Blue Ferret Content Consulting

Real-World Instructions for Speaking with SMEs

Fellow tech writers, rejoice! I have done it! I've assembled a truly real-world set of instructions for collecting technical information from Subject Matter Experts (SMEs).

This critical first step in any documentation process no longer lurks in the realm of uncertainty. Just follow these instructions, and your worries over getting the right information are over! (Sort of. Maybe.)

  1. Your supervisor requests some documentation on NewFeature.
  2. Conduct initial research, formulating several questions in the process. (We'll say 10 questions here.)
  3. To answer these questions, you send a request to the identified SME for their input.
  4. Wait.
  5. Send follow-up request. Include phone call if before 11am.
  6. Receive irritated email (identifiable by very brief message and incomplete sentences) demanding to know what you want.
  7. Reply as quickly as possible, asking for answers to your questions.
    • OPTIONAL: Offer to split questions into 2+ messages, or even do it on a call, "if it's more convenient."
  8. Send agreed-upon number of questions.
  9. Wait.
  10. Follow up again.
  11. Receive questions back with maybe half of them answered.

    Every tech writer has made this face.

  12. Incorporate answers into your documentation. Determine it's not enough.
  13. Weigh the value of going back to ask for more, vs. your continued sanity.
  14. Check to make sure SME cannot fire you.
  15. Send request for remaining answers.
  16. Get 'Out of Office' response, as SME has suddenly taken vacation.
  17. Wait more.
  18. Repeat request when they return.
  19. SME replies, saying they've forgotten what you're discussing entirely (or indicate it by asking what you're talking about).

    Staring into the void sometimes helps.

  20. Send back all questions with the handful of answers given.
  21. From here, 50/50 chance of SME either:
    • Saying they're not "the best person" to answer the others, referring you to someone else, OR
    • Saying they'll get back to you "soon."
  22. If A, reach out to other SME, then wait.
    • If A, higher than 85% chance SME #2 refers you back to SME #1.
  23. If B, wait. The waiting...
  24. Regardless, follow up again with SME explaining situation.
  25. Receive angry email saying, "the answers [given] should cover it."
  26. Weep in despair.
  27. Consider asking SME's supervisor for help.
    • IF YOU ASK SUPERVISOR: SME responds quickly with remaining answers. (Veiled threat likely tucked in between answers.)
    • IF YOU DON'T ASK SUPERVISOR: Finish documentation as best you can, reducing its effectiveness and reliability to the reader in the process.
  28. Turn in documentation to your supervisor.
  29. Supervisor asks if you consulted SME.
  30. Tell them yes, and point out the answers given.
  31. Supervisor asks you to follow up "just once more."

    The gods must hate tech writers.

  32. Point out that you already tried several times, and it's very unlikely you'll get any more input before the deadline (the next day).
  33. Supervisor says, "Just try, I'm sure it'll go quickly."
  34. Sit staring at clueless message for inordinately long time.
  35. Begin searching for places to hide bodies within 10 miles.

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#documentation #documentation process #information sourcing #tech writing