tech comm – elearning – information experience

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Hey, you looking at SME?

Subject Matter Expert (SME). What does that mean?

That special someone, somewhere, who has perfect knowledge of a feature, a product, a technology. Sitting in a Mastermind chair (explainer article by @rhodri), which they can spin around, Blofeld-like when called upon by lesser mortals to offer an opinion on the .. er.. subject matter. It is so singular, so individualistic, so me, not we.

Check out iSixSigma site’s definition:

The Subject Matter Expert is that individual who exhibits the highest level of expertise in performing a specialized job, task, or skill within the organization.

Rest your shoulders a while there Atlas, that sounds like a heavy load.

Does the SME have a place in this collaborative, agile, social, user- and customer-centric world in which we develop software and content today?

Image of book with spotlight lamp

We, not me

I’m not devaluing expert knowledge or expertise. I don’t doubt that in your product development cycle – agile or otherwise – there is someone with expertise on how a feature was built, on how it should perform under certain conditions, and how, when you put all these things together, you end up with a more nebulous term: domain knowledge. In fact that’s part of the problem. Neither of the terms SME or “domain expert” does justice to what it means to be an expert in a field. I have had the privilege over the years to work with some of the brightest and best engineers and designers who bring years of experience, research and innovation to bear on amazing technical leaps forward.

I sympathise if they have been in meetings which are anything like the one in Lauris Beinerts’s comedy sketch, The Expert (7 mins, 12 million+ views). In the video, everything is dumped on “the expert”. While there are four other people in the meeting, not one of them offers any leadership or expertise from their own areas.

To bring a product, feature, and technical content to the market is a team effort. It takes experts in many fields: design, testing, user research, product management, customer support, content development, publishing, marketing, and more. A village to raise a child and all that…

Agile and cross-functional teams

Agile development has both empowered and diluted expertise. Empowered in that it gives all members of the team a say, a voice in making a great product. Yes, testers can help design; yes, engineers can lead user research, yes, tech writers have a voice in UX. Yikes, but this feature is all about specialist area “xyz”!

We still need a SME. And… we also need the PM who was last involved, the marketing team who put that great video together, and the customers who joined the beta programme. That’s not dilution, that’s building a stronger team to deliver a “product” in a broader sense of the word.

In September this year, I took part in 2 days of the UX Cambridge event. Lots of great talks. One, entitled “You don’t need a UX Designer” was given by Jonathon Roberts (@touchdeluxe), UX Designer at Red Gate. He talked about the challenges of being a specialist, about preventing bottlenecks, and about coaching engineers to take active roles in user research. By the end of the presentation he hadn’t talked himself out a job. He remains the UX expert, however he’d shared some great insights into empowering teams to share and rotate areas of responsibility so that the whole team could move forward at a greater velocity and with more empathy for both customer and co-worker. This kind of coaching takes time and some team members will be more willing to be “empowered” than others. UX isn’t the only niche area. We are all experts in our fields.

I can’t write that without thinking of the scene in Monty Python’s Life of Brian:

Brian: You’ve got to think for yourselves! You’re all individuals!

The Crowd: Yes! We’re all individuals!

Brian: You’re all different!

The Crowd: Yes, we are all different!

It takes time to change, and it’s not always comfortable at the start.

Embrace your inner SME

Yes, the SME does have a place in this collaborative, agile, social, user- and customer-centric world in which we develop software and content in today, in a more-coach-less-Blofeld kind of way.

So, go ahead:

  • Embrace your inner SME. You are the expert in content creation, information development, translation, whatever that thing is that you do best. You are not supporting other experts, you are the expert.
  • Share your expertise with those willing to join your band. Start with those who have shown a glimmer of interest or enthusiasm for that thing that you do, and build momentum.
  • Identify multiple SMEs. Find the experts in all the areas which are impacted by what you are working on. This one is especially for technical communicators. You sit at the intersection of so much expertise. Develop a balance of input from multiple sources, not just from the “loudest” ones.

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A small dose of empathy goes a long way

I stood at the front of the class, full of enthusiasm, ready to deliver a training course on a wonderful, new, soon-to-go-live software product. It was a hands-on course with lots of exercises and fun quizzes. I’d worked hard with the project team to make sure we’d keep the focus on relevant features for the different departments who were completing the training programme.

What was missing?

Before we’d even switched on a machine, the questions were coming thick and fast. How will this change my role? How will I work with department x? Where will I find y? And.. why are we doing this?

Was explaining all that part of my job? I was the software expert, not an organisational change guru.

It was my job that day, and in a way, it still is now.

The things you can’t see

Technical communicators create conceptual content as well as instructions. They build visual as well as text-based content. And today, all of this information can be consumed and shared via your web site by people, for whom a product purchase is but a twinkle in the eye of some far away budget holder.

The value that technical communicators bring is not in describing what the user can see, but what the user can’t.


That includes: seriously technical content – how to build a complex customisation that you can’t see yet; and it’s content which answers conceptual and scenario-based questions – how do I relate this to my role, my world, to the thing I have to get done right now?

Today, there are lots of ways to gain insights into the things which your users cannot see clearly, without physically being in the same room as them. However, few come close to delivering an equivalent injection of empathy.

And you’ll carry that with you for a long time afterwards.

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SaaS for cash

I love Software as a Service (SaaS), but how do you persuade me to hand over the cash? First, a quick shout-out to Ellis Pratt (@ellispratt) of Cherryleaf for his recent post on SaaS… it got me thinking.

I have been working with cloud-based software products for some years. What has changed over the last few months is that I have increased the number of applications for which I am prepared to part money with on a monthly basis, in some cases as a preference over buying the software upfront. Whether it’s authoring or publishing software such as Madcap Flare’s MadPak or Adobe’s Creative Cloud, Microsoft Office 365, accounting software or contact management software, the shift to offering Software as a Service (SaaS) is well underway. Here’s Gartner’s definition and helpful links if you want some background.

It works for me because there are great products out there which suit my budget, my devices, my mobility, and my desire to always have the latest software with minimum hassle.


However, with an increasing amount of quality free software out there, what is it that persuades me to part with my cash – even on an affordable subscription basis?

  • Sign in and trial. Ideally, I don’t want to install anything locally, especially not for a trial. And if I do, fast and painless please.
  • Stellar trial experience. First impressions count. Pull out all the stops in the trial. This might not be a time to show a “subset”. Show it all, and show it off.
  • Great design. I recently quit a trial after less than two minutes because the first new record I added felt like a task from 2004, not 2014.
  • Great ecosystem. Because I might not have a friendly account manager at my beck and call, I want a vibrant community of fellow users and experts who blog on industry topics and engage with me. People still buy from people they like.
  • Great design, again. This one is more about the user experience (UX) and information experience (IX) cross-over. The software (your company) understands the core 80% of the tasks I want to do most of the time. It makes sure those tasks are easy to do, and that I know how to do them. Do that well, and I’m prepared to cut you plenty of slack on the 20% which I occasionally have to do which are just, well, tricky.
  • Trust. I want to know that I am engaging with industry experts who know my business. I expect free, vendor independent whitepapers and research. If I see at least some of that, it builds trust and then, yes, I am prepared to part with extra cash for premium content and services such as training.
  • The odd nudge. Even mercenary cloud customers require the equivalent of a soft sales call. A good E-marketing campaign from the moment I sign up with well-placed resources (IX cross-over again) and super-easy conversion from trial options. It works if you have the preceding six items in place. It will probably be ignored without them.

And you want all that for £9.99 a month? Well, the price point varies depending on the product. But value for money is high on my agenda. Inflation is outstripping wages for the fifth year running in the UK. Unless, weirdly, you are an undertaker – for more on that, see this fascinating report from the Office for National Statistics via the BBC.

A final thought. As I read back over this list, there’s not one item which cannot be applied to on-premise software which is paid for upfront. You still have the fundamental SaaS-style expectation that, through interaction with content on your web site, social media, and in your product…

…I know, that you know, what it feels like to be your customer.

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Five help design favourites

“Is it OK to make the help button go straight to the support home page?”

It is great that you are making more of your tech comms content available online. However, jettisoning your users mid-task onto a generic landing page can be frustrating.

The Administration area of a WordPress blog has some really nice help design, which I have used in this post to demonstrate some alternatives.

Here, the help design feels:

  1. Predictable
  2. Clear
  3. Context-sensitive
  4. Linked to in-depth topics
  5. Dynamic and up-to-date

1. Predictable

The help button behaviour is predictable, before I have even selected it. The downward pointing arrow gives me the message that I am a) going to stay exactly where I am and b) going to get some expanded text or options.

Screenshot of WordPress help button

2. Clear

The word “Help” in a decent size relative to the rest of the content on the screen makes it easy to find.

3. Context-sensitive

Once I select Help, the content is contextual.

Screenshot of expanded WordPress help

4. Links to more

I also have access to general help categories. Following these links is going to take me away from the page to the support web site, but I get to a specific area I have chosen while I am still in context.

Screenshot of links in WordPress help

5. Dynamic and up-to-date

Once I select, for example, the Get Help Media category, the links I get look dynamic – updates to the WordPress Support web site may be feeding directly into the display area in help.

Do you have a help design favourite which you would like to use in a help makeover?