Your time with subject matter experts (SMEs) is limited because of their own responsibilities and deadlines. It is important to maximize your time with them so that you get the answers you need, while remaining respectful of their limited time. In this article, I offer ideas I have found useful for planning and doing effective interviews with SMEs.

It’s all about preparation

Any meeting or discussion with an SME requires planning to make sure you ask the right questions, that your SME considers your questions, and that your SME provides you with the right answers.

Remember, you may need to ask more than one SME to get perspective on a topic. This is especially important when learners must understand guidelines for performance (rules, criteria, “rules of thumb”) and how to apply them. Sometimes a focus group is the best way to get answers around one topic or issue all at one time.


Here are some key tips for getting the answers you need in online and face-to-face meetings.


  • Consider the characteristics of the target audience—who are they, what do they already know? Consider each SME—on what aspects of the topic is he or she an expert?
  • Ask questions that best suit your end goal. Meetings are best for asking targeted questions about:
    • The ideal future state of employee performance.
    • The skills required to perform a specific task or project.
    • The nuanced information a learner needs to understand and apply ideas, steps, guidelines, and the “big picture.”
  • Provide the SME with information in advance of the meeting. This may include the goal of the project, a few starter questions, information to validate, or a template to complete. For example, if you need information about an abstract concept, such as “customer service excellence,” you can ask your SME to provide examples or non-examples of that concept.
  • Group your questions logically.
  • Don’t over-plan a meeting. Give the SME time to consider your questions and provide you with a comprehensive response. Important information is often mentioned during a discussion.
  • Bring along a big sketchpad that SMEs can use to draw a big-picture diagram.
  • Bring along a tape recorder to get the order of steps correctly and to capture all the information provided.


  • For highly technical topics, remind SMEs not to assume that users or readers are familiar with the subject.
  • If the SME gets off the subject, gently bring them back around to the topic at hand.
  • If you are not getting the answer you need, go back to your goals and then rephrase the question.
  • A discrepancy between SMEs may mean:
    • Employees are not applying a guideline consistently. This may require communication throughout the organization about the standard, rule, or guideline(s) before doing any training initiative.
    • SMEs have different perspectives based on their role in the organization. For example, a financial tool may be used for a slightly different outcome at corporate headquarters versus in the field. You may need to tailor your information depending on your target audience.


  • Review your notes from the meeting and organize them using your end goal.
  • Always clarify any answers that are ambiguous or confusing. Ask, “Did you mean this?”
  • Thank your SME for his or her time. This helps nurture an ongoing working relationship.

By using these tips to plan, conduct, and follow-up on your meeting you can achieve your project goal in a timely and effective manner.

(Editor’s Note: If you are a member of The eLearning Guild, you can access additional tips for working with SMEs in the handouts from Jennifer De Vries’ session 511 at Learning Solutions Conference & Expo 2013, “Getting the Content You Need from Your SMEs,” in the Conference Archive (requires log-in). This is one more example of the excellent value of Guild membership and of the outstanding content offered at conferences hosted by The eLearning Guild!)