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A technical writer will periodically need to interview Subject Matter Experts (SME) to gather information about a technical document.
More often that not, and especially within the context of software development, most SMEs are engineers and software developers. But they can also be mechanical, electrical and other types of engineers, hardware installers, network engineers, testers, site foremen, call center engineers, field technicians, sales or marketing people, local dealers, etc.
One cardinal rule of interviewing an SME is to do your homework well, in advance.
Never ever call up on an SME without first studying the issue thoroughly and drawing up a clear list of questions.
Most of the time the SME is a very busy person. By nature, a majority of technical SMEs are more comfortable in the world of numbers and quantities than words. (If they were, you perhaps wouldn’t have a job as a technical writer.) They are more into “doing” things and getting results than “communicating.”
Experts are always busy. Do your homework in advance… (Public domain illustration courtesy of Wikipedia Commons)
So you have to be very careful not to come across as overbearing or pushing into their comfort zones by “forcing” them to communicate, especially about matters that they feel you should know “already.”
Please make sure that the answer of your question is not already there looking at you in a help file, an existing manual, or worse, on a piece of equipment itself. That’s a quick way to lose your credibility in the eyes of a sharp engineer.
One thing an SME always appreciates is competence and there is nothing to ruin your competence in the eyes of an SME than asking a “stupid” question with an “obvious” answer.
So that’s why you need to do your homework well before taking up any SME’s precious time.
One thing that helps is to email your questions to an SME and ask for his or her answers that way. The method works great especially with those in far away locations. Not only the correspondence eliminates the pressure of a face-to-face interaction but also provides you with a written record of the exchange for archival and project management purposes.
If you are conducting your interview through teleconferencing or a webinar, make sure you select a host company that records the session (sometimes at an extra change) and delivers the audio and/or the video of the session to the interested parties.