Interviewing SMEs: Prepare, Talk, and Troubleshoot

Interviewing subject matter experts (SMEs) is one of the key soft skills that an Information Developer should possess. Our job is to get the technical input and turn it into a clear and usable output: decide on what is crucial and what is irrelevant, structure the information, and illustrate it with examples or graphics. Still, the much-needed input resides in the minds of the SMEs, and we need to act wisely to retrieve it—in other words, to master the art of interviewing.

Similar to any other type of interview, SME interview has the following key stages:

  1. Preparation
  2. Getting in touch with your interviewee
  3. Asking questions and listening carefully
  4. Following up

Stage 1: Preparation

Gather technical information

Learn technical details of your task. Try to understand the basic concepts and catch up on the key terminology your SME is likely to use. Read the ticket, related emails, internal wiki, or specifications; use all sources you have access to. In this way, you will not be asking additional questions that would drive your SME crazy. So, come prepared!

Structure your agenda

List your questions thinking about the needs of your end users. What would their circumstances and preconditions be? What information is important to them, and what is not? How does the new feature affect the existing functionality? Remember that the questions that you failed to clarify may result is users’ dissatisfaction.

Respect your SME’s time. If your topic is large, try breaking your interview in a series of sessions that last no longer that one hour each.

Prepare the resources

Make sure all the needed resources are available. Think of details that matter: prepare whatever items you both might need, be it laptops, printouts, pens, pencils, or sheets of paper. If you plan to use a whiteboard, check if the markers are in place. If you need to access a test environment, make sure you can do it at a place where you are to meet. If you plan to record your SME’s speech, inform him or her in advance, and check if the recording device is operating.

If your SME is miles away and you cannot meet in person, having a call is the best option you have. To avoid any distracting noises around you, plan using a conference room for your call. Be ready to use screen-sharing tools and make sure your microphone is working.

Stage 2: Getting in touch

If you are working closely with the development team, you may know perfectly well whom to approach with any specific question. In this case, getting in touch is easy and rather informal.

You could simply come by and ask your teammate if he or she can answer some questions.

If you are new to the project or just have a one-off task and know nothing about the product and team, you may need the help of a project manager to find out who exactly your SME is. Introduce yourself to this person (either personally or via email), explain what you are working on, and mention what kind of information you need. Suggest several time slots and ask to choose the one (ones) that best fits into the SME’s calendar.

  • What can go wrong: Your SME ignores your requests. There may be plenty of reasons why you are ignored, but none of them is good enough to justify being out of schedule.
  • Troubleshooting: You cannot waste time, so escalate the problem. Add the project manager in CC of your emails to the SME, if you have not done so before.

Stage 3: Interviewing

Your interview is scheduled, and it may seem that the job is almost done. However, an interview is the most important stage of your quest for information. This is when your soft skills come into play. You cannot just say, “Explain what this thing does” and then sit back and relax. Being an interviewer implies that you guide a conversation, actively help your interviewee, and adjust your behavior depending on the SMEs personality. It takes two to tango, right?

Below are described several personality types and some of the issues you might deal with when interviewing an SME. You can treat this list as a joking exaggeration, but remember that there is a grain of truth in every joke!

Case 1: Just not a speaker


Some people are naturally good speakers, and some are not.

  • What can go wrong: You feel that your attempts at breaking the ice do not work – shyness has nothing to do with it. You realize that speaking is not the strongest point of your interviewee, and you have to fight for each answer. Yes, that happens.
  • Troubleshooting: You have to do the talking. Offer the SME some ready-made verbal constructions, so that he or she does not have to painfully build them. Describe possible scenarios and use cases, make assumptions, and then ask if they are correct. Ask a lot, since what you will probably get would be mere “Yes” and “No”. In the end, try summarizing: build a workflow out of the details you have clarified, and ask again if you got it right.

Another tactics is to continue working with such SME in writing. Gather your questions, formulate them clearly and carefully, and send them to your SME. You may witness a miraculous change, and words will flow smoothly.

Case 2: A newbie


This kind of an SME has little experience and does not know what information you need. Besides, shyness can make things worse.

  • What can go wrong: Unless you control the conversation, its focus may shift to the “macro setting”. You may end up with lots of technical details that users do not need, but your SME finds them interesting because it is his or her job. Additionally, your SME may not know the bigger picture (for example, how this feature fits into the entire workflow).
  • Troubleshooting: First, try fighting the shyness and breaking the ice. Smile, be friendly, keep nodding, and express your interest and approval while listening. Then, control the focus of the conversation carefully: “Oh, wow, coding is so interesting, and you did a great job here. But let’s get back to that feature for a minute. So what does the user have to do?”

Case 3: A guru


In a perfect world, all our requests for information would be answered immediately, clearly, and fully. Experienced SMEs give us the closest approximation to the perfection. They have had many interviews before, and they know what exactly you need and how to explain it to you “like you are five”, and then add the right portion of technical details.

  • What can go wrong: Nothing, actually. Lucky you!

Case 4: A rock star


A genius type that has two operating modes: “busy consulting” and “deep in thoughts”.

  • What can go wrong: Your meeting can be rescheduled again and again. There will always be emergencies that require your SME’s attention. In his or her eyes, you are just one of those “documentation folks” of low priority. Additionally, your SME is probably so immersed into the technical details that for him or her the subject of your investigation would seem either utterly unexplainable (because you do not even know how to code!) or too obvious (because how else could you possibly interpret this feature, control, or function?)
  • Troubleshooting: Pay special attention to preparation. If you show that you know the background and understand some basic concepts, you will get more credibility. You may feel that the need to explain “in plain words” irritates your SME, but remember that you are the user’s advocate. Accept your own (and users’) ignorance and keep asking. Listen very attentively, repeat, and paraphrase to show that you are following your SME’s words (and not stuck some 10 minutes ago). Generally, treat this interview as a great learning experience.

Stage 4: Following up

Whatever your interview case is, be sure to arrange some follow-up activities. Agree with your SME that he or she later reviews your writing to check it for technical accuracy and completeness. Make sure to set a specific deadline for the review.

On a closing note

If there were an award ceremony after each product release, I would rush on stage to express my gratitude to all the people without whom I would not be able to explain a product to the users: my SMEs. I would thank all of them for being such great guys who are always professional and patient with me. OK, back to real life now: after you retrieved the needed information, remember to say thank you!

And what are your interviewing tips and techniques? How do you prepare, arrange, and actually talk to your SMEs? Please feel free to share your experiences!


3 thoughts on “Interviewing SMEs: Prepare, Talk, and Troubleshoot

    • Thank you so much, Larry.
      The points you’ve mentioned in your article are all so true, and I totally agree with them. I think that the interpersonal aspect of our job is often undeservingly overlooked. Everyone who works (or is going to work) in TechComm should remember that it is people we are working with, not machines.


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