As a technical writer, I spend a lot of time interviewing subject matter experts (SMEs). My goal is to learn about how the device I’m documenting (usually scientific software) works, so I can design a manual that tells the end users what they need to know, when they need to know it. The SMEs goal is usually to get me out of their office as soon as possible. To make both of us happy, I spend a lot of time preparing for the interview, and try to make the interview itself as painless as possible. Many of the techniques I use are also applicable to informational interviews, where the SME may know about a particular company, professional area, or career direction you are interested in learning more about. Here’s how to make the experience more pleasant for both parties.
Step 1. Prepare Beforehand
Before I interview an SME, I request, and READ, any existing specifications or design documents. If possible, I use the software and become comfortable with the interface. I find out which engineer is responsible for which parts of the design and implementation.
If you’re going to conduct an informational interview, do your research ahead of time. You don’t want to waste your SMEs time, so find out the easy, factual stuff on your own. Save their time for opinions, predictions, and personal anecdotes that you can’t get to any other way.
Step 2. Set up the Interview
For some reason, everyone thinks all meetings should last one hour. That’s a lot of time. Many SMEs will be much more cooperative if you ask for 30 minutes, then stick to that limit. You can always meet again later, once you’ve digested what you learned in the first meeting.
Step 3. Conduct the Interview
Start with easy, yes/no or short answer questions to get your SME warmed up. These may be clarification on things you found out in your research, general background questions, and so on. This allows the two of you to get to know each other, and get a feeling for each person’s level of understanding of the topic, as well as communication styles.
Listen carefully not only to the words, but to the SME’s tone of voice, body language, and so on. Nonverbal cues can be critical in identifying which information is most important. On your part, maintain eye contact (without staring), smile or not to indicate understanding, don’t fidget, and take concise notes – all of which indicates your interest in their words.
As the interview progresses, and you become more comfortable, you can move to move open-ended questions following up on earlier responses.
Step 4. Close the Interview
Once you’ve gotten answers to your questions, don’t be afraid to rephrase in your own words. This again shows you were listening, and ensures that you did not miss any important points.
A good final question might be “Is there anything else I should have asked, or that you think I should know?”
It should go without saying that you sincerely thank your SME for their time.
Step 5. Document the Interview
It’s a good idea to write up your notes as soon as possible after the interview. This limits the amount of information you’ll forget, or get confused with future interviews. Some of the material may require more thought later, but you can at least get all the facts down before you forget the details. Also, writing them down will help you digest what you learned, and point out holes in your knowledge.
If appropriate, send a copy to the SME and ask them to review for accuracy.
That’s it! Are there any other steps I’ve left out, or tips you’ve found useful? Post them in the comments!