In our fast-moving world, asking targeted questions is critical to our success as learning and development professionals.

Questions reflect the knowledge and skills of the questioner. Jack Welch once said that leaders accurately assess an employee’s passion “by the intensity of their questions. If their questions are thoughtful, then they are the right person for the job.” Nelson Mandela never asked a question for the sake of small talk; he always asked questions with the goal of eliciting information.

As an instructional designer and technical writer, I have spent the last 15 years drawing out information from a wide variety of subject matter experts (SMEs), ranging from engineers to chefs. At different times, I received blank stares, went on a wild-goose chase, or received an answer that contradicted another SME’s response.

Hitting the target

Why is it necessary to make your questions matter?

Instructional designers ask questions to elicit information. Essentially, our role is to take information and make it meaningful for our learners—in an online learning module, mobile learning lesson, workshop, or performance support tool—so they can work effectively.

Anyone can ask random questions, but targeted questions help learning professionals achieve their goals more effectively and benefit the entire organization.

Targeted questions need to have:

  • An end goal in mind.
  • Consideration for the audience. What do they know or need to know?
  • Relevance to the source, which may include SMEs, web resources, and performance support databases.

Consider your end goal

Know your end goal. Think of a bull’s-eye as your goal and the darts as questions. The right questions will help you hit the target.

Let’s look at the most important end goals for our questions (Figure 1):

  • Strategic: Determine the ideal future state for employee performance.
  • Performance: Discover the knowledge and skills required to perform a specific task, or project.
  • Descriptive: Elicit nuanced information to help the learner understand and apply ideas, steps, guidelines, and the “big picture.”
  • Data: Find key facts and figures.

Figure 1:
To target your questions, consider the end goals

Target your questions

Let’s look at questions best suited for each goal. How should you ask these questions and who should answer them? Sometimes you may need to use a combination of questions to get the answers you need.

Strategic questions

How to ask: These questions address a range of goals, challenges, and gaps. They should be open-ended to encourage brainstorming and creative responses. Examples: “What skills do you want to impact, in one, five, or ten years, and how will this new process, product, tool, or initiative impact our business on a weekly, monthly, or annual basis?”

Who to ask: For strategic questions, get different perspective by asking different executives, key players, and employees. If the answers to your questions align, then you know you are on the right track. If they do not align, ask a second set of questions to probe into the specific areas where there are discrepancies.

Performance questions

How to ask: These questions typically occur during the analysis phase. Your goal is to discover the “what” and the “who” for the performance and on-the-job behavior. Examples: “Who will be taking the training?” and, “What do they need to know or do to be successful for a specific task, responsibility, or project?”

Who to ask: For performance questions, ask supervisors and key executives for both the ideal and the current performance. If the gap is a knowledge or skill, then continue asking supervisors and employees questions to specify which gaps are best suited to training or performance support. Calibrate your results and share them with all the SMEs.

Descriptive questions

How to ask: Descriptive questions are typically part of the design and development phase of instructional design. By now, you know the skills and/or knowledge gap you need to address.

Descriptive questions help make information meaningful by:

  • Providing a visual “big picture”: The big picture helps learners understand how different roles and processes connect. It helps give perspective and provides the WIIFM (what’s in it for me).

To understand the big picture, visual answers are a key. Ask the SME to draw you a picture so you have a holistic understanding of how everything fits together. Useful visual tools including Venn diagrams, process or journey maps, or before and after charts.

For example, in a recent training initiative, our audience needed to know how financial applications maximize profit. We provided a visual map of both the key function of each tool and how they work together.

  • Making abstract concepts concrete: An abstract concept is an idea that you can apply to many different situations or objects. Take the concept of “customer service excellence.” This may mean different things to different organizations. To understand the true meaning of this term, ask, “What do you mean by customer service excellence?”, “What is an example of customer service excellence?”, and, “What is not an example?”
  • Explaining the steps in a procedure: Ask SMEs to give you a demonstration online or in person. If documentation exists, check each step to make sure it is correct. Talking through each step helps SMEs recall what they may have missed if they wrote out the answers.
  • Specifying a rule of thumb for success and soliciting scenarios to apply these rules: You can use rules of thumb or heuristics to predict an outcome. For example, guidelines for a performance review or including interactivity in eLearning. To translate these guidelines into meaningful information, first uncover the guidelines. You may need to use outside literature or work with a group of SMEs to specify the details.

Then, ask for examples of how these guidelines apply. Ask for diverse and difficult situations to apply the rules and/or best practices. Keep asking for applications until you can no longer ask: “But what if…”

Who to ask: To answer descriptive questions, a personal connection is best, either in person or online. Make sure you are approaching the right SME. Always check with your project’s stakeholders about who the best SMEs to answer your questions are. If you are unsure, send out a “feeler” email describing your goal and asking if they will be able to provide the needed answers, or if not, asking them to refer you to an alternative resource. 

Data questions

How to ask: Data questions answer “how much,” “how often,” “where,” and “when.” These are known as closed-ended questions. Online tools like Google, Twitter, Wikipedia discussion forums, and troubleshooting sites can provide immediate answers to simple questions on general topics.

Who to ask: As with descriptive questions, make sure you approach the appropriate SME or use the correct resource. Simple questions should require no more than a sentence to answer. Make sure your question does not result in a lengthy answer. If so, then you are really asking a probing question.

Also, state your question clearly to avoid confusion. Sometimes, I include a definition, or reference to a previous email or document in my question to make sure that everyone is on the same page.


By asking the targeted questions and the right questions from the right sources, training and development professionals can make information relevant and meaningful for our learners. This translates to successful on-the-job performance.

From the Editor: Want more?

Michele B. Medved is currently working on an eBook, Essential Questions for Workplace Learning, to be published at the end of 2014. For further details about how to purchase this book, email