Top 3 reasons not to hire an SME for documentation

There are 3 reasons (at least) why you should hire a technical communicator for documentation, not a subject-matter expert (SME).

I work in the field of financial software. Applications for banks and other financial institutions are complex. The office swarms with people who have solid financial knowledge, both practical and theoretical.

Recently, I talked to a financial specialist who is writing documentation and his manager about the need for a second writer. Their idea was to hire a financial specialist who could make sense of the pricing formulas and the workflows surrounding the financial instruments.

I disagree. I think they should hire a professional technical communicator, especially since they already have a finance specialist in documentation. If they can find a writer with experience in finance, all the better. Here’s why:

1. Get the full package.

Only a technical communicator will be comfortable with and good at doing all the expected tasks. An SME is ready to explain the instruments and how to trade them. If you’re lucky, the person can also describe them well to users.

But that’s only part of it. The job also includes designing and structuring topics. Editing what other people have written. This takes some hefty experience to do efficiently and well. With an SME, you take the chance to run into a problem with reason number two.

2. Hire for years, not months.

Many SMEs don’t stick around, once documentation gets tough. They may not mind writing documentation, but they don’t think of themselves as technical communicators. So once you expect them to do the “full package”, interest often flags and sooner or later, they find something else to do.

3. Complements beat “more of the same”.

From a corporate perspective it makes sense to hire complementary skills instead of “more of the same”. If there are several financial specialists who can review or even supply domain knowledge they can support the technical communicator. If there is no tech comm person, financial specialists may just scratch their heads over topic types and structured writing – and in the worst case put “crap on a page“.

Your turn

What’s your experience? Do you more reasons why technical communicators should write documentation and SMEs shouldn’t? Do you know counterexamples where SMEs are more helpful than tech comm’ers? Please leave a comment.