Diagram Series: Pitfalls of interviews with SMEs

Look at the following broken-line graph (Figure #1). How much time do you need to create one? 5 – 10 minutes? How about two days?

Figure #1 (Click to enlarge)

Now, if I provide an estimate of two days for creating a graph, my Customer will expect to receive a 3D visualization, in color. Then, where is the problem? Why creating a graph with a few broken lines might take that much time?

I’d say: pitfalls of interviews with your SME (Subject Matter Expert). Every time you create a diagram is a different and unique experience. Sometimes, you retrieve the information from the SME quickly and successfully, but sometimes it turns out to be a long and painful process. In this article, I will describe how to deal with potential pitfalls while interviewing your SME to create a diagram.

First interview: Vague introduction

Sometimes, you might get the feeling that after interviewing your SME you understand the functionality even less than before or still have a very vague idea of what you are documenting. The following diagram (Figure #2) illustrates that SMEs can have difficulties expressing their ideas clearly on the paper. They tend to sketch their explanations very obscurely, which does not provide you with the needed food for thought.

Figure #2 (Click to enlarge)

In this case, I recommend dividing the information in a diagram into chunks that you understand and don’t understand. This will help you identify and depict core components of the graph. Then, request the SME to meet again to present your vision of the graph.

Second interview: Mind-blowing review

As soon as the SME sees your incorrect sketch, he/she will subconsciously try to correct it, so that the graph corresponds logical interactions in the application. Allow the SME to edit, change, and correct the graph, but follow closely to memorize the final lines. The inevitable outcome will be a complete maze, but that’s already something to start with.

Figure #3 (Click to enlarge)

Redraw the graph in accordance with the comments of your SME and request another review to get the approval.

Third interview: “Final masterpiece”

If after all your efforts to retrieve a good-looking graph from the SME, you end up with something like this (Figure #4), you begin to understand that the SME was not fooling around with the pen during the first interview. Do your best to convey this “complex logics of position-velocity interdependencies”, and remember that no matter how ugly your “baby” (graph) is, you’ll still love it.

Figure #4 (Click to enlarge)

Be determined to “squeeze” all last drops of important information from the SME and get the approval. Good luck!

I hope that this article was helpful for everyone who is stuck with SMEs’ explanations wondering how to decrypt SME’s drawings. Additionally, you can read how to create a diagram from scratch, make your diagrams informative following practical tips, and select the right type of graphics for your particular case.


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