How to Effectively Work with SMEs as a Technical Writer

Technical writers face a lot of unique challenges when working on documentation with Subject Matter Experts (SMEs). Because documentation is often one of the last project deliverables that is given attention and resources, technical writers frequently find themselves scrambling to meet deadlines. A major impediment for technical writers is access to the SMEs that have the information and answers. When deadlines are fast approaching, technical writers often have questions that do not lend themselves to scheduling formal meetings with SMEs. Here are some tips for working with SMEs when the technical writer needs quick answers.

Know Your Subject Matter

Become jargon fluent. Learn as much as you can about the subject matter and technology used to create it. If possible, test and experiment with the product in a test environment to learn as much as you can about how it functions. Also, learn about the technology used to produce the subject. For example, if a software application is coded in Java and uses an Oracle database, then learn as much as you can about those at least at a high level so you have a handle on the terminology. Additionally, learn about the system architecture, testing process, build and deployment process, etc. This will greatly improve communication with developers and engineers.

Know Your SME

Learn as much as you can about the SME’s schedule and availability. This is easier to do in an office environment but is still important when working remotely or with distributed teams. If possible, learn about things such as working hours, meeting schedules (e.g., daily scrums), and lunch breaks. No one likes to be ambushed two minutes after they arrive in the morning, or right before a meeting or lunch. People are creatures of habit so there is likely a time of day that best works for each person. The simplest solution is to ask your SMEs if there is a preferred time of day that they are available for documentation questions. Technical staff often set aside an hour in the morning or afternoon for their miscellaneous and administrative tasks, which is how documentation is often categorized by developers and engineers. (In one extreme case, I had a system architect who instituted a policy that no one on the project outside of the development team could talk to the developers before 1 p.m.!)

Preferred Method of Communication

This is very important and is another thing that depends on the individual. Some people are gregarious and prefer in-person communication, while some people are less so and might prefer instant messaging or email. One important thing to keep in mind is that phone calls are increasingly considered intrusive and are, in most cases, the least preferred method of communication when contacting SMEs for impromptu documentation questions. When instant messaging, always be aware of the status of the SME. Do not send instant messages to your SMEs when their status is set to Busy.

Be Polite

This is common sense of course, but when contacting SMEs directly outside of a scheduled meeting, always first ask if they have the time to discuss your question(s). This applies to in-person contact, phone calls, and instant messaging. Next, be prepared. Have your questions written down and organized. Last, but not least, thank your SMEs for their time and assistance.

Let’s face it, although documentation is definitely a high priority item, it is not always seen that way by SMEs. Even when it is mandated as a priority by management, that designation is sometimes accepted begrudgingly. It is very rare to find a SME that is excited about documentation tasking, so technical writers need to develop successful working relationships and methods of communication with each SME individually.