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Extracting information from SMEs

by Tom Johnson on Sep 9, 2007
categories: technical-writing

tech writer as reporterSometimes I would like to change my job title from "technical writer" to investigative reporter, because so often this is the task that we have. Information we need is not online, not in any documents, not even available in the application itself. We have to pry it from the minds of subject matter experts (SMEs), the techies who talk in acronyms and dream in code.

Surely one of the worst mistakes tech writers can make is to just stay in their cubes and try to figure it all out themselves. Of course you can find out a lot through research, exploration, trial and error, and tech docs. Don't discount that. But you must also get out of your cube and put on your investigative reporter hat. Call meetings, stick your head in doors, ask questions. You've got to extract information from the source.

I'm currently collecting information on the best way to get information from SMEs. If you have a technique that works well, please share it with me.

Here are some techniques I've found to work all right:

  • Don't send e-mails asking for technical explanations. Either call or go over to the SME's cube and ask a few questions.
  • Set up official meetings with SMEs where you ask all the questions you have. People may be busy, but they can rarely escape an official meeting if you set it up.
  • If you can sit near SMEs, one technique that works well is to wait until you see them entering a dead state (where they're waiting for something to install, or they can't figure something out, or they're finished with something). Timing is everything. Ask a question at that time, and then another. It might get them going on a longer bit than they planned.
  • Ask to look over their shoulder and watch what they're doing. I suspect many SMEs relish their techie knowledge, and this is one way to ingratiate their senses with indirect adulation.
  • To get a SME to review a document, set a due date, and call a meeting where the SME is required to deliver his or her review. If you just send the document and ask for a critique/review, it may never come.
  • You can always buy a SME lunch, but it's sometimes hard to keep the focus on work during lunch. If you carpool, you can ask a SME questions in the car, where they don't have access to a computer.

Overall, whatever technique works, it's going to require learning to be bold and insistent. If you think of yourself as an investigative reporter rather than a writer, it may be easier to get the information.

Do you have any tips or advice on SME interaction?

About Tom Johnson

Tom Johnson

I'm an API technical writer based in the Seattle area. On this blog, I write about topics related to technical writing and communication — such as software documentation, API documentation, AI, information architecture, content strategy, writing processes, plain language, tech comm careers, and more. Check out my API documentation course if you're looking for more info about documenting APIs. Or see my posts on AI and AI course section for more on the latest in AI and tech comm.

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