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Working with Subject Matter Experts (SMEs) is a challenge that many technical communicators face. It’s vital for a technical writer to get information on the subject matter they’re writing about, but this process can be a struggle. The challenges involved in working with SMEs can be related to time, communication, or often just the tools used. While we can’t do much about some of the interoffice challenges you may face, we’ve worked hard to tackle the issue of tools when it comes to getting contributions from SMEs.

Too often, tools present an obstacle to collaboration rather than a solution. Training SMEs on a software tool that’s primarily used for technical communication is costly, time-consuming, and difficult. This problem only increases with the breadth and complexity of your organization and products. Yet that’s exactly when you most need collaboration to occur.

We’ve outlined some of the temptations writers experience when working with SMEs and how the right tools can alleviate some of these pain points. We’re committed to improving this process so your team can maximize both efficiency and quality by making it easy for SMEs and writers to collaborate when it comes to documentation.

Documenting It Alone

Don’t try to turn yourself into an engineer. Taking an SME completely out of the documentation process is a bad idea. And if you don’t have a clear idea of how to use the product or service, neither will your users who are relying on your documentation. Customer support calls can typically cost your company anywhere from $25-$65 per hour. To ensure that you’re documenting your product or service correctly, you need an SME to provide the technical details. For that reason, we recommend that you try to make it easier for SMEs to contribute to your documentation.

Poor tool choices can create a barrier for SME contributions, particularly for organizations using a structured authoring environment or software programs that SMEs are not familiar with. All of our customers use DITA to develop their content, but most available tools for DITA authoring are complex and require too much training effort to get SMEs to use them effectively.

Many organizations simply work in PDF when SMEs are involved. But this creates additional overhead. When you have SMEs work in PDF, then the writers have to transfer edits into the source content. Additionally, if you have multiple contributors or revisions, you now have multiple versions of the content to manage. Using different tools for technical communicators and SMEs may remove the tools problem, but it creates additional and inefficient work along the way.

Fortunately, this additional work is unnecessary. easyDITA’s New Topic Editor has all the power of structured authoring, with the ease of use and collaboration features we’ve all come to expect and rely upon in tools like Google Docs. You no longer need a contrived workaround to get an SME’s direct input because easyDITA’s editor is as easy to use as any word processor.

If you’ve used easyDITA, you’re already familiar with our What You See Is What You Get (WYSIWYG) interface that makes it easy for SMEs to author content, edit, or add suggestions. In the New Topic Editor, we’ve improved the WYSIWYG interface to make it more intuitive, and also added full-blown collaboration features. You can now have multiple authors or contributors work on a document simultaneously and see real-time edits as you collaborate. SMEs can also easily add tracked changes when working in Suggesting mode, making it easy for the writer to accept or reject their changes in the source content. There’s no need to go it alone or struggle to find middle ground when it comes to tools.

Letting SMEs Write All of the Documentation

You can’t rely solely on SMEs to write good documentation for your product, just as you can’t rely on your writers to understand the engineering that went into a product. Yes, a developer might know the software best, but chances are they won’t adhere to your organization’s style guide and writing requirements. In the software world, “a useful rule of thumb is that programmers should produce documentation that’s ‘good enough’ — and no more.” While this is better than contributing nothing to the documentation, “good enough” is probably not what you want your customers to see, which is why it’s imperative that SMEs work with technical writers to produce the final documentation.

Many organizations struggle with the desire to have SMEs contribute more to the documentation, though, especially when deadlines are tight. If you have a tool that unifies all contributors, having SMEs write some of the documentation directly can be a huge time-saver. easyDITA’s New Topic Editor enables both SMEs and technical writers to contribute to the documentation. In this new environment, they can both add information, leave comments, and have complete visibility to the other’s work and changes in real time.

Neglecting to Organize

When working with SMEs, writers often obtain a lot of information that then needs to be organized to be usable. If that information gets stuck with an individual or lost in the shuffle, it’s no longer useful. Having a robust component content management system (CCMS), like easyDITA, enables you to store all documentation in a central location that both SMEs and writers can access. Use of proper file naming, central storage, and descriptive tags makes finding content easier. Since an SME’s time is often short and in demand, it’s important to organize the information you receive from them.

According to a recent survey by the Association for Information and Image Management (AIIM), 85% of organizations surveyed spend extensive time searching for content. Time spent looking for information is often a time when you could be doing something productive. It’s estimated that high-skill knowledge workers, such as tech writers, spend as much as 19% of their day searching for existing internal information. Based on average salary information, companies lose approximately $10k per writer annually on these types of tasks.

Having a CCMS that enables both SMEs and documentation teams to easily store and label information makes your content more accessible internally and also opens up new opportunities for collaboration. If SMEs and writers both contribute content to the same repository, it makes that information easy to search for, reuse, and update for publication.

Lagging Behind Updates

Don’t settle for lagging communication between you and your SMEs. Most SMEs won’t regularly use the tools the technical communication team does, but that doesn’t mean you can’t keep SMEs in the documentation loop. For example, in easyDITA, you can tag an individual in a comment to generate an email notification to them. This lets the SME know that you need their input and links them directly to the part of the document that needs their attention.

Every feature of your product needs to be reflected in two places: in the product itself and in the documentation. Documentation can easily get out of sync with the product and become incomplete, outdated, or just plain wrong as the product evolves and changes. And, if your documentation and SME teams and the tools they use are siloed, information updates can be delayed or even lost. This can result in frustrated support calls and negative word-of-mouth feedback. But worst of all: you could lose customers. Keeping information relevant can increase an organization’s revenue by 70% above the average enterprise.

easyDITA’s collaboration features can also loop in others throughout your organization, such as your customer support team. Imagine if your customer support agents could use the powerful search in your CMS to find and easily flag, right in the source, content that needs to be updated.

So, What’s Next?

We’ve summed up four major temptations you can face while working with SMEs and the corresponding impact on your organization. If you have even one of these problems, it’s not sustainable to keep going without solving it.

We’ve been hard at work developing a tool that makes collaboration easy, not just among the technical communication group, but throughout an organization. While tools are only one piece of the equation, easyDITA brings your documentation and SME teams together by providing an option that enables and encourages collaboration throughout your organization.

Would any of these tools make it easier for you to work with SMEs? If so, we’d love to show you how our easyDITA has all of these!

  • WYSIWYG editor to make it easy for SMEs to contribute to content without the need for tools training
  • Change tracking with complete revision history
  • Easy implementation of edits with “Accept” and “Reject” buttons
  • Comments with collaboration features, so you can tag someone in a comment or reply to existing comments
  • Configurable email notifications that let SMEs know when an assignment or comment needs their attention and provides a link to the document
  • Component content management to make it easy to organize and tag content for findability


Ready to learn more? Ask for a personalized demo of easyDITA and find out how your organization can use the tools for true collaboration.

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A better way to manage technical documents

Stephani Clark

Stephani Clark is a Customer Success Manager for easyDITA, a DITA Component Content Management System based in Rochester. She works to train and assist users of easyDITA’s software. Stephani also works on easyDITA’s information development team and spends about half her time creating technical documentation for the software.
Stephani Clark
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