The Lemelson Center for the Study of Invention & Innovation
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MIND: Documenting Invention

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Technical Knowledge

While interviewers do not need to be scientists or engineers with advanced degrees, it is important for them to master sufficient technical knowledge about the inventor’s field to enable them to ask insightful and relevant questions. To gain a working familiarity with the functions of the invention, the technical principles on which it is based, and the historical context in which the inventor was working, the interviewer needs to go beyond standard background research on the life of the inventor and the history of the invention. In some instances, interviewing teams may be necessary, with a technical advisor either training the interviewer or participating directly in the interview.

Demonstrating too much technical or scientific knowledge, however, can inadvertently encourage the interviewee to assume that stages in the invention process do not need to be explained in detail, to the detriment of later users of the interview. Nonetheless, it is necessary to know enough to ask basic questions and thereby establish a rapport with the interviewee.

An important factor in determining the level of technical knowledge an interviewer needs is to identify the audience for the interview from the outset. If the interview is intended for a non-specialist audience, ensure that the technical steps are explained clearly and in enough detail that the end user understands the invention, and avoid assumptions and shorthand common among scientists and engineers when talking to each other.

Another useful application of technical knowledge is to “slow down” an interview and avoid the tendency of inventors to “bookend” their invention process with a standard narrative that problem X was solved with invention Y. Perceptive questions that generate discussion can break down the process of invention into its component parts.

Last Update: 28 Dec 2010

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