SME Advice: How To Brain Sync With A Subject Matter Expert

Short of performing a science fiction mind-meld, how can you efficiently transfer content from the brain of a subject matter expert (SME) into a form you can use?

In case you’re new at this, instructional designers often interview subject matter experts to access their stream of knowledge. SMEs will often provide you with content resources and will also review design documents, scripts, media assets and test questions for accuracy. Leveraging the knowledge of SMEs is one reason that instructional designers are content neutral. (Note: At the end of this article is a SME Content Collection Form designed by Abigail Wheeler.)

The Brain of a SME

Working with a SME is unique, because by definition, this individual is an expert and most likely, you are a novice. (See The Expert’s Brain for more on expert-novice differences.) Not only are you dependent on the SME for basic knowledge, the two of you may have conflicting ideas on how a course should be designed and what it should include.

You can think of working with a SME in three phases: Preparation, Interview and Follow-up. Below are guidelines for each phase. Feel free to add your personal guidelines in the Comments section below. And at the end of this article is a SME Content Collection Form you can download.

Phase 1: The Prep Work

At all costs, don’t walk into a meeting with a SME knowing nothing about the subject. Your questions will be more intelligent and you’ll be better able to drill down if you are a little knowledgeable about the content. Guidelines for Preparation:

  • Request documentation and resources prior to the interview. Then review these or do research on your own to get some background knowledge prior to the meeting.
  • Prepare interview questions ahead of time.
  • Request permission to record the interview. Although you’ll be taking notes like a fanatic, the recorded version will be greatly appreciated when you don’t understand your notes.
  • Bring a supply of paper and pencils so your SME can diagram processes, procedures and structures. You can also sketch to visually explain your ideas or understanding to the SME.
  • Establish what the meeting will accomplish, how it will be run and the types of questions you will ask. Explain this to your expert ahead of time, giving him or her time to prepare if needed.

Phase 2: The Interview

  • Be sure your SME knows that you are appreciative of his or her time and busy schedule.
  • Remember to record the interview for later reference if you have permission.
  • You may want to remind the SME that you know very little about his or her domain of expertise.
  • Narrow the focus of the interview to the specific skills and tasks targeted for training. It’s difficult for experts to minimize information—they know so much. You may have to politely ask, “Does a person really need to know that in order to perform the task?”
  • You may want to read and use the Five Moments of Need model to avoid getting a brain dump.
  • Ask questions that allow you to drill down to the level of content you need.
  • Take notes (on a laptop) and at appropriate points, repeat back what you heard in a summary form. You may wish to use a Content Collection Form. See the download link at the end of this article.
  • Encourage your expert to draw diagrams and mind maps whenever it will help you better understand the content.
  • Ask what types of visuals will be most effective for explaining abstract concepts.
  • Use your best listening skills.
  • Establish a procedure for contacting your SME with questions.

Phase 3: Follow-up

If your head is not exploding by the end of the interview, something probably went wrong. You will most likely feel a compulsion to get everything organized immediately, before the delicate puzzle pieces fall out of place. Follow that instinct.

  • Review your notes and clean them up so the information is clear.
  • Organize them into a form that will still make sense to you in a few weeks or months.
  • Listen to the recording to catch important details you missed in your notes.
  • Indicate where there are gaps in the information. You might be able to fill these in yourself if you have reference sources. Or place these in your question list for the SME (see below).
  • Through the design and development process, collect all of your SME questions in one place. Then email or set up a call when you’ve accumulated a good number of them. This minimizes the number of times you disturb your SME.

Download: SME Content Collection Form

This SME Content Collection Form was created by Abigail Wheeler, a learning and development project manager at a firm that consults to government agencies and nonprofit organizations. Follow her on Twitter: @abigrace. Thanks, Abigail!

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DOWNLOAD SME FORM HERE SME Content Collection Form

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  1. Claudia Torres says

    This is a very useful article. In my career as an instructional designer, I have seen it all. When ISDs can’t keep their neutral perspective, they end up with a cluttered final product that is too complicated for the learner to grasp. Objectivity, preparation and the ability to focus in what really is needed from a learner’s perspective, matters. Great resource!

  2. Kimberly says

    Thank you for providing your process for working SME’s. Do you have any suggestions about how to focus on outcomes vs. content?

  3. Connie Malamed says

    Hi Kimberly,
    I’m not sure I understand your question, but I’ll do my best. One way to focus on outcomes is to perform a task analysis that identifies the actions learners will need to perform on the job. From this, you can write action-oriented learning objectives. Then you only include content that supports the tasks that must be performed and nothing else.

  4. Linda Farley says

    Love your ideas! I tried to download the SME Content Collection form, but it wouldn’t open with any version of Word or pdf. Can you tell me what program it is opens with?

  5. Connie Malamed says

    Sorry Linda. I’m fixing it right now. NOTE TO SELF: When Word on the Mac reports there are no compatibility problems with Word on the PC, do not believe the report.

  6. Celine says

    This couldn’t have come at a better time. Thank you so much – very valuable information.

    Like Linda, I wasn’t able to download the SME Content Collection form, which I’m dying to see.

    Will check in over the next few days to see if it’s been fixed.

  7. Celine says

    My mistake. I have successfully downloaded the SME Content Collection form, which I will print and read in bed. 😉 Thanks again.

  8. Bryce says

    I can’t think of how many times I’ve tried to get in touch with a subject matter expert but wasn’t prepared to discuss the topic. Obviously I needed to do a little more preparation beforehand, and recording the interview is also a great idea.

  9. Colleen says

    A question on this form and your response to this earlier question. I’m coming in to a project where much of the information gathering from SME’s has already happened, but I’m trying to go back and structure the information in a logical way. Some questions on the application of this form.

    1. For the interactivity options, are the options pulled from whatever software we will use to create the eLearning? Or are there some suggestions I could share with my SME’s?

    2. Is it a given that each objective willl have something in each area of this form? For objectives where the task is simple recall, I’m having difficulty imagining that we would build a scenario (for instance).

    Thanks for sharing this with all of us!

  10. Connie Malamed says

    Hi Colleen,
    Abigail Wheeler was kind enough to share this form. I’m going to contact her and see if she will answer your questions.
    I can try to answer what I would do, but again, I was not the creator of it. In terms of interactivity, the activity should be aligned with the purpose of the objective. For example, if you want people at a call center to improve customer service, then play a fictitious call and let the learner select the most appropriate response. Provide feedback for each selection or let it be part of a story that goes down a path based on the learner’s selection. If you want someone to memorize the steps and order of a procedure, then an exercise for ordering steps would work. Of course, you are bound to the functionality of your software, unless you or someone there has the knowledge to program something additional. So identify an interaction that closely mirrors the goal of the learning objective, which hopefully, simulates real work in some way.

    As to question #2, you may need to combine the objective with one that shows performance. So you let the “what learners need to know” objective support “what learners need to do.” I will contact Abigail and see if she has more to add.

  11. Emily says

    Hi Connie,

    Thanks for the SME Download that you got from Abby. I’m curious, did you ever find out what the “Choose an item” dropdown items are referring to? Is there a way to find out if these are referring to the the software integration that one might do within the course, i.e. use Adobe Captivate to create a lesson, create a video lesson, etc.?

  12. Connie Malamed says

    Hi Emily,
    I’m sorry, I don’t think I did hear back from Abby and then kind of forgot about it. I’ll put it on my list of things to do and will respond here as well as email you if I hear from her. If she only knew how popular she was!

    In looking at the form again, I’m thinking that she left it open on purpose. In other words, since every situation is different, perhaps she was leaving it up to the individual ID to fill in the options that make sense for that project. Just a thought.

  13. Christy says

    I put together my own list of interactivity options, based on what I know we could create in-house. This may be helpful to others until a response is received from Abby:

    Pick up to two options from the list below that you think would be useful to help learners acquire the knowledge and skill. If you are unsure or have no preference, the course designer can choose the option that best fits the course content.

    ? Quiz/Knowledge Check: Traditional test utilizing varying question types, such as multiple-choice, matching, re-sequencing, true/false, fill-in-the-blank, point-and-click (aka hot spot), drag-and-drop, etc.
    ? Case Study: Scenarios for which learners select appropriates courses of action from a list.
    ? Role Play: Simulated characters/avatars that learners interact with by selecting from a list of possible actions.
    ? Behavior Modeling: Reflection question for which learners compare their observations to an answer key.
    ? Video/Animation: A real-time demonstration of a process. May include audio. This option can be very time-intensive to produce.
    ? Practice Exercise/Simulation: Incorporates job aids (e.g. checklists, templates, software) that learners are expected to use back on the job. This option is best used for computer-related skills, such as using software applications.

  14. Christy says

    I should add that this interactivity options list is optimized for the e-learning environment. Thanks!


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