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Don't feed the SMEs

by Geoff Hart

Previously published as: Hart, G.J. 2004. Don't feed the subject matter experts. Usability Interface August:9–10.

Common wisdom states that the way to a man’s heart is through his stomach. Of course, there’s nothing comon about wisdom, and in these more enlightened, politically correct times, the inquiring mind must wonder whether this particular wisdom also applies to women. We writers and editors understand the importance of befriending subject-matter experts (the much-reviled SMEs): If they’re our friends, they’ll undoubtedly work with us more happily when we really need their help. Being of a scientific nature (you can take the boy out of the lab, but you can’t take the lab out of the boy), I found myself wondering about the continuing relevance of this folk wisdom. Was there any statistically significant relationship between feeding and cooperation?

Experimental design

Funded by an STC special research grant, I set out to determine whether food really is the way to an SME’s heart—particularly if the SME is a woman—and whether the nature of the food itself had any effect on the results. To control as many extraneous variables as possible, the food used in the study was prepared by a professional chef, and was offered to the test subjects in an industry-standard cubicle populated by two standardized technical writers, chosen randomly from a pool of volunteers.[1] Traffic through the cubicle was monitored for 2 weeks to establish a baseline for comparison, and all conversations between SMEs and writers were recorded using webcams mounted on the writers’ computers.

[1] No engineers or developers were harmed during this experiment. Since using standard informed-consent waivers would clearly have biased the results of the study, I chose instead to follow the IEEE guidelines for fair and humane treatment of engineers. Previous studies have shown that software developers share enough characteristics with engineers for similar guidelines to apply.

The effects of the following food types were compared:

Study results

With the energy bar, problems in the study design quickly became apparent, with the female technical writer pilfering samples early in the study. This was quickly resolved by affixing a large digital bathroom scale by the entry to the cubicle. Although this food significantly increased cubicle traffic, it led to what researchers have called “drive-by socializing”, in which casual greetings replaced more involved and productive social interactions. Donuts had a similar effect, but SMEs found it difficult to talk around mouthfuls of fried dough; this did not actually prevent them from attempting to carry on conversations, but neither the webcam logs nor post-prandial interviews with the writers let me determine just what it was they were saying. Moreover, this portion of the experiment had to be abruptly halted when development managers began complaining of “sugar crashes” among their staff.

Vegetables and fruits were largely ignored by the SMEs, and were discontinued after the first week, when unacceptable quantities of fruit flies began to gather in the cubicle. The most successful interactions were atttained by the application of pizza. SMEs not only visited the cubicles more frequently, but also stayed to converse with the writers. When a supply of Jolt cola was serendipitously discovered in the cubicle, the cubicle was transformed into an ad hoc speakeasy. Although SMEs continued to show a lamentable tendency to attempt conversations with their mouths full, the increased duration of their visits provided the writers with sufficient time to ask questions, and the SMEs generally responded satisfactorily between bites. Unfortunately, this phase of the experiment was also suspended when managers began complaining they could “never find a developer when they needed one” or that “developers are bouncing off the walls and suffering severe caffeine-withdrawal symptoms”.


Although the study revealed that the presence of food in the writers’ cubicle did indeed increase SME traffic to the cubicle, only the traditional nutritionally balanced meal (pizza) produced significant improvements in SME–writer interactions. However, it's not possible to exclude the confounding effect of the presence of the Jolt cola. Moreover, significant barriers to implementation exist, as the presence of food in cubicles posed distinct problems:

A research grant has been submitted to STC to obtain funding to investigate possible solutions for these issues.

[A look back from 2005: Apparently, several people thought this was a serious article, and expressed objections to my supposed mistreatment of the SMEs. No SMEs were harmed or mistreated psychologically in any way during the creation of this article. Really.—GH]

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