New Technical Writer: Avoiding The Interview-writing Disconnect

By: Barry Millman


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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