Best practices for gathering procedures from subject matter experts?
September 25, 2016 7:58 PM   Subscribe

I need to gather info from subject matter experts from a group at work so that I can document their procedures and reference information. I was wondering if you all had some best practices that I should follow in order to get the most thorough information, while being as helpful as possible.

I have not done a lot of technical writing until recently, and the last section I did was the section I do my main work in, so I didn't need to do so much interviewing to gather information. Also, the people I did interview were people I knew well.

For this next section I am to document, I do not know the people well, and I am quite unfamiliar with almost all of their procedures, so I will be starting from scratch. I would like to know any best practices that I should follow to get the most thorough information when I do ask them for procedural task steps and reference information for the duties of their group.

We do have sheets with pre-printed blanks for them to write the various steps on as a starting point, but I think a large part of it will involve me sitting with them so I can see their screens as they do the computer stuff, and going through things and taking copious notes.

Unfortunately, I write somewhat slowly, and feel awkward asking people to slow down so I can get everything, but I figure I'm going to have to bite the bullet and get over my awkwardness at this. There will be a review of the materials after I have written the documents, by the SMEs as well as the management, as relevant. Only when everything is ready will the final product be published.

So how best should I approach this process? Types of questions that I should ask? Ways to help get the best information from the people I will be working with? Good technical writing books or websites that would be good for me to study?

Any advice you would have in this regard would be gratefully appreciated.
posted by megafauna to Work & Money (3 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
Fairly specific, but I've heard that if you're asking about something like the time required for various stages of a process, it's easier to get SMEs to estimate the most common and highest observed values (triangular distribution) than mean and stdev.
posted by ecsh at 8:05 PM on September 25, 2016

From the perspective of one who's been the SME, the best tech writers come in having done their research about what I do and what is needed. They've already thoroughly investigated if this interview is for documentation of routine or outlier activities, and/or how it will be used for future initiatives. They've met already with the SME team/team lead and identified specific process areas that absolutely need documentation and scheduled observation of specific SME's appropriately. The writer has the SME team/others evaluators review the documentation's appropriateness/accuracy and repeats observations/documentation/review as needed until all are reasonably satisfied or time runs out. Only then is the documentation turned into management.

Strongly advise finding the SME whom everyone prefers to direct inquiries to or likes documentation/protocol issues---which is not necessarily the SME who is has been there the longest, works fastest, is friendliest, etc.

Consider audio or video recording for later recall.
posted by beaning at 8:25 PM on September 25, 2016 [2 favorites]

I've been on both sides of this equation. Like beaning said, coming in prepared will go a long way to giving you some vailidity and show you've done adequate prep. I kept having to school outside contractors on the basics of the technology I was working with and it really pissed me off that they didn't take the time to self educate. Read any documentation that is in place already, even if it is informal. Also, if this is using a specific technology at least read the "_____ for Dummies" book if one is available so they don't have to constantly explain concepts and terminology. And, if you are going to need to capture how they do something via a computer based interface buy a screen grab tool like Snagit to help with the task. Lastly, make sure you ask questions if you don't understand what they've told you or a specific concept or step in a process. It's much better to ask the 1st time than to have to reach out to them again because you were scared to ask.
posted by white_devil at 10:50 AM on September 28, 2016

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