A career in Instructional Design will have you working on projects covering a wide-ranging array of information. In my time in this profession, I have created training on content ranging from fast food preparation to how to properly use a new type of geo-mapping software. When covering such a wide variety of content, it becomes obvious that it is close to impossible to have a complete understanding of the material being transmitted. Instructional Designers enter projects as novices, not even knowing what they don’t know about a specific subject. Compounding this issue is the fact that the Subject Matter Experts (SMEs) that we rely on are not trained educators and often do not know how to break down the complex material they are teaching in a way that makes it digestible to new learners.

That is where an important feature of our role as Instructional Designers comes into play; the ability to ask effective, directed questions and get the most out of our SMEs in the time that we meet with them. By optimizing sessions with our SMEs, we get the information that we need and the means with which to convey it, ensuring that our learners receive meaning and, most of all, relevant experiences when they are being trained.

Here are 5 ways to ensure that this will happen.

1. Be Prepared

This should be obvious to anyone, Instructional Designer (ID) or not, but the importance of being adequately prepared for a meeting with SMEs is something that cannot be overstated. IDs need to be aware that a Subject Matter Expert’s time with you is finite, and that they are often taking time out of their full-time job to meet with you. You may only receive about an hour to an hour and a half per week (if you are lucky) to meet with them. For this reason, it is essential that you have a definitive roadmap of how you are going to conduct the session.

Prior to meeting with the SME, ensure that you have a full and comprehensive list of questions to ask them. More importantly, have the questions organized by category. In my most recent project, I have been developing training modules for a major regional provider of gas and electricity. What I have found most effective when conducting these meetings is having the storyline files or training documents that I am working on available for them to look at.

Furthermore, I have each part I need clarification on marked by tags in the files with the specific question placed on it. This way all the questions are placed upfront for the SME to see for themselves. In addition to this I have opened a written index of all the storyline slides and pages that I am going to be visiting in the meeting. That way I can keep the session organized and directed as well as take notes of any answers that I receive arranged by category.

2. Record the session

While it is essential that you take notes during the SME meeting, it is often that case that you will lose track of what the SME is talking about. They are going to be listing off complex information and jargon that you are not familiar with, and it is an impossible task to accurately take notes while you are simultaneously hosting a meeting. Information, and quite a lot of it, is unfortunately going to slip through the cracks. That is why every ID must record the SME session (with their permission of course).

When you have recorded the session, you now can revisit any point of the meeting. More than that, you are now able to replay certain parts to ensure that you have absorbed everything that the SME is saying. By recording the interview, you can now ask questions or have them restate certain points with the understanding that you are going to look it over later. Recording the interview ensures that no precious information is lost or misinterpreted during the session. Another advantage is the ability to leverage the recording in future sessions. If there is still something you need clarification on, you can play over the clip to the SME rather than try to ask or decipher the concept yourself.

3. Ask questions effectively

I mentioned earlier in this article about how to best organize questions for an effective SME session, but it cannot be overstated how important it is to get all the information that you need while you have their time. Remember that soon you are going to be the one building the training or even delivering instruction, so it is essential that you have everything that you need. This means, if you need the SME to reexplain a concept or piece of information further, ensure that you do that.

It is so often the case that SMEs suffer from a condition called “expert blindness.” They are living and breathing day in and day out the material that you are just being introduced to. It is only natural that they are going to assume that you as an Instructional Designer are going to catch on quickly, as everyone else they work with understands what they are talking about so easily. If an SME explains something that you don’t quite understand, ask them to recontextualize what they are talking about. An initial fear that I had starting out was that the SME would become annoyed if I asked them to stop and go back too frequently. Remember that you are ultimately the one that is going to be left alone with this information to craft a course, so it is better that you risk a moment of discomfort rather than be stranded in the wilderness later, uncertain about something.

A common, and extremely effective strategy that I have started to implement in my time with SMEs is restating what they are saying in my own words. Since what I am currently working on is extremely process heavy, I will often (with the recording in mind) go over what the SME just said and have them correct me as I go. By doing this I have already started to bridge the gap in understanding and have walked through what the expert is talking about with the scaffolded support of the SME.

4. Actively explain your thinking

A huge paradigm shift that I underwent when I first started heavily working with SMEs is the realization that it is not always necessary, and it is maybe impossible, to have a total understanding of all the information that they are going to cover. Once I moved away from this notion, I embraced the idea that you are instead crafting a delivery system of the content. What this means is that your mind as the ID should be centered on how to best convey the information presented, and your knowledge of the material should only extend to how to portray the content most effectively.

In this regard I have started (to huge benefit) to show my thinking to the subject matter experts, actively showing them the courses, I am designing and how I intend to deliver the information to

the learner. With their oversight, they can quality audit the content. I have even been so straightforward to ask, “Is this the right content to put in?” Realizing that the ID is essentially serving as the intermediary between the knowledge of the SME and the uninitiated learner, then by being transparent about what you are creating you are actively ensuring the success of your courses. You are also working to select only information the learner specifically, and not overloading them with extraneous information.

5. Be flexible and gracious to your SMEs

As mentioned previously, SMEs are usually not full-time instructors. They are people taking the time off from their regular job to meet with you. Because of this, Instructional Designers need to be gracious and appreciative of the time being donated. While working with SMEs and scheduling meetings with them is often a chore, we still need to be conscientious that we are waiting on them, and not the other way around. While it is not necessarily most convenient, we need to orient our calendars around their time, as they are going to find time to leave their full-time duties when they can. That being said, since you are the one who will be ultimately turning the content into training, do not be afraid to schedule as many meetings as you need to guarantee that you are comfortable with the material. It may seem that you are being a burden, but that momentary discomfort is not worth creating substandard courses in the future.

Moreover, it is crucial that we work on managing relationships with the SMEs. Being polite, courteous, and always thanking them for their time is extremely important in building a sense of trust. A strong, professional connection will work wonders, (especially when you need them to explain the same concept three times in a row!)

While working with SMEs can often be a challenging task, as it was when I first started my path in Instructional Design, there are a variety of tactics and strategies that the ID can employ to ensure that they maximize the time they have in these crucial meetings. While there are many other methods that can be utilized, the 5 mentioned above have guaranteed my success, and I will continue to use them moving forward.