Content-Focusing Questions for SME Interviews

Once we have established the business need and learning objectives for a project, our next big task is to gather the content. We often start with existing instructor-led materials (which usually only contain about 30-50% of what is actually communicated to the students) or a group of various documents that have been created over time (such as a PowerPoint for a meeting, a PDF describing part of a process, a manual that outlines procedures, etc.) It is then our challenge to turn this often rough information into effective e-learning. To move from “telling” to “training,” we need to find out where the pain points are, determine what stories or illustrations help make a point come alive, find out what kinds of resistance might exist, decide where to place the most emphasis, identify the points that are most in need of reinforcement and assessment, translate how the information applies to on-the-job performance.

This usually happens in the form of conversations with subject matter experts, where the skill of interviewing becomes critical. Asking the right questions can help us get the information we need to make a course interesting and effective. Letting the SMEs talk about whatever they want to talk about can lead to a course that is meandering, theoretical, and ineffective in achieving the desired performance outcomes.

Over the years, we have developed a list of questions specifically designed to help with this SME conversation. Working with these questions helps us get the information we need and steers us away from information that isn’t relevant to the course. In some cases, providing this list to the SMEs in advance helps make the conversation go more smoothly.

  1. What are some of the areas that cause the most confusion?
  2. What are some of the most common questions you get about this topic?
  3. What are the common mistakes that people make in this area?
  4. What are the most dangerous mistakes people can make in this area? What is the impact?
  5. What are the biggest gaps between what people should be doing and what they are actually doing?
  6. Do you have any stories or examples that help illustrate key points?
  7. What content points might cause some resistance or pushback?
  8. Is there anything that might be considered new or revolutionary over what they previously did or thought?
  9. If they walked away remembering only three things, what would they be?
  10. Is there anything that they need to know “cold”? Meaning, if you stopped them on the street next Tuesday and asked them, you would want them to know the answer without blinking?
  11. Is there anything that is important but used infrequently? Perhaps rather than memorizing it, having a reference to look up would be more useful?
  12. Do you know of any checklists or reference guides that might help people use this information in their day-to-day work?
  13. Is there anything here that you would consider “nice-to-know”? Meaning, it won’t necessarily affect what they work on from day to day?

Of course, there are many other questions we need to ask for the project overall (you can find a list here), but we’ve found that these questions really help us focus on getting the best possible information from the SMEs that will be of most value to the students.

What questions help you get what you need?

Diane Elkins
Diane Elkins is the co-owner of E-Learning Uncovered, as well as Artisan E-Learning, a custom eLearning development company specializing in the use of Storyline, Captivate, and Lectora. Diane has been in the eLearning industry since 2001, speaks regularly at national conferences about eLearning, and is co-author of the popular E-Learning Uncovered book series.

2 Responses to “Content-Focusing Questions for SME Interviews

  • It could be also udeful to get know how to divide content, when to make some pauses etc.

  • Great post! These are very valid questions, but I think they would give you more focus if you already knew what mastery looked like…
    After I develop the Learning Objectives with the SME, I start on the assessments. This way the content is easier to sift through as it is used to support the learner in gaining mastery and showing that through your assessment method they have gained it. How you and the SME determine what mastery “looks” like, will help you determine what kinds of learning activities and finally content will need to be used to support the learner.

    Take care,

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