Unit-3 Research Interviews

Unit-3-Research Interviews


3.1 Introduction


3.2 Research Tools

3.3 Conducting SME Interviews


During Interview

After the Interview

3.4 Validation

3.5 Tips for collecting information from SMEs

3.6 Summary

3.7 Terminal Questions

3.8 Answers

3.1 Introduction

Interviewing subject matter experts (SMEs) is one of the most common and useful methods for obtaining the information needed to create quality documents. Successful SME interviews require careful research and preparation in advance. During the interview, good listening skills, critical analysis, and the ability to maintain control of the range and depth of the interview with appropriate tact are crucial to successful outcomes. After the interview, give prompt attention to notes and any required follow-through. When working with hostile SMEs or those with poor communication skills emphasize the strengths of the relationship and develop strategies to work around any weaknesses.


After going through the unit, you will be able to:

· identify the research tools in Technical Communication

· organize interview sessions in an effective manner

3.2 Research Tools

There are many places we can look to in order to prepare ourselves for the interview.

The first place we can go to find information is any previous product documentation which is available. This is important to be aware of because we do not want to ask developers being questions, which have already been answered elsewhere. It can also provide useful information in the situation where we are writing about an update or amendment to a product as we can simply ask if the situation is still the same.

One of the most valuable tools for background reading is of course the websites and portals in Internet. These sites are a gateway to background information, which often the developer will assume you already know. So, be prepared for the developers’ expectations and meet them.

When you are preparing software-related documentation, one of the most useful preparation techniques is to use the software itself, assuming of course it is available to you. By experimenting it is possible to formulate a reasonable assumption about how something works.

3.2.1 Know your SME

The SMEs we are most likely to come across when writing our documentation can be described using Alan Cooper’s term "Homo Logicus", the following are typical traits of such a person:

· Intellectually competitive

· Trade simplicity for control

· Enjoy mastering complexity

· Often contemptuous of “users”

· Lose sight of big picture

3.3 Conducting SME Interviews

Perhaps the most universal and basic method for a technical communicator to gather information is a face-to- face interview with a subject matter expert (SME). SMEs may be engineers, developers, programmers, operators, clerks, or customer support personnel. They are the people who have experience with and knowledge of a particular system, application, product, process, or task that you need to learn about. There is a wide variety of factors that can affect SME interviews. In most cases, the SME has a job to do beyond taking time out of his or her busy day to talk with you. It is therefore critical to get the right information and optimize your interview time.

(This is particularly crucial if you work on smaller projects or if you are an off-site consultant; in these cases your contact with your SME may be restricted even further.) Given below are steps you can take before, during, and after the interview to maximize its effectiveness, as well as some tips for handling problematic SME interviews and relationships. The majority of these techniques will apply whether you are a freelancer, a consultant, or a captive writer.

3.3.1 Pre-Interview

Before the interview begins, there are things that you can do to build a good foundation for a productive interview experience.

Define your objectives

Define the purpose of the interview. Are you interviewing to identify problem areas within a process? Or are you documenting the steps a user performs to complete a task? Once established, the purpose will help set the scope for your interview. You should also try to establish the expected or needed level of detail for the final product. Doing so on the front-end will ensure that you ask the right questions and at the right level of detail. (For example, a policy-level document requires more general information than a work instruction, which requires more explicit step-by-step detail.)

Research the subject matter

Review any available background material before the interview. Try to get copies of any documentation related to the task, department, company, product, or industry. Flow charts, product data sheets, and even training materials can all be valuable sources of information. The more background information you have going into the interview, the better the questions you will be able to ask.

You should also compile a list of questions or an outline of topics you want to discuss during the interview. This will keep you on track during the interview. (It also helps ensure that you do not forget any important items.) Group your questions by subject. This enables you to cover a topic in its entirety and enhances the perception that you are prepared.

Assemble your interview “toolkit”

Use common tools to stay organized during the interview, such as paper clips, binder clips, folders, highlighters, Post-it Notes, and pens with different colors of ink. These tools will help you keep your interview notes and attachments organized, so make sure you have them handy and ready to use.

Be on time for the interview

Show respect for the SME’s busy schedule by not making him or her wait on you to arrive at the interview. This is important whether the SME works for your company or for a client company. Your arrival at the interview will be the SME’s first impression of you (and your company). Make sure that impression conveys your professionalism. If you are traveling to the interview, be sure to get good directions and leave yourself plenty of time in case you encounter unexpected traffic.

3.3.2 During the Interview

Often, the face-to-face interview affords you the best opportunity to get content information for your documentation project. (In some cases, the interview may be the only opportunity you will have.) It is important to manage the interview flow so that you will have the time to cover the questions you need to get answered.

Use active listening skills

This technique is not as easy as it sounds. Hearing is not the same as listening. Hearing is the perception of sound, whereas listening is attention to what is being said. Active listening requires that you give the speaker your complete and undivided attention. When you listen actively, you are focused on listening, not talking. Do not get distracted by mentally planning your next question so that you miss the SME’s response to your current question.

Ask open-ended questions

These are questions that require more detailed answers than a “yes” or “no” response. Open-ended questions start with words such as “how,” “why,” or “what.” An example of a closed-ended question would be, “Do you implement safety checks in the manufacturing process?” The obvious answers to this question would be “yes” or “no.” An alternative open-ended question that would prompt the SME for more detail would be, “How do you implement safety checks in the manufacturing process?”

Politely controlling the interview

Controlling the flow of the interview is always important, but especially so when you have tight time constraints. If the SME gets off-track, bring him or her back to the topic by asking pointed, specific questions. Be careful not to antagonize the SME in the process. You may need to continue to work with the person on other projects and bad feelings could taint future interaction. Also, remember that you can offend not only with words, but also with your tone of voice and impatient gestures. It is also important to control the environment of the interview as much as possible. If the area in which you are interviewing is distracting (for example, if the SME is receiving numerous phone calls or other employees are constantly interrupting the interview), ask if there is another location, such as an empty office or conference room, where you can continue the interview. In some cases, such as when the interviewee needs to use their computer to demonstrate a task, you may be tied to a certain location. However, you can try other tactics like asking if the interviewee can put their phone calls directly into voicemail. Ultimately, you may be forced to make the best of a bad situation.

Paraphrase information and repeat it back to the SME

This is particularly helpful when covering complex material. Paraphrasing reinforces your understanding of the information. If you cannot repeat the information in your own words, you probably do not understand it well enough to write about it. This is a definite sign that you need to ask more questions about the subject matter.

Use critical thinking skills to identify gaps in the information

The SME may not be able to explain the information in a logical sequence, but if you mentally (or verbally) rearrange the information into a chronological or sequential order, you are more likely to spot any gaps in the process flow. This is critical for task- or process related documentation. This technique works well when combined with the paraphrasing technique discussed above.

Be accurate

Make sure you get the correct spelling of names, job titles, systems, departments, etc. Inaccuracies in the product reflect badly on the writer even though the error may have resulted from incorrect information provided by the SME. This more than anything, will add to or detract from your reputation as a technical writer.

Organize your materials

Use paper clips, binder clips, folders, Post-it Notes, highlighters, pens with different colors of ink, and other tools as appropriate help you keep your interview notes and attachments organized. It is helpful to mark areas of my notes where you need to go back and follow up or clarify information with the SME later in the interview. An example of this is the point at which a procedure branches. You will probably need to document both branches of the procedure, but it is much easier to follow one path at a time.

Use highlighters or sticky notes to mark references in the notes to forms and exhibits you need to collect after the interview.

An alternate method of doing this is to keep a running list of the items you need to get. Either method works, just be sure you try to get those items before you leave the interview, while you have the SME’s attention and while the material is fresh.

Don’t make promises to the SME that you are not authorized to make

Do not promise a draft or a finished product to the SME by a specific date unless you have consulted with the project or product manager and the rest of the development team. This will create problems by setting up unrealistic expectations.

If you are a consultant, do not promise services to the SME that may go beyond the scope of the contract or budget. If appropriate, discuss any questionable requests with your project manager. Any services that fall outside the scope of the project (and budget) may require a new contract or additional fee negotiation.

Closing the Interview

At the end of the interview, there are still a few things you can do to reinforce success. Ideally, at this point you and the SME have established a good working relationship and you feel pretty good about the information you got during the interview.

Thank the SMEs for their time

Commonly, SMEs are assigned by their bosses to assist writers with projects. Even though the SMEs may not benefit directly from the end product. You have to thank there for the time spent with you for the above mentioned task.

Ask for permission to follow up

By asking permission to follow up, you can determine whether the SME is open to additional contact. If the SME grants your request for follow-up questions, discuss how future contact should be handled. The SME may prefer to handle your questions by e-mail rather than by phone, or you may collectively decide to embed the questions in the appropriate location of the draft document, assuming that the SME will get a chance to review the draft.

Self Assessment Question (SAQ)

1. Which of the following type of questions are very significant in an SME interview

a) Close Ended b) Open Ended c) Plain d) Argumentative

3.3.3 After the interview

The following techniques mostly deal with follow-through, and it goes without saying that follow-through is critical in technical writing.

Review your notes while the interview is fresh

Immediately after the interview, fill in any gaps in your interview notes and decipher any cryptic notations. If you need to organize your materials better, now is the time to match pages of notes with the relevant screen prints or exhibits.

Schedule follow-up as necessary

If there are a significant number of follow-up questions or if the questions are complex, you may want to try to schedule a follow-up phone interview with the SME. Now that the interview is successfully behind you and you have all the information you need, you can begin drafting your document. With the right information and good organization of that information, writing the draft should be trouble-free.

Problem Interviews

Optimally, the writer/SME alliance will be a cooperative, symbiotic relationship. However, this is not always the case. In the real world, any number of factors – personality clashes, lack of commitment to a project, or even inadequate communication skills – can inhibit the effectiveness of the writer/SME relationship. An uncooperative or inarticulate SME can make your job as a writer unnecessarily difficult. Moreover, the quality and skill level of SMEs vary greatly and often the technical writer has little control over which SME is assigned to act as a resource on his or her project. However, even with a less-than-stellar SME there are some things you can do to improve the odds of success. If you work on an ongoing basis with an SME who has unsatisfactory communication skills, you may be able to establish an adequate working relationship by identifying your SME’s weak points and learning to work around them. For example, if an SME is a conceptual thinker and not very detail-oriented, you could focus on drawing out the specifics of the conceptual issues discussed during the interview. You could also ask to see examples that support those discussion points.

A successful SME interview is achievable through preparation and forethought, organization, and proper management of the interview process. Not all of the techniques presented here will apply to every interview situation; however, most will apply to the average interview.

3.4 Validation

Once you have interviewed the SME and created your documentation based on the information chunks that you have gathered, it is important to validate that information.

Validation is a process that ensures that the information you have written is accurate and, most importantly, that it works.

Providing accurate information is one of the most important tasks in technical writing. The first line of validation is, naturally, self-validation. This is particularly true when you are writing documentation for software that you have access to and are able to test the information in the software environment first hand.

It is also a good idea to consult a fellow technical writer remember that no one person knows everything there is to know about writing documentation. A second set of eyes may notice things that have slipped through undetected because of your familiarity with the text.

Having the SME validate your work is also a useful approach. This is especially true in our situation where the SME is practically the same as our target audience. However, in more general technical writing this approach can be detrimental to the process of writing for the target audience. The developer is a key resource for validating the veracity of what is written, but never for commenting on the style.

Characteristics of Good information

There is no shortage of information. The Challenge is to find good information, and you ensure the available information is a good one, if it approves the following criteria like accuracy, unbiased, comprehensiveness, currency and clear. (Detailed Explanation in Unit 1)

3.5 Tips for collecting information from SMEs

· Don’t send e-mails asking for technical explanations. Either call the SME or go over to his or her cube and ask a few questions.

· Set up official meetings with SMEs to ask all the questions you have. People may be busy, but they can rarely escape an official meeting if you set it up.

· If you can sit near an SME, one technique that works well is to wait until you see them entering a "dead" state (e.g., they’re waiting for something to install, or they can’t figure something out, or they’re finished with something). Timing is everything. Ask a question at that time, and then ask another. It might get them going on a bit longer than they had planned.

· Ask to look over their shoulder and watch what they’re doing. I suspect that many SMEs relish their techie knowledge, and this is one way to ingratiate yourself by inundating their senses with indirect adulation.

· To get an SME to review a document, set a due date and call a meeting at which the SME is required to deliver his or her review. If you just send the document and ask for a critique/review, it may never come.

· Although you can always buy an SME lunch, it’s sometimes hard to keep the focus on work. If you carpool, you can ask the SME questions in the car, where he or she doesn’t have access to a computer.

Self Assessment Question (SAQ)

2. _____________ is a process that ensures that the information you have written is accurate and functional.

a) Validation b) Research c) Tooling d) Reading

3.6 Summary

Interviewing Subject Matter Experts (SMEs) is an important method for obtaining information needed to create quality documents in Technical Communication. Technical Communicator should be critical in every step, starting from the pre interview sessions to validation of Information to ensure what he or she has gathered is persuasive and effective.

3.7 Terminal Questions

1. Explain the preparatory stage in SME Interviews.

2. Prepare notes on Post Interview Session and Validation.

3.8 Answers


1. b) Open Ended Questions

2. a) Validation


1. Refer Sub Unit 3.3.1

2. Refer Sub Unit 3.3.3 & 3.4


A verb indicates the action done by the subject. E.g.: He arrived late.

Verbs can be categorized into two groups:

1. Main verb: This tells us of what exactly happens. They are also called the ‘action words.’ E.g.: Srinivas went to his village. The word ‘went’ tells us what the subject ‘Mohan’ has done.

Verb – Tenses

Tense refers to the time of action. With the change of tense, the form of the main verb also changes.

Present Tense: Simple Present, Present Continuous, Present Perfect, Present Perfect Continuous

1. Simple Present: (Subject + V1 (present )

· It is used to indicate a regular or habitual action and permanent or verifiable truths/facts.

E.g.: Mary goes to school every day (regular action)

Henry always swims in the evening (habitual)

The sun rises in the east. (permanent truth)

· It is used to indicate verbs of perception.

E.g.: I hear someone sing.

2. Present Continuous: (Subject + {is, am, are}+V1 + ing)

· It is used to indicate present time when an action is going on.

E.g.: The secretary is typing the letter now.

· It is used to indicate the action in progress and will be continued, but not necessarily at the moment of speaking.

E.g.: My son is drawing scenery.

· It is used to indicate the actions that have been arranged to take place in the near future and one’s immediate plans.

E.g.: We are going to a party this evening.

· The following verbs are never used in the continuous forms (with ‘ing’) see, hear, smell, notice, understand, have, believe, hate, need, love, appear, like, seem, sound, want, taste, wish, own, notice, desire, refuse, forgive, care, admire, mean, remember, recall, forget, belong, possess, contain, consist, keep, seems, cost.

· When some of the above verbs are used in the continuous tense, their meanings change.

E.g.: I have a house at Colaba.

The professor is having the class in Room. 2 (taking)

3. Present Perfect: (Subject+{have, has}+V 3 (verb in the past participle)

a. It indicates an action that has happened at an indefinite time in the past.

E.g.: Maria has seen this movie three times.

We haven’t written our reports yet.

· It is used to indicate actions that have started in the past and are continuing at present.

E.g.: I have been sick for a long time.

· It is also used to show the activities completed in the recent past.

E.g.: My father has just left.

· We should not use present perfect tense when the time is specified.

E.g.: I have read this book last week (incorrect)

I read this book last week (correct)

4. Present Perfect Continuous: (Subject + {have, has}+ been +V1 + ing)

a) It indicates an action that began in the past and still occurring in the present.

E.g.: He has been working in Washington for 5 years.

1. Simple Past: (Subject + V2 {verb in the past})

a) It is used for a completed action that had happened in the past. It also indicates habits of the past.

E.g.: Bob went to America last year.

We always played together.

2. Past Continuous: ( Subject + {was, were} + V1 + ing)

· It indicates an action, which was occurring in the past and was interrupted by another action.

E.g.: Seema was watching the Television when her brother called.

· It describes two or more actions going on at the same time. The clauses are usually connected by the conjunction ‘while’.

E.g.: While Maya was watching the movie, Mark was playing hockey.

· It expresses an action that was in progress at a point of time in the past, having begun before that point and probably continuing after it.

E.g.: I was watching cricket at 8.00 in the morning.

2. Past Perfect: (Subject + {had} + V3 {past participle})

a) It is used to indicate an action that happened before another action in the past. Usually two actions are mentioned in the sentence.

E.g.: Ram had gone to the store and brought some groceries.

(Past Per.) (Sim. Past)

3. Past Perfect Continuous: (Subject + {had} + been +V1 + ing)

a) It is used to convey an action which happened in the past and continued for certain time.

E.g.: Ramu had been working at the university before he retired.

Future Tense: Simple Future, Future Continuous, Future Perfect, Future Perfect Continuous

1. Simple Future: (Subject + will/shall + V1)

· It is used in sentences containing clauses of condition, time and purpose.

E.g.: If I drop this glass, it will break.

2. Future continuous: (Subject + will/shall + be+ V1+ ing)

· It is used to express an action as going on at some time in the future.

E.g.: I shall be playing piano in the concert.

· It is used to express future without intention.

E.g.: I will be helping Marie tomorrow.

3. Future Perfect: (Subject + will/shall/ + have + V3)

· It is used for an action which at a given future time will be in the past. It is usually used with a time expression ‘by then’, ‘by that time’.

E.g.: By the end of next month he will have been here for ten years.

4. Future Perfect Continuous: (Subject+ will/shall + have +been+V1 +ing)

· It can be used instead of future perfect tense (when the action is continuous).

E.g.: By the end of next month he will have been living here for ten years.

· It can also be used when the action is expressed as a continuous action.

E.g.: By the end of the week he will have been training pupils for ten years.

* However, if we mention the number of pupils, we must use future perfect.

E.g.: By the end of the week he will have trained 5000 pupils for ten years.