Enlist a Subject Matter Expert (SME)

No survey should be released into the wild without the thoughtful input of a person who knows in depth the domain of the survey, a **subject matter expert (SME) **. Put positively, embed as an integral contributor to your project team someone who knows deeply what they’re talking about regarding the survey topic. Mostly, SMEs surface from with the law firm, law department, or legal vendor behind the survey, but an outside resource might be retained.

I was reminded of this imperative when I prepared a survey of the executive directors of law firms. In a list of items for a multiple-choice question, I ignorantly used the term “Certified Professional Accountant, CPA”: my SME admonished me to correct it to “Certified Public Accountant, CPA.” Likewise, in a list of executives to whom the Executive Director might report, I included the Chief Financial Officer, only to be advised that no Executive Director of a law firm would report to that position.

“Expert,” to be sure, sets a high bar. You would not want to discourage a person who has considerable experience or familiarity with the survey topic from pitching in because they do not want to hold themselves out as so accomplished. Also, presumably the sponsor and other members of your project team hold those positions because they know about (or at least are concerned about) the topic.

The highest value of a subject matter expert comes in regard to a survey’s questions. That specialist might tell you whether a question is worded the way respondents understand. Does it use the right jargon and tone, and does it avoid novel, confusing, or ambiguous terms?

They can judge whether priority questions are reasonable. Has the survey covered the likely answers in the items of a multiple-choice questions? Or has it included items that no one will realistically choose? Or, they might point out that several items could simultaneously apply, so the question format should be pick-all-that-apply.

An SME can warn the survey designer that a question has no realistic answer, or that it requires digging up data (research) or tackling a trivial, non-controversial point. With their expertise, you can avoid the dreaded unknown unknowns, such as the difference between a JD degree from law school and an admitted lawyer who has passed a state bar exam. At the back end of a survey project, interpretation always happens more smoothly and perspicaciously when there is a subject matter expert at the wheel.

Furthermore, an SME may well suggest a thoughtful question that you would not have come up with in the design of the survey. They know what is cutting edge and what is dulled edge.

They also can contribute when they put the survey through its paces before it is released (pre-test it). Perhaps they will suggest a crisper instruction to a question, or even rearrangement of the order of questions.

Whatever the role of your SME, you should recognize and thank them in the acknowledgements. Acknowledgements should include any contributors and should be thought of as part of your methodology summary.