Kathy Madison, Comtech Services
November 1, 2020

In a recent CIDM member roundtable discussion, we explored all things related to Subject Matter Experts (SMEs). A SME is a highly knowledgeable individual who performs specialized functions in a given organization. Traditionally we think of the SME as and the engineer responsible for whatever it is we are writing about, but SMEs can come from any department in your organization. They can be from product management, user interface (UI), user experience (UX), customer support, quality assurance, and even from our own technical writing team. The SME is essentially anyone we go for answers to our questions.

Regardless of who the SME is, we have to build a good working relationship with them, starting with establishing our own value and authority. We must always represent the technical writing organization in a positive way, continually showing our value. A few best practices to create a strong collaborative environment include:

  • Acknowledge the SME’s importance to documentation: explain why it’s important for them and what both of us will get out of a successful engagement.
  • Do as much groundwork ahead of time before meeting with SMEs: read product specs, review previous meeting notes, and, if possible, test-drive the product.
  • Ask good questions: the questions should be part of the “refinement process,” not as if starting from scratch.
  • Respect the SME’s time: don’t ask questions we can find the answers ourselves or don’t ask questions they have answered before. Consider recording conversations that can be referenced instead of going back to the SME for further clarification.
  • Agree on a workflow for interacting: some SMEs prefer scheduled meetings and phone calls over emails and instant messages.
  • Communicate expectations for the review process: for example, ask SMEs to review technical content and not worry about language or structure, only provide topics that have changed from the last review, not a full document, and ask for reasonable turnaround times.
  • Be the user advocate and let the SME be technical: it’s our job to document the value of a particular feature or in what scenario a user performs a specific task. For example, with API docs, go ahead and let the SME define the parameters (inputs and outputs); we should be explaining the expected behavior and why and when to use certain parameters – In other words, augment the SME’s technical information with contextual information.
  • Get on the SME’s agile team and show up for all scrum meetings: engage in the discussions and gather as much product knowledge as possible. If documentation is a part of the “definition of done,” SMEs are more invested in working with us.
  • Take advantage of collaboration tools: turn on transcript features of virtual meeting, use virtual whiteboards (jamboards from Google), for quick questions, ping folks via instant messages (Slack, Skype, Teams, etc.) – but set protocols, such as setting and observing availability for when to expect instant response versus delayed replies. If possible, use authoring tools that provide easy access by the SME.

Building a good relationship with SMEs is just one aspect of working with them; we must also consider situations where SMEs author end-user content. In a CIDM hosted webinar entitled The Rise of the SMEs, fifty-eight percent of the audience indicated that the number of SMEs authoring end-user content has increased in the last two years. The webinar panelist, including Dawn Stevens (Comtech Services), Joe Pennachio (formally of Qualcomm), Toni Mantych (ServiceNow), and Sharon Figueira (IXIASOFT), discussed whether this was indeed a trend or a pendulating state. One panelist felt that in certain industries that are building incredibly technical products, it makes sense for the SMEs to draft initial content and then have more language/content professions fine-tune that content for publications. Another panelist felt when there’s a downturn in the economy; writers are the first to be let go resulting in a very high ratio of engineers to writers. Therefore writers can’t possibly draft all the initial content. Time will tell if SMEs generating content is a trend or just cyclical.

It doesn’t really matter how we interact with our SMEs as long as our customers get accurate, high-quality content in a timely manner. However, it is essential to have our information development team considered a valuable asset for providing an excellent customer experience.