Interviewing Subject Matter Experts

Interviewing Practices for Technical Writers (1991) by Earl E. McDowell defines interviewing as, “… a dyadic, relational communication process which involves two parties with a definite purpose designed to interchange behavior by speaking and listening to one another and involves the asking and answering of questions” (4.) Interviewing subject matter experts involves is a difficult matter in which writers must extract information from an expert in a specific field.

Planning the Interview

  • Determine and focus on the purpose of the interview and discover what he/she hopes to learn from it
  • Learn about the topic before conducting the interview
  • Ask the respondent their position on being quoted or taped, so if they respond positively a tape recorder can be prepared (Technical Communication 131).

Interviewer Roles

Both the interviewer and the subject matter expert should prepare accordingly for the interview; however, their roles in the interview itself are very different. McDowell explains the interviewer’s roles include:

  • Anticipating the nature of the subject matter expert and perception of the interview
  • Decide upon the appropriate psychological proximity with the interviewee
  • Constantly remember the interview’s specific purpose

Preparing the Questions

McDowell considers interview questions one of the most important and effective aspects of an interview and even refers to them as the “tools of the trade.” (McDowell, 1991, p. 29). Sometimes the interviewers use different types of question sequences. A question sequence is a series of interconnected questions that form a pattern to create more closure within a particular topic area.

  • Funnel Sequence – A deductive approach used when both parties have extensive knowledge of the topic and feel comfortable talking; Moves from general questions to questions of greater specificity.
  • Avoid asking questions that promote a particular bias. These types of questions are called loaded questions and the bias behind it often sways the interviewee’s answers.
  • Write each question on a separate page in order to stay organized. This allows the interviewer to keep each question separate from one another and write the answer to each question on the corresponding page (Technical Communication 131).

Conducting Interviews and Debriefing SMEs


  • Restate the purpose of the interview to the respondent and explain how the information provided will be used.
  • Establish “rapport” and “orient” the interviewee.


  • Ask questions and create the atmosphere to let the subject matter expert do most of the talking.
  • Interviewer should speak for around thirty percent of the interview allowing sufficient time for the subject matter expert responses (McDowell 1991, p 245).
  • Ask clarifying questions.
  • Listen for critical content and main ideas, and process answers before asking the next question (McDowell, 1991, p.16). Refrain from stating opinions.
  • Stick to the interview plan, and keep the conversation on track even if the respondent begins to stray.
  • Ask follow-up questions.
  • Be sure not to oversimplify SME responses.
  • Analogy Bias: When an analogy that is too simple is used inappropriately or when a familiar situation is attributed to an unfamiliar one (for example, “Since laser printers and desktop copiers are alike in that they use toner cartridges, they must also be alike in terms of power consumption and their paper paths.”) (Getting Inside an Expert’s Brain 1)
  • Common Connotation Bias – everyday terms are used in technical ways that are not commonly understood. (for example, Most people think they understand the word ‘cure,’ but pharmaceutical sales representatives and physicians following the World Health Organization definition of this term may define the word quite differently than the average person would.”) (Getting Inside an Expert’s Brain 1)
  • Record statistics, dates, names, and so on, but not every word spoken. Key phrases written down can help jog one’s memory after the interview.
  • Interview more than one SME on each topic because different people have different viewpoints and information on the topic

Three-Phase Interviewing Technique

  • Descriptive elicitation phase – intended to reveal the most important, general concepts reflected in the terms and specialized language used by a SME.
  • Structural expansion – designed to investigate the relationships between the concepts and the organization of the SME’s knowledge using the technical terminology uncovered in the first stage.
  • Scripting – discover procedural knowledge or the detailed process of solving problems (Getting Inside an Expert’s Brain 1).

Works Cited

Ford, John M., Diane M. Gayeski, and Larry E. Wood. “Getting inside an expert’s brain.” Training & Development Aug. 1992: 55+.

Expanded Academic ASAP. Web. 15 May 2012.

Lannon, John M. “Technical Communication”. Eighth Edition. Addison Wesley Longman, Inc.
University of Massachusetts, Dartmouth. 2000.

The Technical Communication book provides brief bulleted lists of information for the interviewer about how to best conduct an interview. It emphasizes proper etiquette as well as tips for how to prepare for the upcoming interview.

McDowell, E.E. (1991). Interviewing Practices for Technical Writers. New York: Baywood Publishing Company.