Top 4 steps to solicit perfect documentation reviews

To get the best possible reviews from subject matter experts (SMEs), we tech writers can prepare, make our expectations clear and help our reviewers excel at their job.

Soliciting documentation reviews from SMEs can be tricky: They are usually very busy, juggling dozens of tasks, while putting off several more. The last thing they need is a writer to waltz into their office making a demand on their time. Here’s what I do to get an SME to review a manual of 100 pages or 25,000 words. It doesn’t work always, but it’s worth a try – they are the experts after all… 🙂

1. Preparing

Before I even approach the SME, I prepare:

  1. Find the ideal reviewer. This might be a colleague who’s installed and/or used the described product. At any rate, it should be someone who is very close to the customer and knows users’ needs and workflows. I also try to find out why the person is the best reviewer, for example, because of recent or in-depth experience with the product.
  2. Get permission to ask. I ask the SME’s manager for permission first. This gives the manager a chance to intervene on the SME’s behalf or to suggest someone else – who’s hopefully as good or better. It also helps to deflect the SME’s attempt to defer me to the manager. But it’s not so I can tell the SME: “But your manager said for you to do it.” – I still have to ask and convince the SME!

2. “Save the date”

I ask the SME well ahead of time if she or he will do the review. I usually approach them in person, but it works as well over the phone or via e-mail. If it’s a talk, I follow up with a “save the date” e-mail as a reminder with the essential details. This contact is mainly about the why and the when, so we discuss the following:

  • What to review in general and briefly what the manual is for, why or how it’s new, and what’s to review.
  • Why the review is essential, namely to ensure we deliver the best possible product and make it easy and effective to use for our customers – and also for colleagues like the SME. This is a good time to show how our joint effort will benefit the customers and that the SME and I have one and the same goal.
  • Why the SME is the best person to do the review.
  • When to review and what leeway, if any, I have to accommodate the SME’s schedule.

3. “Please review”

At the ‘saved date’, I send the SME my “please review” e-mail with detailed review instructions. This is mainly about the what and the how, so I include:

  • The deadline and to let me know asap if there’s a scheduling problem.
  • What to review in detail. Usually, I ask the SME to review the complete manual. But sometimes that’s not necessary: Maybe you have several reviews which complement each other. Or maybe you’ve reused topics that don’t require a review.
  • How to review. I’ve found that concise general guidelines work best for non-writers. So I tell SMEs to ensure that the manual is complete, correct and usable, and maybe illustrate each of these criteria with a question.
  • How to give feedback. Personally, I don’t insist on any specific format, whether reviewers use tracked changes, comments in the margins or handwritten comments on printouts. But if you prefer on a format, let your reviewer know.

4. “Thank you”

After I’ve received and processed all the feedback, or when the manual has been published, I send a brief “thank you” e-mail to the reviewers. In it, I point out how the reviews improved the manual and what major changes I have made. It shows my reviewers that their input matters, it shows my gratitude, and it leaves a good impression for the next time that I need a review.

This works because…

… SMEs are experts who usually enjoy doing their job well. To benefit most from their expertise, give them a chance to do reviews well. So try to supply all the information and instructions they need.

Your turn

What recipes do you have to solicit reviews? How do you get buy-in from SMEs? Please leave a comment!

3 Responses

  1. Thanks, Kai. This is good advice for all SME reviews — large and small. And it really boils down to the golden rule: treat the SME in the same considerate way that you’d want to be treated if the roles were reversed.

    A slight update for point #4: Copy the SME’s manager on your thank-you email.

    • Thanks for your comment, Larry! Yes, I agree, the golden rule certainly applies. However it took me some time to find out about that if clause you put in there: It’s little use to treat SMEs like I would want to be treated – unless I put myself in their shoes.

      And a good point about cc’ing the SME’s manager on the thank you. I sometimes omit that in favor of a verbal thank you around the water cooler, but the manager definitely needs to know how helpful the team member’s contribution has been, so I can tap him/her again next time!

  2. A couple of general points to help get reviewers to complete reviews:

    1) Make it easy on reviewers.

    We use Adobe Acrobat shared reviews, so that reviewers can see other reviewers’ comments and everyone doesn’t have to mark up the same stuff that someone else has already marked.

    2) Make it obvious who has/hasn’t done their review.

    A stamp sheet on the front of the review PDF lets everyone see who else is reviewing. You might think that people would be less likely to do a review if they know that other people are reviewing a document, but we’ve found the reverse is true: people are more likely to complete the review when they know that everyone on the review panel (not just the technical writer) is aware of who has and has not completed the review.

    Good post. Thanks.

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