While there is no shortage of guidance on how organizations can engage employees in creating marketing content – such as blogs, social media posts, LinkedIn updates, and so on – there is a surprising lack of practical advice on how to engage Subject Matter Experts (SMEs) in the product documentation process.

As a result, many technical writers spend an inordinate amount of time chasing down SMEs trying to set up interviews, having follow-up conversations, verifying facts, resolving inconsistencies, and the list goes on. And for their part, many SMEs don’t fully understand the process, and as such find the experience tedious, inefficient and sometimes even redundant -- which is why they avoid and resist participating.

Obviously, product documentation will continue to remain a core asset that connects organizations and brands to customers; and not just those who have made a purchase or are using a product, but also by those who are doing their pre-sales research. As such, resolving this lingering disconnect with SMEs has to be addressed; because it won’t somehow solve itself in time. On the contrary, it will get worse!

Fortunately for technical writers, addressing the gap and efficiently, effectively and (dare we say it?) enjoyably involving SMEs in product documentation creation is both possible and practical. These 4 best practices go a long way towards making this happen:

  1. Educate SMEs on the Product Document Creation Process

As noted above, many SMEs don’t fully understand the product document creation process (even if they think they do!). As far as they’re concerned, the defining characteristic of the process is that every now and then, a technical writer sends too many emails and voicemails about scheduling an interview. Technical writers can end this misunderstanding by taking the initiative, and educating SMEs on the process – such as by creating an on-demand webinar that can be uploaded to the company intranet, creating a  PDF or web page, and so on.The idea here isn’t to overload SMEs with training material that, frankly, they won’t watch or read. Rather, it’s to equip them with targeted, efficient information that helps them understand their role in the process, and – even more importantly – why it’s in their interest to actively participate.

  1. Brush-Up SME Interview Skills

Most technical writers are skilled interviewers, typically because they’ve done so many of them over the years. However, even the most seasoned veterans – and especially skilled or emerging professionals – could benefit from brushing-up on their interview techniques. There are plenty of books, videos, workshops, websites (like this one) and specialized coaches who can help with various aspects, including:

  • Interview preparation: determining if the goal is to recover information, discover information, or a mix of both.
  • Conducting the interview: establishing a linear process, practicing active listening skills, ensuring that the external environment supports a focused experience, etc.
  • Following-up on the interview: clarifying issues, reconciling conflicting input from different SMEs, debriefing key stakeholders, etc. Naturally, once SMEs appreciate that product documentation discussions with technical writers are focused, efficient, relevant and drive specific – and critical – organizational goals and outcomes, they will be much more inclined to participate. In fact, once some SMEs realize how easy it is for them to play a key role in preserving the integrity and consistency of product documentation, they may proactively reach out and ask technical writers if they can get together and chat!
  1. Use Agile Documentation Processes

Some technical writers brace for impact when they come across the phrase “agile documentation”, because it’s often a precursor to what turns into a chaotic free-for-all – kind of like what an airport runway would be like without the air traffic control tower. However, technical writers who strive to overcome their well-earned aversion to agile documentation will discover that there are core principles of this approach that they can and should leverage – because it makes their jobs much easier and more efficient, and just as importantly, helps bring SMEs into the process. Based on insights suggested by Agilemodelinh.com, technical writers can borrow the following from the agile documentation playbook -- regardless of whether they are working in software development or any other space:

  • Keep documentation as simple as possible, but not too simple that it becomes cryptic and incomprehensible to target audiences.
  • Avoid version control nightmares by creating the fewest documents possible, and that have the least amount of overlap.
  • Publish product documentation in appropriate places – i.e. the Intranet, shared folders, etc. – so that it will be easily and reliably found by the right SMEs and other stakeholders.
  • Use a solution like Zoomin to launch a “Touchpoint Expansion Cycle”, which provides a streamlined framework for SMEs to share feedback and advice during writing and editing cycles, which supports fast and efficient re-publishing.
  1. Use an Intelligent Product Documentation Platform

An intelligent product documentation platform allows technical writers to bring both SMEs and customers into the product documentation creation process. For example:

  • Through web communities customers can review, share and comment on content (e.g. ask questions, identify real or perceived inconsistencies, etc.)
  • SMEs monitor this input and provide focused, concise, expert-level responses.
  • Technical writers integrate this information into product documentation and/or follow-up with SMEs in an organic way (e.g. “Your response yesterday to that customer’s question about editing user profiles was excellent. Let’s have a 30-minute discussion about this, so I can get the complete picture and update our product documentation accordingly”). Ultimately, an intelligent documentation product platform leads to both improved product documentation, and higher customer engagement -- which is always a top organizational priority.

The Bottom Line

To be frank and fair: there is no magic wand that will instantly make it blissful for technical writers to engage SMEs in the product documentation creation process. However, it doesn’t need to be – and frankly can’t afford to be – a tedious, uphill climb; or an all-out struggle.

Implementing these 4 best practices will go a long way to making the process work MUCH better for everyone, which is not just valuable to technical writers and SMEs. In the bigger picture, it’s key for organizational success and long-term survival.

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