How to Interview SMEs

One of the most powerful tools we have in eLearning is the ability to interview subject matter experts.

So what’s the strategy for conducting great interviews?

I try to minimize the amount of time I need from the content expert by structuring the interview using this 6-step process.

  1. Establish a purpose for the interview with an achievable goal.
  2. Identify what you already know in advance.
  3. Prepare a list of questions in advance.
  4. Plan your interview.
  5. Conduct your interview and take notes.
  6. Follow-up as needed.

Step 1: Establish a purpose for the interview with an achievable goal.

Here’s an example: Once I was asked by a client to find out how trade deal payments hit the general ledger. That was the purpose of my interview with the subject matter expert. My goal for the interview was to leave with a high-level process map.

When you start your interview, tell your subject matter expert your purpose and goal. Ask them if they agree that the goals can be achieved in the time allotted. This approach grounds both you and your content expert in the mission to be accomplished.

Three frequently asked questions by novice interviewers are:

  • How do you know where to start?
  • How deep to you go?
  • How do you know when to stop?

It really doesn’t matter where you start. You can always structure your interview to go higher or lower in detail.

Step 2: Identify what you already know

Taking stock of what you already know will save time during the interview. Never go into an interview cold. Take the time to look at any existing material or search to find out what you can on the topic before meeting with your content expert.

Start preparing for your interview by writing down what you already know about the topic. Then step back and ask yourself, “Where do I need to start to move me toward my goal?”

The next question is, “How deep to you go?” That’s easy. The answer is, “Go as deep as you need to go to reach your goal.” But gauge your approach keeping in mind frequency, criticality of task, and consequences if not done properly.

Step 3: Prepare a list of questions in advance

Make a list of questions and then organize them in a meaningful way. Plan the sequence in which you plan to ask questions according to the depth and breadth of the subject matter to cover during the interview. This will be driven by your goal.

The width of your interview is determined by asking what I call, Level 1 questions. These are starter questions. They get the ball rolling and are generally broader in nature. The depth of your interview is determined by the Level 2 and Level 3 questions. These questions are the follow-up to a Level 1 question. They give direction to the interview. The table below shows the questions used to open the interview with the trade deal system content expert mentioned earlier.

Purpose To find out how trade deal payments hit the general ledger.
Goals Create a high level process map.Identify links in the process to the general ledger.
Level 1 Question How do you set up the trade deal budget?
Level 1 Question Are there any special codes used to drive the accounting for the budget?
Level 2 Question What are the codes and what do they mean?
Level 3 Question Who assigns the codes?
Level 3 Question Is approval required?
Level 1 Question Do you know how information comes back to the general ledger?

There is a saying, “Seek first to understand, then to be understood.” Well, in interviewing I have found the opposite to be the case. “See first to be understood, then to understand.” The reason I say that is if you ask a question the content expert doesn’t understand, you will not get the answer you expect – or the content expert might actually tell you they don’t understand what you asked.

Step 4: Plan your interview

The first three steps in the interview process are preparing you for the interview itself. But you also have to plan the interview by asking:

  • Who is the best person to interview?
  • How much of their time will you need?
  • Can you call them directly to set up the appointment?
  • Or do you need approval and an introduction that you will be calling for an appointment?

Finally, you need to have your purpose, goals, and known information in your back pocket along with your advance questions.

Step 5: Conduct your interview

Always introduce yourself and state the purpose of your interview with the content expert.

“Hi, I’m Tim Buteyn. I’ve been asked to interview you about rental fleet management.”

Then solicit help from your subject matter expert and explain why he or she was selected for the interview.

“I understand you are the expert in this area, and I need your help to write a script for a training video on this subject.”

When interviewing subject matter experts, it is always important to get them engaged in the interview process. Hand them your pen and say, “Draw me a picture of what you are talking about.” Or ask them, “Can you show me that screen?” It is also critical for you to circle back and repeat what you have been told.

Some of the most powerful interview techniques are phrases like:

  • Tell me
  • Show me
  • Draw it for me
  • Give me an example
  • So, let me make sure I understand

You also have to know when to stop your interview and to recognize the difference in being stuck and knowing it is time to stop. Structured interviews should always move you forward. If you are not moving forward, you are stuck. If you are stuck, seek another perspective by re-framing your question. Or move onto another Level 1 question.

You know it is time to stop when:

  • You have met your goals
  • You have enough information to know the risks and missing information
  • You have enough information to begin using it
  • You have absorbed as much as you can in one sitting
  • You have identified other content experts that need to be interviewed
  • Your time is up

Wrap up your interview by thanking your content expert for their time and telling them what the next steps of the project are. Explain that you need to review your notes and you may have follow-up questions. Then ask what might be a good time to call or if they would prefer email.

Step 6: Follow-up as needed.

You can almost always call your subject matter expert after the interview to ask them to clarify something in your notes. Perhaps you can’t read what you wrote. Or you can’t recall the context in which an example was provided

In most cases, your content expert may also be the reviewer of your finished product. If your content expert is not a reviewer, they may like to receive a copy of the finished product – providing you get permission to do so from your client.

In either case, it is a good idea to send a follow-up email or phone call to thank your content expert for their contribution and to let them know the final results of the project.

Your Subject Matter Experts Will Thank You

A great interview saves time for both of you and makes the process move along smoothly. Follow these 6 steps, and your interviews with subject matter experts will be easy and painless.

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