How Was Your Day?

laptop with SME being interviewed by an instructional designer

How Was Your Day?

An Illuminating Question for SMEs

For instructional designers, interviewing Subject Matter Experts (SMEs) is a necessary task. SMEs both provide and validate essential information relating to processes, procedures, policies, scenarios, and other facts required to build accurate and relevant course materials.

How we conduct SME interviews can vary widely because, over time, each of us develops a unique style suited to our personalities and level of experience. Additionally, we adapt our technique according to the depth and breadth of information we wish to obtain.

When interviewing SMEs, I generally gather enough information to role play —i.e., place myself in the shoes of the learner. Then, I ask one last question to tie everything together and thus create a flowing storyline through the process.

I ask, “the last time you performed this task, how did your day go?”
Or “Would you please walk me through a typical day?”


Would you please walk me through a typical day?

In the early years of my career, I worked as a technical trainer. I traveled throughout the US, Europe, Asia, and Australia, delivering customized training before, after, or during the sale. My job was to ensure new clients successfully adopted our software.

Success was easy to measure. If clients liked the software, they used it. If they did not, they either would not buy it or would abandon it soon after purchase.

After some experimentation, I adopted a single mission and strategy.

My mission was clear: to ensure our clients knew how to use our software well enough for it to help them look like a Rockstar at their jobs.

My strategy was simple: integrate our software seamlessly into their daily routine, thereby creating a concrete path for clients to adopt a new habit.

Hidden Gems

Man digging for buried treasure

As the SME recounts their day, the conversation regularly yields subtle details that people often overlook as their expertise grows and tasks become instinctive. 

I frequently hear comments such as:

  1. “Our office processes over 450 payments per day…” 
    Probable influence: high volume. Should we address how to automate frequent tasks? Is speed going to be significant? Do we need to include timed exercises for practice?

  1. “Yes, but we wouldn’t do that unless we were asked to do so in our weekly meeting; otherwise, we would usually…”
    Probable influence: if the information from this meeting were highly pertinent, this would make a great start to a scenario because the process starts here.
  2. “A client phoned, and I had to work with them to solve a different problem…”
    Probable influence: frequent, lengthy interruptions; for security, the system will automatically log them out. We will need to include how to configure timeouts, etc.
  3. “I usually wait until after 2 pm before processing those forms …”
    Probable influence: why? It requires further investigation.
  4. “No, I can't do X at the same time as Y because I have to close out of that system before I can enter this one…”
    Probable influence: showcase how we can do it better or highlight prerequisites, best practices, etc.
  5. “Some payments are made in foreign currency…”
    Probable influence: is that common? We have the functionality to deal with that. Do we need to include it in the learning module?

The above examples serve to illustrate that this question is still an appropriate and useful means of identifying and filling any process or data gaps —even when designing e-learning.

Answers may also generate valuable insights that can help learners take some steps towards making the mind-shift from rote memorization to connection and understanding.

Purposeful Rambling

It might sound like I encourage the SME to ramble on, but please try to think of it as purposeful rambling.

As the SME responds, the conversation usually becomes quite fascinating and thus develops the potential to segue into side topics. Therefore, I make a conscious effort to remain focused by taking notes.

Notetaking forces me to actively listen and analyze the information the SME is sharing with me. As I jot each item down, I evaluate it by asking myself, "how is this relevant to the learning solution?"

After the conversation, while tidying my notes, I select the content with the best potential to help achieve the learning goals.

My ultimate objective is to design e-learning that is complete, accurate, and better prepares learners for on-the-job success.

It’s a simple question that every SME can answer: “would you please walk me through a typical day?”

At best, the answers can be illuminating —shedding light on meaningful, contextual information for relevance (engagement) and scenarios.

At the very least, this is a great way to double-check that all the information obtained previously is accurate, complete, and sequenced correctly.