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4 Tips for Maximizing SME Interviews

Subject matter experts can play a critical role in developing effective learning solutions. They can provide guidance, expertise, and context for much of your course’s content. However, working with subject matter experts can also be a source of frustration. SMEs are sometimes reluctant to share information, or they give responses that are not relevant to your goals. L&D professionals can use SME interviews to gather detailed, insightful, and high-quality information for their learning solutions. Here are four best practices. 

#1: Use Learning Objectives to Frame the Interview 

Before interviewing your SME, you should have already set your learning objectives and identified outcomes. In other words, be sure to formulate a single, succinct statement that describes what learners will be able to do at the end of the course. This will help you validate whether the SMEs you've selected have the necessary experience and authority to fulfill the goals of your interview. What's more, knowing the learning objectives can guide you in question development—questions that are specific and focus on the “need-to-know” information for learners. 

#2: Prepare the SME Before the Interview 

Give SMEs context for the interview—either in your meeting request or the start of a meeting. Explain the “why” of the project, which you can get from the learning objectives. Be sure to demonstrate how the learning program (and their involvement in it) connects to larger business goals and mission. Describe how their expertise will benefit their team or the greater organization. It’s also a good idea to send questions in advance so SMEs are not caught off-guard and can provide high-quality responses. Finally, let them know how long the interview will last—and don’t go over that time frame. If you need more time, schedule a second interview before you part ways. 


#3: Use Templates to Gather Data 

Templates can help you gather information and organize your interview results, especially if you’re meeting with multiple SMEs for the same course. This semi-structured format allows you to ask the same questions, but also supports flexibility to explore issues, differences, and perspectives. A template should include the most important questions, space to write the answers, and the opportunity to document other important issues that are discussed. 

Basic "who, what, where, why, how" questions are typically the best way to start the template—and the interview. Next, use the template to have the SME to walk you through some specific steps, tasks, or frequent problems and resolutions. You can also ask for stories that demonstrate a point or specific examples. Finally, leave room in the template for open questions that facilitate broad, deep answers. Throughout the interview  keep asking “what else?” until you have covered all the “must-know” information. 

#4: Review the Data

Immediately after each meeting, prepare and review your notes—even if you recorded the conversation. Writing up your notes will help you identify any questions that need follow-up. If there are missing gaps, consider if the SME can fill them or if you need to interview other SMEs. Review how the interview’s findings connect to other data, surveys. or documentation you have already gathered.


About the Author

Ryann K. Ellis is an editor for the Association of Talent Development (ATD). She has been covering workplace learning and performance for ATD (formerly the American Society for Training & Development) since 1995. She currently manages ATD's Community of Practice blogs, as well as ATD's government-focused magazine, The Public Manager. Contact her at 

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