future.

Follow up with them by sending over the documentation you produce afterward. Seeing the finished product is more satisfying, and it helps to communicate the value of this work.

Being an exceptional interviewer

Documentation is all about communicating effectively with your customers. Interviewing SMEs is all about communicating effectively with your coworkers.

Even when you’ve learned your techniques, there are still practical concerns. You might need to remember to do things like record the interview or find a quiet place for the interview to take place. Theoretical and practical concerns combine to make a great interview.

Tailor your approach to your specific project and your unique interviewee. This process may not always be formal but you need to have a formalized way of recording the information that comes your way. In practice, you’ll need to get creative.

Final remarks

Be ready for the unexpected. Plan ahead as much as you can but be ready to adapt when circumstances change. Over time, you’ll find yourself building more momentum as your coworkers start to approach you to be interviewed.

Here’s a link to an excellent presentation on interviewing Subject Matter Experts by Rich Maggiani.

Our knowledge base software KnowledgeOwl enables technical writers to publish outstanding documentation. Sign up for a free trial. 


About the author
Catherine Heath
Catherine Heath

Community builder at KnowledgeOwl. Blogs. Copy. Documentation. Freelance content writer for creative and ethical companies. Contributing to open source and teaching technical tools.

Catherine blogs on her personal websites Away With Words and Awkward Writer. She runs the Write the Docs Northwest meetup group. 


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