How to Make a Productive Subject Matter Expert Interview


At the last tcworld conference in Stuttgart, 2019, Nicky Bleiel delivered a very interesting and useful presentation about how to interview subject matter experts (SMEs) in an efficient manner.

Nicky Bleiel is a Watson Information Developer at IBM. She has more than 20 years of experience in writing and designing content for software products in various industries.

According to the 2019 WritersUA Skills and Technology Survey, 83% of the technical communication professionals who are involved in supporting software, consider interviewing SMEs an important skill. SMEs play a crucial role in developing quality documentation. They can provide expertise, guidance, and context to your content.

There are 3 stages of an interview – preparing, conducting, and following up.


The SME is an important role. Depending on the company, the SMEs can be at different positions, such as technical support engineers, project managers, QA engineers, etc.

It is very important to be well-prepared for the interview. Make research of the subject before the interview, test the software, if you document software, and take notes. This will help you to ask more questions. When preparing your questions, include the five W’s – who, what, where, when, and why:

  • Who is going to use this feature?
  • When users use this feature?
  • When should not they use it?
  • What are the prerequisites?

Try to ask open-ended questions and to avoid Y/N answers. Try to put on the users’ hats on and ask yourselves what your users would ask and how you can answer these questions. To conduct an effective interview, you should be very organized, persistent, and prepared.

Usually SMEs also need additional information. So, share with them your project plan and deadlines, what final deliverables are expected, how the interview will be conducted. Make them aware if you plan to record the interview and how much time the interview will take, and if they do not know it – explain the review process to them.

Conducting Interviews

When the interview starts, show that you know the subject and confirm the audience with the SME. Some other recommendations are to:

  • Adjust the SME’s style – observe body language and adjust your style and questions accordingly. People are different and you may need to adjust your body language. Also, do not be intimidated. Maintain calm and positive approach.
  • Do not assume a second chance – if you have a question, do not leave it for later.
  • Encourage white boarding and take pictures on the information on the white board.
  • Fast check – review and confirm what you have heard and the actions both of you agreed to take.
  • Stick to the schedule – this is always very important.

Never forget to ask the magic question – how do you think this feature will help users? Some people are surprised, but you can get a good answer.

Words mean things and there are some words you should avoid.

  • You – instead of ‘You’ use ‘We’.
    For example: How should we proceed, what should we do?
  • No – turn it around and make it positive.
    For example: Yes, we can do it, but …
  • Problem or issue – there is a problem and we have a solution.
    For example: My concern of that is … and do not forget to propose a solution.

Be proactive. If the documentation needs more polishing or more information, you can send a link to it and ask. People are looking for documentation and they know what can be improved.

In case of asynchronous interviews – through Slack, GitHub, email, etc.

  • You need to be specific – write succinct, clear questions.
  • Avoid questions that have been answered.
  • Include links to related issues and information or you might get those links as answers. That is why you must make it clear and give links to what you have read.
  • Try to ask up to 3 relevant questions.
  • Always ask who might have more information, or where you can find it.

Following Up

The interview is over. What should we do? As soon as possible send an email to say thank you and do not forget to copy the SME’s manager. Make sure you are looking forward to working with them. Share with your manager how the interview went and suggest improvements. And finally, send a copy of the final product to the SME.

Your role as a technical communicator very often is to cultivate the SMEs. But do not forget – do not bring them cookies 😊.


Author: Ivanka Radkova (VMware)

Photo: Pixabay