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.

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4 Responses

  1. […] journey from an SME to a tech writer – which is a noteworthy answer to my post two weeks ago why not to hire an SME for documentation. I thank Mattias for the permission to reprint the post from his own nascent blog The Techwriting […]

  2. Well, I think the most obvious reason that SMEs shouldn’t be hired as technical writers is because they’re rarely good writers. They often use passive, convoluted language, don’t consider usability or document maintenance, and have little respect for writing as an actual skill. Also, and this is especially important in a development setting, a SME who is designing an application and/or interface isn’t going to question the usability of that interface the same way a third-party tech writer would.

    • Thanks, agilewriter! You’re right, SMEs often do not write as well as technical communicators. I didn’t mention this here because it’s often not helping in discussions with business experts and managers. Often, they also don’t have a lot of respect for writing as a skill and aim for writing that’s “good enough” rather than good. So this is an obvious argument to tech writers, but might be less so to hiring managers.

      I’ve had different experiences with SMEs when it comes to usability: Those close to development are often not very aware of usabilty, but those closer to the market can easily match tech writers who don’t have specific training in user experience design.

  3. Well, if the objective is to convince hiring managers that tech writers have business value I would think making sure they recognize that clear, task-based communications have a direct impact on productivity (I recently read something that pointed to an over 40% impact, in fact), and that in project-based environments unethical SMEs may attempt to put off documentation in the hopes they’ll be able to extend their contracts through it (and having a dedicated tech writing in the mix mitigates those issues). Although I think there are many other reasons, those are two bottom-line issues that I think are quite obvious!

    I do agree however, developers who are closer to the market can easily match less experienced/knowledgeable tech writers, but then again, they’re also going to demand much, much more money!

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