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8 Steps to Interview Subject Matter Experts—Without Annoying Them

Wednesday, February 11, 2015
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As an instructional designer, you will rarely know much about the content of the course you are developing. This endless opportunity to learn is one aspect of the job that makes it so interesting.

It can also leave you feeling a little at a disadvantage. How will you know what to ask? And, what do you do about subject matter experts (SMEs) who get testy if you ask what they consider to be obvious questions?

Here are 8 steps you can use to interview subject matter experts (hopefully, without annoying them too much).

1. Formulate a single, succinct statement that describes what learners will be able to do at the end of the course. Make sure to focus on doing—not just knowing. This is because we get paid for what we do with what we know. So, learners should always come out of training with a new ability, not just new knowledge.

2. Determine how you will structure the course. There are really only four structures to maximize learning: steps, tasks (with steps), questions and answers, and problems and resolutions. Pick the one that mirrors the work learners will be doing after the training as closely as possible.

3. Schedule your first interview. I recommend limiting interviews to a maximum of two hours. Longer meetings can lead to information overload. It’s hard to make sense of what the SME is saying, let alone ask good follow up questions, when you feel overwhelmed.

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4. Frame the interview. Start the interview by letting the SME know your goal for learners (step 1) and the structure that most closely mirrors their work (step 2).

5. Walk through it. Ask the SME to walk you through the steps, tasks, Q&A, or problems and resolutions as if you were a new employee assigned to shadow him or her.

6. Follow up. Ask questions to follow up on any parts of the SME’s explanation you didn’t understand or that need more detail. Your goal is to be able to train someone else to do what the SME is training you to do. If you don’t ask lots of questions, you won’t have enough information to do so. Sometimes, this means that you even have to ask questions about content that is beyond the scope of the training for your own background. If the SME starts to get annoyed, smile and remind him or her that you need to understand well enough so that you can explain what you are learning to others. In the long run, this will save the SME more time than he or she is spending with you now.

7. Schedule more time. If you need more time, schedule it before you part ways. SMEs tend to be busy people. If you don’t stake out time on their calendar quickly, there may be a significant delay in getting all the information you need. This delay makes it more likely that you’ll annoy the SME because you forgot the nuances of what was discussed during the previous meeting.

8. Write up your notes. Immediately after each meeting, write up your notes, even if you recorded the conversation. This will save you the time of having to listen to the recording of the entire interview again. Instead, you can limit your listening to only where you require further clarification. Writing up your nights right away also allows you to identify any questions you'll need to follow up on at the start of your next meeting with the SME.

The next post in the series will discuss how to explain the ID process to your SMEs.

About the Author
Diane Valenti, founder of Applied Performance Solutions, Inc., uses her instructional design ninja skills to help companies reduce their sales onboarding ramp time and help sales teams rapidly acquire product knowledge. She works with Fortune 500 and startup companies, alike. Get Diane’s checklist to learn if you are making these 10 incredibly common mistakes that slow sales onboarding.
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