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Improving Technical Reviews
2004, Q2 (February 21, 2007)
By Alexia Idoura

Improving technical reviews, when subject matter experts, or SMEs, review content for technical accuracy, is a challenge every technical communicator faces sometime during their career. Every year, journal articles are published, presentations are made, and discussions are initiated on this very topic. Most of them conclude that

SMEs are difficult

It's your job to bribe, cajole, or coerce a better review out of your SME.

I don't agree.

Now, I'm not saying SMEs cannot be difficult. However, to solve the technical review problem, we need to dig deeper to see why SMEs don't do what we need them to do and what other factors prevent us a thorough review. For example, in talking to different members on the project team who are either directly involved in the review process (writers and SMEs) or who are on the fringes of the review process (managers), I quickly came up with the following short list of factors that affect technical reviews:
  • Time constraints: tight schedules, last minute changes, and reviewers reaching their peak workloads at the same time kept anyone from perusing the document
  • Lack of accountability: no one was identified (or agreed upon) as the person ultimately responsible for technical accuracy
  • Low priority: documentation was rated lower priority than other last-minute project tasks
  • Lack of management support: management did not see the importance of a technical review, or did not deal with problem reviewers
  • Lack of training: not knowing how to do a proper review caused "reviewer's block"
  • Lack of or lack of access to online review tools
  • No process: there was no defined way to do reviews, accept or discuss changes, or escalate problems
  • Annotation mismanagement (by process or tools): comments got overlooked, conflicts between contradictory comments were not resolved
  • Lack of cooperation: there were difficulties due to communication problems, personality styles, past history, and so on
  • Bad assignments: the review was assigned to whoever's available, often not the best person for the job
  • Lack of motivation: there were no rewards for doing the review or punishments for not doing it
  • Unclear expectations: SME doesn't get what he or she expects, or doesn't deliver what the writer expects

Does this list sound right to you? I welcome your feedback. In the next couple of weeks, I will send out a survey for reviewers (SMEs) and reviewees (writers) to find out what's working and what's not during technical reviews. Please take a few minutes to answer the questions. When the survey is closed, I'll compile the results and publish them along with recommendations. Let's look at the whole picture together to solve this problem.

Alexia Idoura can be reached at Alexia dot Idoura at veritas dot com. End of article.

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