New Technical Writer Avoiding The Interview Writing Disconnect


Lost or​ garbled information is​ a​ terrible waste. Especially if​ it's the​ information you gathered from an​ interview and must now write into your User Document. Here's how to​ prevent that waste.


You had an​ interview with a​ Subject Matter Expert (SME,​ someone who has the​ information that you need) for your product. He/she told you all that you needed to​ know. However,​ by the​ time you got to​ write the​ material into the​ User Document,​ you have forgotten much of​ what was discussed. Your notes only help a​ bit. This loss or​ garbling the​ information from the​ SME that you need for your writing is​ the​ "Interview-Writing Disconnect."


The solution is​ divided into three components: Preparation Before the​ Interview,​ Actions During,​ and Following the​ Interview.

TIP: if​ possible,​ schedule the​ interview as​ close to​ the​ time that you are going to​ write that part of​ the​ User Document. the​ longer you wait between the​ interview and the​ writing,​ the​ more difficult it​ will be to​ recall the​ content.
Before the​ Interview

* Your guiding principle is​ to​ Be Prepared. You should have read what you can about the​ product,​ its environment,​ who will use it,​ and what they (usually) want to​ do with the​ product.
Know as​ much as​ you can before the​ interview. the​ more you know about the​ product,​ the​ better off you will be in​ the​ interview.

* Specify the​ goals of​ the​ interview. Share this information with the​ SME. Do this in​ an​ e-mail before the​ interview.

* Ask the​ SME if​ you can (audio; video is​ too obtrusive) record the​ interview. Get a​ recorder (preferably a​ digital recorder) and make sure it​ is​ set up to​ function properly during the​ interview.

* Gather any other materials you will need for the​ interview.

* Set up your recorder,​ etc quickly when the​ meeting begins.

* (You might want to​ practice taking legible notes...I sure need to)


Leave your ego at​ the​ door. (This is​ really hard.) Don't make signs that indicate that you understand something that you do not. Ask questions,​ get the​ explanation that you need. Here is​ something to​ tell the​ SME:

"If I ask what sounds like a​ stupid question,​ bear in​ mind that I am acting based on​ the​ knowledge that our User has."


Record the​ interview (if permitted).

Start with some overview questions,​ such as:

* What is​ this portion of​ the​ product (topic) called?

* How does this topic fit in​ to​ the​ product?

* What is​ this (portion of​ the​ product) used for?

* When would someone use this (unless it​ is​ "obvious")?

* What has to​ be set up before the​ User can use this part of​ the​ product?

* Any other conditions about when this would be used,​ or​ when it​ would be avoided?

After you have the​ background information,​ then move on​ to​ the​ actual operation of​ the​ part of​ the​ product. Ask any questions that you have prepared and any others that come up in​ the​ interview.

Remember,​ if​ you do not understand something,​ ask.

Ask some summary questions. Review the​ steps that you took,​ saying them out loud in​ your own words (especially if​ you are recording the​ session). Have the​ SME correct any mistakes that you make.

Ask if​ there is​ any related information to​ this topic. Are there any tips or​ traps using this part of​ the​ product?


If the​ SME points to​ a​ part of​ the​ product (such as​ a​ window in​ a​ piece of​ software,​ or​ the​ control panel of​ a​ barbecue) then say out loud what the​ SME is​ pointing to. Say something like "we are looking at​ the​ main address book window" or​ "we are looking at​ the​ main burner control." This will enable you to​ link what is​ happening in​ the​ interview with the​ audio tape.

If the​ SME performs an​ operation,​ say what it​ is. "You just entered the​ new person's name,​ and the​ 'New Card' window appeared." or​ "You just turned the​ burner control to​ the​ 'Light' position,​ and now the​ igniter is​ clicking,​ and there's the​ flame."

Take notes as​ well as​ you can. But do not let any of​ your activity get in​ the​ way of​ the​ interview. It's not a​ good idea to​ keep stopping the​ SME while you catch up with your note taking. You will have the​ audio recording to​ fall back on.

The SME might provide handouts for the​ interview. if​ you are allowed to,​ take notes on​ the​ handouts. the​ goal is​ to​ link your audio recording and notes and handouts together. For example,​ if​ the​ SME provides a​ screen print for a​ software product,​ you should link your notes,​ audio recording and the​ handout together by reading the​ title of​ the​ handout aloud. Do it​ as​ unobtrusively as​ possible.


As soon as​ possible after the​ interview,​ you must go over your notes and handouts. if​ possible,​ this should be done within minutes of​ the​ end of​ the​ interview. Find a​ quiet place (perhaps you have access to​ the​ interview room after the​ interview) and go over your notes.

Review your notes and add clarification to​ them. When you add the​ material to​ the​ notes do it​ with enough detail so that someone who was not at​ the​ meeting will be able to​ understand it. That person is​ you in​ even a​ day or​ two!

As soon as​ you can get to​ it,​ take the​ expanded notes and write them into a​ draft of​ that part of​ the​ User Document. That should be within a​ day or​ two of​ the​ interview,​ if​ possible. Every minute's delay adds to​ the​ disconnect between what you learned in​ the​ meeting and what you write.

Let your draft sit for a​ day or​ so,​ then review and revise it​ for clarity and completeness. Consider sending the​ reviewed and revised version of​ the​ draft to​ the​ SME for comments. (You only want comments on​ the​ material,​ not on​ grammar.)

Schedule time for this writing,​ even if​ you are juggling several writing projects. the​ time you save in​ not having to​ recall the​ information at​ a​ later date will be a​ good investment.


You can avoid or​ reduce the​ effects of​ the​ Interview-Writing Disconnect by being prepared before the​ interview,​ asking questions and taking effective notes during the​ interview,​ and reviewing and writing the​ material as​ soon after the​ interview as​ possible.

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