SMEs Shouldn’t Write Branching Scenarios (And What To Do Instead)

Instructional designers and training managers sometimes ask me, “How do I train SMEs to write better branching scenarios?” While I understand the perspective of the folks asking that, I think it’s the wrong question. I believe SMEs shouldn’t write branching scenarios. Instead, I think we as instructional designers and LXDs should interview the SMEs as part of our analysis, and then we should write it. I genuinely don’t think it’s a subject matter expert’s job to write a full branching scenario. In fact, I don’t even find it particularly helpful to try to write branching scenarios collaboratively. You’ll create a better learning experience and use your SMEs’ time more wisely if you use your SME as a resource, not an author.

SMEs shouldn't write branching scenarios (and what to do instead)

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SMEs aren’t IDs

First of all, your subject matter experts probably aren’t instructional designers. (If they are, this blog post probably doesn’t apply to you.) They aren’t experts in learning. That’s why most of the time, even if you have a content dump from a SME with a lot of great information in it, you still have to do a lot of work to turn that source content into a quality learning experience.

That’s OK though! Being an instructional designer isn’t their job–that’s your role in the process. But asking your SMEs to write branching scenarios is basically outsourcing your job to them.

Writing branching scenarios is a skill

Writing branching scenarios is a specific skill. It’s a skill that can be trained and learned, just like writing voice-over scripts or writing multiple-choice questions. But it’s a skill that takes practice and effort.

Is it reasonable to expect your SMEs to practice this skill enough to get good at writing branching scenarios? Probably not. Most SMEs are busy–they’re experts in their own areas, after all. They usually have full-time jobs or responsibilities, and they’re helping you as a side project.

Because your SMEs aren’t instructional designers and likely don’t have the skills needed, SMEs shouldn’t write branching scenarios themselves. Writing in a nonlinear format is tricky, and it’s not something most SMEs can do successfully. (Even most IDs need to learn and practice the skill, after all.)

What to do instead: Interview SMEs

Instead of asking your SMEs to write branching scenarios, interview them to gather information. Spend an hour meeting with your SME and asking questions to get ideas. Identify the desired behavior you want to change or practice. Get specific about what the behavior is and what it looks or sounds like. You may need to ask multiple follow-up questions to get enough concrete detail on the desired behavior. Try to identify all of the steps in the process for that ideal behavior.

Ideally, you also have other sources of information for your needs analysis: information from other stakeholders, interviews with end users, metrics on mistakes, help desk reports, and so on. But even if your only source of information is a SME, you can get a lot out of an interview.

Ask about mistakes

Once you have the details on the desired behavior, ask your SME about mistakes. The mistakes will become the distractors in your branching scenario.

  • What are the common mistakes people make?
  • Where do people get stuck in this process?
  • What does it look like when they make this mistake?
  • What problems do users report?

Ask about consequences

Then, ask about the consequences of those mistakes. These will become the results of choices made in the branching scenario.

  • Can you give me an example of a time when someone did this wrong? What happened because of this mistake?
  • What results do you see that tell you something went wrong?

I have an extensive list of questions to ask SMEs as part of the analysis for branching scenarios, but the questions above are a good place to start.

Record the interview

Rather than taking notes during the interview, you may find it helpful to record the interview. Recording the interview leaves you free to really listen and consider follow-up questions. Pay attention to whether the SME is giving you enough concrete details to use in your scenario, and ask for more examples if needed.

In addition, a recording means you can review it later, multiple times if needed. You can listen for exact phrases or details on the recording to include in your scenario.

Clark Aldrich also recommends recording the interview as part of his process for creating Short Sims.

Ask SMEs to review scenarios

While I don’t think SMEs should write branching scenarios, they should definitely be involved in the review process. No matter how well you interview them and use your other resources, you still need to have the SME verify what you wrote. I often find that there are a few specific nuances that I missed in writing a scenario, even if the branching scenario overall is accurate.

Can IDs write realistic scenarios if they’re not SMEs?

Sometimes, people raise objections to having the ID write a scenario. One of the most common is about whether IDs can write realistic scenarios if they don’t have that expertise. After all, the SMEs are the experts, right? Doesn’t that make them the best-qualified person to write a scenario?

The conversation below with “Jacob” is fictionalized, but it’s based on several real discussions I have had on LinkedIn and other platforms.

Jacob said, “Unless the ID is also the SME and has a wealth of anecdotes and personal experiences relating to the learning objectives, I think it would be very difficult for them to write authentic scenarios. Look at fiction writers! The best fiction writers write from experience and an in-depth knowledge of their subject matter.”

I replied, “When the ID isn’t a SME, we rely on the expertise of someone else. Interviewing SMEs to get their stories can get you a treasure trove to work with. It’s the same way that fiction writers do research to gain in-depth knowledge. Best-selling novelists don’t necessarily have everything within their own heads unless they’re writing high fantasy (and not always even then). Many writers spend countless hours interviewing experts, reading articles, or working with researchers.

Jacob was still skeptical. “That’s great if the ISD and SME have sufficient time and resources to sit down and do this. Novelists and screenwriters can take years to research and write a book or screenplay.”

I said, “Sure, novels and screenplays are huge efforts. If the ID and SME can do a 1-hour Zoom call, they can probably get enough story for a 5- to 10-minute branching scenario. If the project isn’t important enough for the ID and SME to spend 1 hour on the phone together, you need to reevaluate whether or not the project is important enough to even create.”

“But isn’t the SME the best person to identify the situation and problem for a scenario?”

“On that point, I might agree with you. SMEs often can come up with the initial scenario, the situation in which the main character makes decisions. Where I really disagree is about writing the scenario itself. When SMEs write branching scenarios, they often write ridiculous wrong answers, choices that are so obviously wrong that no one would pick them.”

Jacob seemed to agree with that. “True. When I’ve had SMEs write multiple choice questions, their distractors are usually awful! Writing good multiple choice questions is a skill, and it’s harder than most people think it is.”

“A branching scenario is effectively a series of multiple choice questions with some special conditions, right? So if SMEs can’t write ordinary multiple choice questions well, how they going to write specialized multiple choice questions? And what about writing realistic dialogue for characters? That’s a skill too. Who’s more likely to have the skills of writing good questions and dialogue: the ID or the SME?”

“The ID will be better. Hmm…maybe you’re right. Maybe SMEs shouldn’t write branching scenarios.

SMEs shouldn’t write branching scenarios; interview them instead

While there are exceptions to every rule, in most situations, I think SMEs shouldn’t write branching scenarios. It’s more effective to interview SMEs and use them as a resource during reviews, rather than an author. IDs should be responsible for actually writing the scenario, choices, consequences, and any dialogue because those align with an ID’s skills.

What’s your experience? Does your experience align with mine, or have you had success in having SMEs write branching scenarios on their own?

If you’re looking for more information, try 3 Tricks for Working with SMEs on Branching Scenarios or Questions to Ask SMEs.

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