You know the old adage, “when all you have is a hammer, everything is a nail?” It’s a good one to keep in mind when you are working with a Subject Matter Expert (SME).
Specialists tend to be mono-focused
Don’t think I’m being insulting here, because I’m not. SMEs are smart. They know their stuff. But the truth is, they know their product SO well that the back end becomes their hammer. Everything they tell you goes through the filter of both their training and how they built the product. Often they can’t see what the end user needs to know to actually WORK the product because of this.
A good analogy is the specialization of health care practitioners. An acquaintance went to his doctor because of a weird rash. It was on the skin, so the doctor sent my friend to the dermatologist. The dermatologist announced with one look that it was “contact dermatitis” and sent him for allergy testing, as well as putting him on a long-term schedule of immuno-suppressants. Long story short, the dermatologist was seeing the rash through his training – and missed the big clue, even though he was told that the rash originated with a tick bite… By the time my friend got to a rheumatologist/immune system specialist that correctly diagnosed Lyme disease, the drugs that the dermatologist had given him had made the situation much worse.
The Tech Writer is the Translator
As the technical writer, you must understand the SME. But you also need to understand the end user and be able to create a bridge between your audience and the SME that the needed information can cross while superlative information stays on the first riverbank. In the case of our above analogy, the technical communicator would have been the person to disclose extra cautions to the patient. In fact, making sure the SME knew that there was a tick bite involved would be important as well (that’s sometimes easier said than done).
We have to know our audience’s needs almost better than they do themselves. Then we need to find a way to communicate those needs to the SME in a way that allows that SME to give us the best information to meet those needs: before that audience knows they need it.
When gathering data to turn into your User Manual or Helpfile, or whatever you have been contracted to write, you translate for the User. That’s why it’s so important to know your audience. Knowing your audience well lets you filter out what isn’t needed and write good procedures and help about what is.
Don’t allow yourself to filter out what the SME says to you though. You may know the end user doesn’t need to know the technobabble architecture behind scheduling an appointment in the application – but if you stop listening while the SME explains it, you may miss the fact that appointment times can only be set in 2 hour increments – something the user will need to know before she tries to schedule a short 1/2 hour appointment!
Remember when working with SMEs: they generally love what they have created. They know it inside out and backwards from building it, but it’s your job to explain the details frontwards for your audience. All while catching the little hidden “gotchas” caused by the back end along the way.