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Your Questions Answered: Getting MORE out of Subject Matter Expert Interviews

Nicole By Nicole Mellas, Instructional Designer

A couple of weeks ago, I had the pleasure of conducting a 30-minute webinar exploring how to get more out of Subject Matter Expert (SME) Interviews. For an overview on the topic, you might want to start by reading my original blogpost. Of course, in a mere thirty minutes it’s almost impossible to cover everything you want to cover and still have time for all of the great questions that are sure to follow. So, I’d like to take some time now to answer a few of the questions prompted by the webinar.  

Would it make sense to ask SMEs to describe their typical customer?

Yes! Most definitely. For the purpose of the thirty-minute format of the webinar, I had to pick and choose what parts to explore fully and what to sort of gloss over. Coming up with character types unfortunately had to fall into the “gloss over” category.


In the webinar demonstration, I started the line of questioning with the assumption that those basic customer types had already been identified. In reality, this might be a full SME conversation in and of itself. Alternatively, the SMEs might be able to point you towards written material (lots of companies do extensive demographic research), so you can read up before you meet with them and have some ideas to seed the conversation. Either way, identifying typical customer/client/patient/etc. types is work that must be done before you start asking detailed questions to flesh out scenarios.

Does this approach lend itself more towards the SAM model or ADDIE?

This is a great question that gets at some deceptively complex issues! Thanks for asking. Let’s start our discussion with SAM, since that’s the process I work with here at Allen Interactions. 

As you’ve probably read in other books and blog posts, at a very high level SAM is broken into three different phases: the Preparation Phase, the Iterative Design Phase, and the Iterative Development Phase. The more scenario-based line of questioning I demonstrated in the webinar would come in Phase 2, the Iterative Design Phase.

“Wait a minute,” you might think. “Shouldn’t this come in the Preparation Phase? That’s where I would expect to get all of my information from SMEs.”

In short, the answer is no. The Preparation Phase is where we uncover all sorts of information about the performance problem being experienced, the audience the training is meant to engage, what success looks like, the metrics that are currently used to define success, and any business needs driving the training. It’s where we meet key stakeholders and really get our arms around what the training is meant to accomplish—what are the learners supposed to DO? This is where we define our performance objectives. Then and only then can we begin to design.

In the Iterative Design Phase, we take what we’ve learned from our beginning conversations and initial prototypes formed during the Savvy Start, and we continue with prototyping. We do it very quickly, and we have a conversation about it. We make tweaks if need be. It’s all very fast and furious, and uses minimal resources to zero in on exactly the right performance objective very quickly. Once everyone agrees that the prototyped interaction does indeed address the desired performance objective, THEN we can move forward with content. See in SAM, we don’t waste time incorporating content until we’re sure that the ACTIVITY is correct. This way, the needs of the interaction guide the questions we ask of the SMEs. If, during the course of our SME conversation, we uncover additional information or performance issues that don’t fit the interaction we’ve prototyped, that’s okay! It might mean more tweaks to the prototype, or it might mean we need to consider an additional activity to address the newly discovered objective. The SME interview is sort of doing double duty in the SAM model―it’s helping us populate an activity with the proper content, but it’s also helping us validate that the activities we’ve prototyped are the right ones. 

 In my mind, the ADDIE model is less able to support this dual-function of the SME interview, especially in those cases where a person or organization is locked into a “waterfall-model”. However, I think that if, through your analysis, you have designed a scenario-based activity, you could still use this more branching interview style at the beginning of your development phase, even within the constraints of ADDIE.

So, to make a long explanation much shorter: I think that the SME interview style I demonstrated in the webinar would be most valuable when using a SAM approach, but that it could still add some value within the ADDIE framework.  

How long of a process is it to un-learn the old linear method and get to a branching type of SME interrogation?

I’m so glad someone asked this question! I’m actually not advocating that you un-learn the linear approach that you’ve been using. As I mentioned all-too-briefly in the webinar, a more linear understanding of an approach or a problem does have its place. shutterstock_196684235-1

When you are scripting any scenario-based activity, I advocate using the type of SME interview I demonstrated in the webinar. Scenario-based activities might include a simulation of a conversation, an activity in which the learner has to pick the best piece of advice and apply it to a situation, a scene-explore activity in which a learner has to identify risks or other things that need to change, an activity which incorporates multiple customers or issues and the learner must decide the order in which to handle things…the list goes on and on. Scripting these sorts of activities is easier when you step off the linear path and ask your SMEs to join you.

However, as an instructional designer or writer, chances are you’ll still need those old high-school research paper style outlines (and the linear thinking that helps to create them) from time to time. For example, I would definitely want to create a more traditional outline to create a Resources section for an e-learning course. The way I question SMEs about what needs to end up in the Resources section would necessarily follow my outline.

At some point shouldn't the learner know why they are taking the training?

Again, yes! Since the webinar focused on how to use your SME interview time to create the most robust scenario scripts, I didn’t spend much time talking about the other instructional writing components.

Of course, it would be disorienting to drop a learner directly into a learning experience without setting any expectations. By all means, introduce them to the topic. Just be sure to make it a brief introduction. After all, you can tell a learner that a topic or process is important until you’re blue in the face, but they won’t believe you until you show them. That’s what your high-fidelity, perfectly contextualized scenarios are for.

Thanks for your questions!

I’m so grateful to everyone who participated in the webinar itself as well as your excellent follow-up questions. There are several more questions still to be addressed; however, many of them were so rich that I plan to give them their own blog posts.

So, thanks again, and I look forward to continuing this conversation via the comment section. I hope to hear from you soon! 

Access my Getting MORE out of SME Interviews 30-minute webinar here>


CLICK TO TWEET: Your Questions Answered: Getting MORE out of #SME #Interviews. #aiblog 


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Nicole Mellas
Nicole Mellas

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