How to Interview a Subject Matter Expert

When trying to uncover the functionality of an existing system or discover what a new or updated system needs to do to meet the business need, the most critical activity you will perform is interviewing stakeholders.

Interviewing subject matter experts (SMEs) is part art, part science.  I’ll provide you with some techniques and best practices for rooting out requirements and getting your SMEs to provide you information that they might not even be conscious of knowing.  But be aware that when you are in the midst of interviews and demos, you should listen to your inner instincts about what you are hearing and what questions you should be asking.

Some general practices:

  • Always interview the business subject matter experts first.  As tempting as it can be to get into the guts of the system with a star developer, your priority is to understand how the system is used and the business process it supports, not how the system works.
  • Establish trust.  SME interviews can seem a lot like that scene from Office Space where high-end consultants were brought in to figure out who to fire.  Explain why you are doing what you are doing and why you need their help.  Taking time to explain how the information will help you can go a long way in creating an open environment.
  • Establish credibility.  Maybe the SME has gone through this activity a handful of times before.  Where are the results of those meetings?  Come in with a defined agenda and set of questions wherever possible.  Be ready to show you’ve done your homework and aren’t asking them questions you could answer for yourself.  Always let them know what your next step is so they know this conversation won’t fade into the ether.
  • Get your SME to talk.  Ask them to show you how to use the system or explain a business process.  Ask open-ended questions to encourage dialog.
  • Let them talk.  If you get a SME talking, don’t stop them. Listen carefully and encourage them to continue.  Ask follow-up questions.

Tips for rooting out requirements:

  • As you are listening to your SMEs, try to think in terms of cause and effect.  Oftentimes your experts speak in “effects.”  True gems of system functionality can be found in the causes: How does that happen?  What makes that happen?  Why does that happen?  Building cause and effect relationships as you understand system functionality uncovers gaps in information.
  • Be wary of the happy path.  Things go wrong, but not everyone thinks about what goes wrong.  Ask questions like: Does every record move to the next step? Are some records handled specially? What kinds of issues happen here? What are some of the things you look for in this process?
  • Be equally wary of those who speak in exceptions.  It really helps to understand the happy path first.  In these situations you’ll need to refocus the conversation with questions like: If that doesn’t go wrong, what happens? Does every record go through that process? How often does that happen? Tell me about a “perfect” record.
  • Watch for unexplained specifics, such as “this happens every Tuesday morning” or “I can an email from accounting”.   What’s really going on here and how does the system support that business process?
  • Be curious.  Ask why, why, why to the point of being slightly annoying.

Again, this activity is as much an art as it is a science.  Go in prepared, use the elicitation techniques that feel most comfortable to you, and, most importantly, listen.

>> Get More Prepared for Your Next SME Interview

Interested in receiving a comprehensive set of questions you can ask in almost any project context? Want to feel more confident asking questions in a new domain? The Requirements Discovery Checklist Pack includes over 700 questions, categorized and cross-referenced so you can prepare for your next subject matter expert interview with a sense of ease and confidence.

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