I love working with SMEs. (OK, most of the time I love working with SMEs. But really, I only love working with people in general most of the time.) Subject matter experts are great because they’re subject matter experts. I get to learn stuff from them. Sometimes, it’s cool stuff, and sometimes it’s just mildly interesting stuff, but’s always new to me. 

I try to make sure that SMEs don’t mind working with me. Because for all the SME jokes in our industry, they’ve got to have just as many about us crazy instructional designers. Afterall, we ask a lot of them. We want their expertise, but we want to have the right to change anything they tell us to make it more understandable. And we want to pull knowledge from them that has become so second nature they don’t even know they have it. Usually, we’re asking them to give us their time on top of everything else they have to do for thier job. When you think about it, we have to be kind of exhausting to work with.

So I want to make it as pain free as possible. For many of my projects, I spend a good chunk of time creating content worksheets or interview guides after I have a finished design. Leanne Batchelder wrote about our Mad Libs approach with content templates before.  That works great if I can’t meet with the SME face-to-face. If I can get face time, I usually use a six-step process:

  1. Ask the SMEs to review the design before the meeting. I’ve encountered instances where my SMEs for a project were not the same group of people that helped me design the program. I want them to know what the goals are before we meet.
  2. Go through the design document. I wrote it, edited it, read it a million times over, but I still need to go through it and pull out every question I have. This keeps me from forgetting to ask all of my questions. I don’t want to trap my SMEs for three hours in a meeting, then have to send 5 follow up emails because I fogot a key question in my meeting.
  3. Create an interview guide or content worksheet. I have a background in journalism, so I prepare for every meeting like its an interview. I write questions like I will ask them, in the order I will ask them.  This is not always the order I intend to use the information in the course. 
  4. Compare the interview guide against my source content. I want to fill in anything I can before I go into the meeting. Then, I can just have my SMEs confirm what I know or correct what I only thought I understood. It saves everyone time to have something to start from. At this step, I send a list to my SMEs of any documents I think they may already have, like standard operating procedures, forms, or plans.
  5. Review the design one last time and print everything. Chances are, I still forgot something. So triple-check my work against my design. Then I print all of the source material and head off to my meeting. 
  6. Send a summary of the meeting back to the SMEs. Often, SMEs need to provide me with additional information, documents, or forms. I try to send a list of anything they promised me to them within a few hours of our meeting. It helps me make sure I get all of the information I need and keeps them from having to remember one more thing.
How do you work with SMEs? Is there anything I should change in my approach? I’m always open to suggestions, because I know SMEs value their time.