Working with Subject Matter Experts

When it comes to eLearning course design, it’s crucial for designers to work with subject matter experts (SMEs). These individuals have significant knowledge and expertise in the topic or topics around which the course is being built; but how does one transfer knowledge from an SME to the course? Interviews can be invaluable, but there is much more that a designer needs to do in order to fully leverage this invaluable resource. This article provides tips on preparing for a SME interview, conducting the interview, and following up afterword.

Laying the Groundwork

Before developing interview questions, it’s important to first lay the groundwork. A little preparation can go a long way toward ensuring that the right information is obtained from the SME, without the trial and error that can be involved with just jumping straight to the interview process. There are several things that can be done to help ensure that not only are the right questions being asked once the interview stage is reached, but that adequate information and knowledge is obtained by the designer beforehand.

  1. Request supporting information including existing training materials (PowerPoint decks, student handouts, job aids, etc.) and other documentation from the SME. This material can provide invaluable insight into the subject area. However, it’s crucial to follow through by reading the material and conducting research.
  2. Prepare interview questions well ahead of time. Send your questions to the SME prior to the interview so that they can prepare, and possibly offer alternative questions or additional questions that might not have been obvious to someone without in-depth expertise in this area.
  3. Make sure to request that the SME grant permission for the interview to be recorded. While note taking is an essential skill, having audio to reference during course or module creation can be very helpful. There are plenty of smartphone apps that will let you record audio on the fly without any need for bulky audio equipment.
  4. Bring the right supplies for the interview. Don’t expect the process to be entirely verbal. The SME may need to create diagrams, process flow charts and other items that help explain concepts in greater detail than what is possible through audio.

Conducting a SME Interview

Once the groundwork has been laid, it’s time to move to the interview itself. Thank the SME for his or her time, and then turn on the recorder (or start your app). Keep in mind that the SME’s time is valuable, and that they are likely on a tight schedule.

  • Keep the interview narrowly focused on the tasks and skills needed for the training program. It may be necessary to guide the SME to specific topics and disregard others, as it can be difficult for them to truly know which are the most essential and which are not, simply because their own knowledge is so broad.
  • Encourage the SME to use mind maps, charts, diagrams and other visual aids to ensure that you understand the topic and all the related points, but make sure to ask for a deeper explanation on anything on which you’re not completely clear. Of course, it’s also crucial to take notes throughout the process. Often, this is done best with a laptop and a note-taking program or a word processor, but pen and paper can work in a pinch. Just make sure that the notes are legible.

Follow Up with the SME subject matter experts

Once the interview is over, it’s time to put all that hard-won information to work. However, make sure that the SME is willing to answer follow-up questions, either via email or on the phone. Use the audio recording to revisit areas of particular interest or confusion and identify any information gaps that the SME will need to fill in with follow-ups.

With the right preparation and a good understanding of the process, working with SMEs can be simpler than you expect.


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