This guest blog was written by Dr. Timothy Ponce. Dr. Ponce holds a PhD in English and a Certificate in Teaching Technical Writing from the University of North Texas. In addition to serving as an Associate Professor of Instruction at the University of Texas Arlington (UTA), he also serves as both the Coordinator of Internships and Coordinator of Technical Writing and Professional Design in the Department of English.

Mathematicians. Statisticians. Topologists. Accompanying my wife at the Mathematical Association of America’s annual Math-Fest conference meant that I was a fish out of water. As someone with a PhD in English, the lectures were over my head, the poster sessions were indiscernible, and even the books at the vendor fair were unintelligible. I was a technical communicator in a sea of subject matter experts (SMEs).

But something special happened when we went to dinner with a group of my wife’s mathematically gifted friends. As we waited for our appetizers to arrive at the table, the topic of sci-fi movies and television shows came up. Spirited debates about the superiority of characters, franchises, and installments continued long after the dessert plates had been cleared away. And as we walked back to the conference hotel, I was struck with a silly yet novel concept: SMEs are people.

I know. I know. Of course, SMEs are people. But the truth is that as a technical communicator, I often think of them more like brains on a stick. That is, I see only the fruit of their talent and not the actual person sitting in front of me. This profound realization, which seemed like something out of Monty Python’s Life of Brian when he tells the crowd they are all individuals—well, except that one guy who says “I’m not”—has impacted not only the way I engage SMEs but also how I teach SME engagement in my technical communication program at the University of Texas Arlington. Specifically, I began integrating my SMEs into the course design framework I use and teach.

SMEs and Design Thinking

Born from roots in Norway in the early 1970s and fleshed out a decade later as part of the Utopia Project, design thinking proposes a mindset of cooperative design based on empathy, with deliverables from a product of a partnership between a designer and user. Although its origins may have begun as a regional movement in Europe, design thinking has had worldwide influence through its five-component heuristic:

  • Empathize – an exchange based on active listening between designer and user that leads to the designer empathizing with the user.
  • Define – the co-creation of a definition of the challenges at hand by designer and user.
  • Ideate – a gathering of any possible solution to the challenges co-defined, including those from both designer and user.
  • Prototype – the assembling of the best tools or ideas from designer and user.
  • Test – a recursive process in which deliverables are used and redesigned to meet the shifting needs of the user.

Rather than a set of linear steps, the components of design thinking engender an attitude or mindset of an alliance, mutual respect, trust, and value between a designer and learners. In other words, design thinking posits users as integral partners in developing the most effective instructional design.

But are SMEs really part of our team? Aren’t they simply part of the course design and development toolbox for technical communicators, something simply to be consulted? (Did you notice my dehumanizing use of the term “thing”?)

Here’s the deal. When working with a design thinking framework, everyone is part of the design team. There is no us versus them. There is simply us, a group of people (e.g. users, SMEs, designers, writers) working toward developing an optimum deliverable, whatever that may be. Past that reality, SMEs are people with a deep connection and investment in their subject matter. When we as technical communicators engage and craft deliverables using their data, we represent, modify, and interpret a topic very personal to them. Many SMEs, particularly researchers, have spent most of their adult life working on this topic, and the thought of someone else representing their work can be, even subconsciously, nerve-wracking.

And I get that feeling. Indulge me for a moment. Think about a hobby you enjoy where you feel extremely confident. For me, this would be baking. I have been baking since before I can remember. I don’t even measure anymore. I “feel” my way to the final product. Now imagine that someone with little to no experience in this area comes in and is going to represent you and your abilities to others. Frightening, right? I know what I would be thinking. They will not understand. They are getting it wrong. They are emphasizing the wrong parts…welcome to the world of a subject matter expert.

Empathetically Working with SMEs

While tools like engagement forms are indeed helpful for gathering data, the most important tidbit of advice I can offer for SME collaboration is not another form. It’s not another checklist. It’s not another system, procedure, or process. It’s simply to see the SME in front of you as a person, to empathetically engage them as part of your team. Think about these ideas the next time you engage an SME:

  • SMEs are People: Avoid my mistake of only seeing SMEs in terms of their knowledge or research output. This can help deepen these relationships, which can, in turn, help produce a stronger deliverable.
  • SMEs have Feelings: Remember that you are, in a very real way, representing the SME’s knowledge to others, which can be nerve-wracking. Empathize with that reality.
  • SMEs are Experts: I know it’s in the name, but do not forget that your SME is an expert, you and your SME do run in different discourse communities. There are bound to be communication misfires between you. Never forget, though, that you have a stronger connection than subject matter: you are both people. Acknowledge any SME feedback or miscommunication and empathetically engage again.

This “approach” to working with SMEs is less of an approach and more of a mindset, much like design thinking. When it comes to successful collaboration, I’ll leave you with this: Maintaining an empathetic orientation when engaging SMEs will enhance your working relationships, boost productivity, build trust, and ultimately strengthen deliverables. Never underestimate the power of these kinds of intangibles. Worksheets and lists have their place, but they fall short if we as technical communicators lose our humanity amidst our process.