Interviewing experts will be a core part of our FLL Research Project.  Interviews with domain experts will help us inform, focus, and revise the thrust of our limited research and develop resources as well as optimize our ability to execute on our Project.  FLL judging also heavily weights how thoroughly teams conduct research and interviews with domain experts as a sign of well-thought out projects that are fact-checked and have the preliminary seal of approval of an expert in the field.

What makes a good interviewer is an art that includes a broad range of skills including background research, psychology, active listening, intelligent line of questioning, improv skills, salesmanship, networking, etc.  Like a good comic or salesman, a good interviewer is easy to overlook because they make their craft seem so effortless.

Here is a great introduction to the art of interviewing:

Effective Interviews of Subject Manner Experts


There are many interviewing tips online such as for interviewing experts for you blog.  More expert interviewing tips here.  Here is a good outline for interviewing domain experts:
Interview Guidelines

Below is a set of guidelines that will help you conduct an effective expert interview:


  • BE EARLY. This can be your best friend if the unexpected occurs, whether it be a flat tire, a late bus, a missing pen, or the need for a deep breath.
  • BE POLITE. Introduce yourself to the interviewee by stating your name and the reason you are there. Give a strong, firm handshake; this demonstrates confidence and professionalism.
  • BE CLEAR. Make sure that the questions you ask are clear and concise. Be straight to the point in the most simple manner possible. Use detail when necessary.
  • BE THANKFUL. Thank the interviewee for taking the time to meet with you. You may even want to send a “thank you” note or card afterwards to show your sincere appreciation.

Another article breaks down the interview process into 3 stages:

Phase 1: The Prep Work

At all costs, don’t walk into a meeting with a SME knowing nothing about the subject. Your questions will be more intelligent and you’ll be better able to drill down if you are a little knowledgeable about the content. Guidelines for Preparation:

  • Request documentation and resources prior to the interview. Then review these or do research on your own to get some background knowledge prior to the meeting.
  • Prepare interview questions ahead of time.
  • Request permission to record the interview. Although you’ll be taking notes like a fanatic, the recorded version will be greatly appreciated when you don’t understand your notes.
  • Bring a supply of paper and pencils so your SME can diagram processes, procedures and structures. You can also sketch to visually explain your ideas or understanding to the SME.
  • Establish what the meeting will accomplish, how it will be run and the types of questions you will ask. Explain this to your expert ahead of time, giving him or her time to prepare if needed.

Phase 2: The Interview

  • Be sure your SME knows that you are appreciative of his or her time and busy schedule.
  • Remember to record the interview for later reference if you have permission.
  • You may want to remind the SME that you know very little about his or her domain of expertise.
  • Narrow the focus of the interview to the specific skills and tasks targeted for training. It’s difficult for experts to minimize information—they know so much. You may have to politely ask, “Does a person really need to know that in order to perform the task?”
  • You may want to read and use the Five Moments of Need model to avoid getting a brain dump.
  • Ask questions that allow you to drill down to the level of content you need.
  • Take notes (on a laptop) and at appropriate points, repeat back what you heard in a summary form. You may wish to use a Content Collection Form. See the download link at the end of this article.
  • Encourage your expert to draw diagrams and mind maps whenever it will help you better understand the content.
  • Ask what types of visuals will be most effective for explaining abstract concepts.
  • Use your best listening skills.
  • Establish a procedure for contacting your SME with questions.

Phase 3: Follow-up

If your head is not exploding by the end of the interview, something probably went wrong. You will most likely feel a compulsion to get everything organized immediately, before the delicate puzzle pieces fall out of place. Follow that instinct.

  • Review your notes and clean them up so the information is clear.
  • Organize them into a form that will still make sense to you in a few weeks or months.
  • Listen to the recording to catch important details you missed in your notes.
  • Indicate where there are gaps in the information. You might be able to fill these in yourself if you have reference sources. Or place these in your question list for the SME (see below).
  • Through the design and development process, collect all of your SME questions in one place. Then email or set up a call when you’ve accumulated a good number of them. This minimizes the number of times you disturb your SME.

And then there is the subspecialty of conducting interviews of domain experts as part of field research for scientific goals.  Here is a that gives an overview of conducting qualitative interviews for academic areas like the social sciences.


Trash Trek: Research the four R’s

As they say in Texas, y’all know about the three R’s:  Reduce, Reuse and Recycle.  However, did you know about the 4th “R”?  It’s called “Repurpose” and could be considered a part of Reuse which the wiki article on here does a great job of summarizing. Repurpose/Reuse may play a big role in this year’s FLL Trash Trek Research Project.

8rs-waste-management-diagram-1200-900In fact, someone came up with the 8 R’s of Waste Management

Trash Trek Coaches Handbook Cover.  The “Trash to Treasure” on the cover suggests that this year’s challenge may emphasize Recycling/Reusing/Repurposing waste materials into differing products with new uses.  Read more speculation at the FLL Coaches Forum on the Trash Trek Thread.


If this speculation from the cover of this fall’s Coaches’ Handbook is accurate then we are working in the middle of the Waste minimization pyramid below



And here are two tables showing how various materials can be optimally dealt with at various stages of the inverted pyramid above:material_rs   waste hierarchy including text

In our research, here is a handy list of key/search terms that will help us in acquiring a background into the field of Waste Management and Repurposing Waste Materials.

Search Terms:

Reduce, Reuse, Recycle





Waste Flow

Material/Product Life Cycle Assessment



Design for Repurposing ( Artists/Designers – see Examples from Mexico  ) ( Artists repurposing and upcycling object into new pieces of art/functionality )

TerraCycle Company ( More Recycle than Reuse )



Waste to Energy

Films: (Graphic depiction of how waste plastics pollute/kill birds) (Problem of waste plastics)

Ideas: (whimsical)

Finally, here are several diagrams that give you a more global view into the Waste Management Process.

waste_integrated_wasteDifferent Domain Expertise of Waste Management


 Various Types of Solid Waste StrategiesWaste_hierarchy_initiatives Web of Inter-related aspects of Waste Management

Research Project & Patents

Here are drawings from a patent based upon an invention by the St. Mark’s School of Texas FLL team for the 2011 Senior Solutions Research Project.  The invention is described as:

A warning device for the prevention of pressure sores and circulation problems from prolonged inactivity includes a sensor positioned in a pad to detect the weight of a user on the pad. A sitting timer measures the amount of time the user has continuously sat on the pad, and an alarm activated by the warning device when the user has continuously sat on the pad in excess of a first predetermined limit, wherein the alarm includes a visual alarm mechanism, an auditory alarm mechanism, and a sensory alarm mechanism. A standing timer is started when the user’s weight is removed from the pad and measuring the amount of time the user has been off of the pad. The alarm is reactivated if the sensor detects the user’s weight reapplied to the pad before the standing timer has expired.

patent_drawing2 patent_drawing1You can read the entire patent on Google or the US Patent and Trademark Office.

The FIRST LEGO League Research Project will command as much attention as our Robot Challenge this year.  There is a FLL Global Innovation FAQ that discusses some of the details about the Research Project.  Some have questioned if there is a judging bias towards patentable devices over non-patentable innovative information or process-based solutions based upon this FAQ.

Judging from this year’s winner who were just announced today on the FLL website, 2 of the 3 finalists were based upon mobile apps and the other appears to be a mechanical device to teach braille to the blind.  Many of the 527 Research Projects submitted to the FLL Global Innovation Competition also are software apps rather than mechanical devices.  This argues that software apps which are less likely to be patentable are just as likely, if not more so, to be judged highly.  Congrats to Team Storm from Indiana for their ROY G. BIV winning invention.