Instructional Designer

3 tips for getting better content from your SMEs (subject-matter experts)

One of the constant challenges instructional designers face in building quality training programs is getting the right information out of their subject matter experts (SMEs). Interviewing SMEs is a skill best honed over time, for nothing can prepare you for the roadblocks you'll face when gathering the content you need to begin pulling your course together. These three tips should help you cut to the chase, and simplify your content gathering efforts.

First, prepare intensely for SME interviews. What would you do if you were job consisted of interviewing Hollywood's biggest A-list actors, and you were only going to get them seated with you for a few hours during which time your conversation would be videotaped? This is the challenge James Lipton from the show "Inside the Actor's Studio" faces on a regular basis during production of the series. Being a fan of the show I can tell you that his line of questioning is always direct, relevant to the actor's career, and even able to catch some of his biggest guests by surprise at their level of detail. Think of your SME interviews in the same light. Mr. Lipton was himself asked at one point how he prepares for these high-stakes interviews, and his answer was very telling:

“Nothing is handed to me. I get raw material from my researcher… and then I watch all the movies, read everything that the person has written about himself or herself, and I go through all the articles that have been written about them, and from that I distill the blue index cards, which are approximately 300-500 [cards] for each person”. 

Prior to you scheduling SME interviews, you two should gather as much information about desired performance, target audience, experience and background of the SME, etc. never walk into or treat a SME interview casually or show up unprepared. 

Secondly, and along the lines of our first step is to talk to the target audience for your training. In many instructional design projects, the SME will serve as an intermediary between yourself and the target audience. Your client will in many cases assume that the SME can provide you with all of the content you will need. As a check and balance to the content your SME provides you, we collaborate Gleaned invaluable insights from members of the target audience for the courses we are developing. Typically, target audience members are closer to the front lines of the desired performance than the SME and can provide invaluable feedback to your training design efforts.

Lastly we've got a tip for you that at first might appear controversial or make your SME cringe. Don't accept content from SMEs in PowerPoint format. PowerPoint's linear workflow was originally designed for speakers to outline their talks, but in doing so has a tendency to degrade content in favor of formatting. There is nothing worse for you as an instructional designer than to sit there staring at a PowerPoint deck loaded with bulleted lists. PowerPoint and other "slideware" is used by SMEs to condense content that you need to build a good training course into the lowest common denominator that can fit in a bulleted list. Our challenge to you, should you choose to accept it- don't settle for slideware when you know the bulk of the content you need is in the SMEs had or in other document forms. 

The minute we request content from a SME and are emailed a PowerPoint deck we quickly and without opening the slideware request additional content in either .pdf or Microsoft Word format. 

These three strategies are just ones that we use and have found useful when gathering content from SMEs. I'm sure there are more tips and tricks out there, and would love to hear about techniques you use to pry the necessary content from your SMEs. What are some of your favorite techniques for getting at the content you need?

Alex Santos

Alex is a co-founder and Managing Member of Collabor8 Learning, LLC, an instructional design and performance management consultancy. His firm collaborates with organizations to enhance the way they develop  and train their people. To learn more about Collabor8 Learning, click here.

Alex can be reached at 786-512-1069, or via Twitter@collabor8alex.

Are your learners front and center in everything you design?

This is the question you should be asking yourself as an instructional designer. A very similar question is being asked by Alicia Boler-Davis, Chief Of Global Quality and Customer Experience and her team over at GE and is one of the keys to the automaker's astounding turnaround. Why is this question so powerful you may be asking yourself. Let me explain.

Putting the learner front and center, you have the opportunity to not only train them but to build advocates for your learning and development programs. You can only do this though if you learners are walking out of your classroom (or leaving the bright glare of their laptop monitors) able to perform in new ways they will brag to their colleagues about. 

Many organizations limit the evaluation of the training programs to smiley sheets and surveys that are beyond stale, not to mention many learning and development departments are so strapped for time these smiley sheets sit gathering dust inside of a dark desk drawer. When was the last time you modified the instructional strategy in one of your courses as a result of employee feedback or comments left on one of these level I evaluations? 

Worse yet, if you're not using the feedback that you are getting from your training courses to improve them not only have your courses grown stale, but your lack of listening to what your end client has been telling you has probably negatively impacted the desire of your students to leave you candid feedback in the future. 


If "culture eats strategy for breakfast" as Mr. Drucker pointed out, I encourage you to rethink how you are designing your training courses and look not just at your business goals but at your learners' goals. Millennials who are increasingly comprising the bulk of today's workforce want to see you not just caring about the business, but want to feel you authentically caring about their needs and aspirations as well. 

Alex Santos

Alex is a co-founder and Managing Member of Collabor8 Learning, LLC, an instructional design and performance management consultancy. His firm collaborates with organizations to enhance the way they develop  and train their people. To learn more about Collabor8 Learning, click here.

Alex can be reached at 786-512-1069, or via Twitter@collabor8alex.

5 Cost drivers of E-learning projects

One of the questions we hear almost daily from customers is―How much should I budget for the development of my custom e-learning project?  Our answer remains the same every time.  We're not trying to be elusive with how we price our services mind you, but honestly it simply depends.  Anyone who tells you otherwise, I’d sprint away in the direction!  So, it depends on what you may be asking yourself?  And hence, we decided to write this post.


There are five key cost drivers the building custom e-learning and they are:








1. Project Management



Building e-learning generally involves some moving parts, and at any given time you want to know how far along in your course development you are.  When working on a course or building out a large curriculum, you’ll also be involving a variety of players such as graphic designers, animators, writers, subject matter experts, voice over talent, video editors,  or other specialists.  In order for your project to stay on time and on budget, you’ll want to budget time for the development of a project plan as well as weekly update calls or meetings.  In our experience we have found these activities to consume roughly 5 to 10% of your budget. As the old adage goes fail to plan and you’re planning to fail.

2. Instructional Design


Many clients who approach us at some point during our conversation will say something to the effect of “we already have the content; we just need someone to put it online for us”.  Experience has taught us to reviewing the content before providing a quote. Often what is referred to as content is often a PowerPoint deck or Microsoft Word Outline of the bullet points used by a previous instructor-led initiative. This “content” was designed to jog a facilitator’s memory that was going to stand in front of a classroom and dive deeper into these points. Without the luxury of the content inside of the instructor’s brain, the bullet points are can rarely be repurposed. More than likely the content must be rewritten from the ground up (beginning with a quick needs analysis) to meet the needs of an audience that will be experiencing this training online, without the aid of a facilitator or instructor, and at their own pace. 


This is where an instructional designer adds value to your project. While e-learning authoring tools are indeed simple to use, designing and building an engaging and immersive experience for your learners requires a degree of creativity, writing ability, and most importantly knowledge of instructional strategies that many subject-matter experts lack.  In our experience, you’ll want to budget roughly 25% of your e-learning project budget on quality instructional design.


3. Multimedia Design and Development


After the instructional design is complete and appropriate instructional strategies selected for all of the objectives that you’re teaching, it’s time to develop any multimedia assets you may need. This includes any navigational elements, custom graphic design, and video or audio that needs to be recorded and edited for use in the course.  If you’ve got a limited budget for the development of multimedia assets you want to let your instructional designer know so that they can leverage the use of lower-cost methods such as stock photography and or even assets currently existing in the public domain in your course.  A general principle is the more customized you need your course to be, the more you will need to spend to build these assets from scratch.  Again, generally speaking we have found it safe to budget roughly 25% of your budget to the design and development of multimedia assets.  This varies greatly of course; it is much more inexpensive to record software demonstrations on your PC then it is to hire acting talent and a camera crew in order to stage live role-plays and scenarios in a studio.

4. Interactivity

Training involves practice.  The effectiveness of your e-learning course depends on how well you allow the learner to engage with your content and practice new skills and behaviors (as opposed to having someone sit there reading or listening to a narrated PowerPoint show).  This secret sauce is truly what sets e-learning a part from what we call e-listening― a lecture delivered by a PC as opposed to a talking head in front of a classroom.  Luckily, a quality instructional designer can bake interactivity right into a course with the right multimedia assets, so there is no additional human resource to throw in.  The expense comes in the authoring of the activities, and in their testing in whichever software platform you are using to build the e-learning.  While anyone can insert static images onto slides, it takes a little more time, knowledge of your tools’ capabilities, and creativity to engage your learners in an online environment.  We’ve found throughout our years of building e-learning programs that you can reasonably expect designing interactivity into a course to consume about 25% of your projected budget.


5. Subject-matter expert (SME) availability

Last but not least, it is important to remember that no e-learning is designed in a vacuum.  One often overlooked expense is the time it takes for your designer or developer to acquire the content from subject-matter experts in order to build e-learning.  Even in smaller projects where a subject-matter expert is leveraging an authoring tool to build a course without the benefit of a designer, you must budget for the time it takes to gather all of the content, even when it’s just screen recordings or screen captures; it will take time.  Once your e-learning course is in its 1st draft or in a very rough state, you’ll want to budget in time for a SME who is also a member of your target audience to go through it and provide you with feedback on how you can improve the training experience.  A very general assumption is to budget for 10 – 20% of your costs to SME time. 

Though every project is different and we're not very big fans of generalizations, these cost estimates are born out of our experiences and yours may be different. 


Quality of e-learning development is a subjective thing, and budgetary and other resource constraints may limit the instructional strategies you can employ.  Coupled with the fact that- as this image points out “there is always someone who will do it cheaper”.   If we left out a cost driver, or you’d like to share with us how your projects for different please do so in the comments section below. We'd love to hear from you!



Alex Santos

Alex is a co-founder and Managing Member of Collabor8 Learning, LLC, an instructional design and performance management consultancy. His firm collaborates with organizations to enhance the way they develop  and train their people. To learn more about Collabor8 Learning, click here.

Alex can be reached at 786-512-1069, or via Twitter@collabor8alex.

Epic recruiting and what you can learn from Mark Cuban

Your challenge, should you choose to accept it―lure a top prospect to your organization while offering him/ her less money than what they are currently making all the while helping your organization cut back on the number of days critical positions remain open.  Sound like Mission Impossible right?  Not for Mark Cuban and his Dallas Mavericks, and you my instructional designer friend can employ a similar tactic to improve the performance of your HR team.


I don’t often write about recruiting practices, but I bumped into this clip earlier this week and find its use ingenious and very clever on the part of the Mavs.  Want to know the best part?  Say your organization is struggling to attract the type of hires it wants or worse, is losing out on these candidates to your competitors- you can storyboard a clip like this, fire up Camtasia, and build a short, customizable, and re-usable recruiting asset for your HR team!  And don’t limit yourself to creating a video clip either, many of you possess tools like Articulate Storyline, Adobe Captivate, Lectora Inspire or any of a number of e-learning authoring tools out on the market.  Many of these tools can be used to very quickly build an asset like this, and one your company’s HR team should be able to measure the return on. 

Why build something like this you may be asking yourself?  And I’m going to highlight for you one of Mark’s lessons in business here:

“What I do know, at least what I think I have learned from my experiences in business is that when there is a rush for everyone to do the same thing, it becomes more difficult to do. Not easier.  Harder.  It also means that as other teams follow their lead, it creates opportunities for those who have followed a different path.” 
-Mark Cuban

And there you have it- as the labor market continues to improve, companies will have to adapt to greater competition for high-potential candidates. They will have to find ways to distinguish themselves, to stand out from the crowd.  In your instructional designer role, and with the tools at your disposal―you can make a huge contribution to your HR organization’s efforts.


Alex Santos

Alex is a co-founder and Managing Member of Collabor8 Learning, LLC, an instructional design and performance management consultancy. His firm collaborates with organizations to enhance the way they develop  and train their people. To learn more about Collabor8 Learning, click here.

Alex can be reached at 786-512-1069, or via Twitter@collabor8alex.


One Tin Can E-learning designers shouldn’t kick down the road

Getting started with the Tin Can API, Part 1

New E-learning development standard.

The e-learning development standard SCORM, or Sharable Content Object Reference Model, is nearing the end of its useful life. Many in the e-learning development community, from designers to trainers alike, would agree it is way past its prime.   In case you haven’t heard, its replacement – the Tin Can API, is here and slowly but surely making its way into the marketplace.  If you’d like to learn more about the API and the changes it brings with it, there’s no better explanation in my book than this short clip by Tim Martin from Rustici software.   

What does this mean for your training courses, and how can you leverage the Tin Can API for the benefit of your end users?  Additionally, what should you be doing now to prepare?  I’d like to explore these questions with you in a series of posts, and encourage you to chime in on the discussion. 

Built on the philosophy that learning is taking place everywhere, and not simply through an active browser session inside of your learning management system you can now track all types of learning and development activities.  Keep in mind that simply tracking learning activities is not in and of itself evidence of improved performance due to the use of your learning assets.  The Tin Can API will however allow you to track all kinds of learning activities from reading a book to highlighting the sentence on your Kindle and attending an industry conference. These are all activities that due to SCORM’s limitations, you could not easily track.

There are several things that you can be doing out here for this monumental change first and foremost is educating yourself.  I’m a very tactile learner, and require engaging and tinkering with things in order to learn. One of the things you can do is to open up a learning record store and learning about all of the statements that you will be able to track in the cloud.  My recommendation is to checkout the Wax LRS by SaLTBOX.  Open up and account for yourself, it is currently free.  Having an account will allow you to test learning experiences from your own experiences in an actual cloud-based learning record store.  Additionally, if you have old courses are lessons created using articulate storyline you can republish these activities for the tin can API. Again this is simply for testing purposes, so that you can gain experience into working with tin can statements.

From a more strategic vantage point, say you’re a Director of Training, instructional designer, or Manager of Learning and Development in your organization or institution of higher learning. Odds are that many of the learning and development opportunities you’ve been providing your clients have not been tracked via your LMS using SCORM.  Thanks to the Tin Can API you can now begin defining statements of achievement for all of these L&D activities, and brainstorming ways you can track them in a learning record store.  You can learn more about tin can statements from the sites of one of the cloud-based LRS vendors, I have found this one particularly useful.  Additionally, you can experiment with validating your Tin Can statements here.

Steve Flowers over at e-learning heroes also provided me with several very useful sites you may also want to check out if you’re just getting started. 

For "less technical explanations" of Tin Can API in general, here are a few resources. The cartoon sequence is pretty clever.
My explanation and use-case descriptions for senior leadership of my org isn't really that technical but contains org specific contexts and language so it might be tough to follow:
Kevin Thorn and David Kelly gave a presentation at ASTD's TK13 last week in San Jose. Here's a description of that session and the slides:

We’ll continue to discuss this topic in future posts, but as the title of this post suggests―I highly recommend for you to begin getting your feet wet with the Tin Can API. 


Alex Santos

Alex is a co-founder and Managing Member of Collabor8 Learning, LLC, an instructional design and performance management consultancy. His firm collaborates with organizations to enhance the way they develop  and train their people. To learn more about Collabor8 Learning, click here.

Alex can be reached at 786-512-1069, or via Twitter@collabor8alex.