Guest PostSometimes subject-matter experts (SMEs) can be the hardest part of dealing with the development of instruction. The SME is the person who has the content knowledge the instructional designer needs. The process of getting to the knowledge can feel frustrating to a designer. Despite the problems instructional designers might encounter working with SMEs, the bottom line is a SME is a necessary part of the ID process. The SME is critical to the success of your instruction.  Here are three things you should know when working with a SME. These reminders will help you keep your sanity and improve the approach you take when engaging with the SME.

1. Keep the instructional design lingo to a minimum

Sometimes it is difficult to leave behind those words you use daily to describe what you do when you meet with your SME. In fact, you might want to leave behind the “SME” acronym altogether. Oftentimes as instructional designers, we fall into our own jargon when talking with SMEs. Remember that you are meeting with the expert to learn their jargon and knowledge. You don’t know their jargon; don’t expect them to know yours. Use non-training terminology when presenting a plan to the SME.

2. Listen to your experts

Be prepared when you meet with the SME. Come in prepared to listen and engage the expert! You need to ask questions. When you meet with the SME, have an agenda and a list of topics to address all of the needs of the project. Don’t forget that the SME’s time is valuable and so is yours. Don’t waste time by repeating information, and listen to your SME closely.

3. Play nice

This suggestion might seem like a no-brainer, but it probably the best advice. In the heat of conversation and deliberation, you might feel like saying something that should be left unsaid. You might encounter a SME who is unapproachable or perhaps downright cranky. You will run into situations that will test your limits, but be professional. Never do anything to jeopardize your relationship with the SME. Sometimes the SME is also your client, and it is important to maintain a positive attitude and a positive relationship.  Because you will need to return to the SME later for approvals and suggestions.

If you have other suggestions on how to work with SMEs, please post them to the comments. I look forward to reading your thoughts.

Guest Blogger: Stacy Clayton is an IT Specialist with over 8 years of experience in Higher Education. She is employed at the University of Tennessee Health Science Center. She manages websites, web conferencing, interactive development, and video services. Her interests are in creating elearning content and improving the way technology is used in the classroom at the university level.

Image courtesy of Zach Klein at

About Michael M Grant

Dr. Michael M. Grant is a passionate professor, researcher, and consultant. He works with faculty members, schools and universities, and districts to integrate technology meaningfully and improve teaching and learning. When 140 characters just won't work, then he blogs here at He has a beautiful wife and three equally beautiful daughters, who will change the world.

9 Thoughts on “SME is not the enemy

  1. Stacy, this is very good advice on dealing with the SME. I was recently reading the reflections of an instructional designer on his internship experience in the corporate world, and adding to your list, he recommends realizing that SMEs differ in their styles of collaboration, and part of our job is to respond accordingly. One more thing instructional designers need to work on is their interpersonal skills.

  2. Suha, I absolutely agree about instructional designers improving on their interpersonal skills. Often the SME may be blamed for communication, but IDs are also responsible for breakdowns in communicating with experts and others in the ID process.

  3. Jeremy on February 8, 2010 at 8:17 am said:

    Great post Stacy. These are wonderful suggestions on how to work with subject matter experts. The one that I connected with most was the one on listening to the SME. In nearly all of the instruction that I have delivered I have served as the SME (or at least as a knowledgeable other) and thus have not necessarily needed the SME to deliver the content to me. Most of my work with SME’s to this point has been for advice or input on content that I have already developed into instruction. I am now in my first situation where I have to rely on a SME for the content for the instruction and I can find it frustrating.I can see where it requires instructional designers to really listen to SMEs and know the right questions to have. Like Suha said, instructional designers really do need to improve their interpersonal skills.

  4. Like Jeremy, I’ve become accustomed to serving as the SME in the instruction that I design. It certainly puts a different spin on the project when you involve an outside SME. As Stacy mentioned in her post, when dealing with a combination SME/client, it is important to choose your words carefully. I’ve caught myself unintentionally using “wording” in project documentation that might be perceived as negative by the client/SME.

    Stacy’s post certainly serves as a timely reminder as we all conduct various meetings with our clients and SMEs.

  5. Kristy and Jeremy, I definitely understand where you are coming from: I too have been the SME for most of my class- and work-based projects up to this point. This is my first semester using a “real, live SME” that isn’t me. I’m using a “non-me” for two classes this semester. With one of my SMEs, I’ve had to walk a delicate line and have experienced a few frustrations already. In particular, the SME doesn’t seem responsive. This is throwing off my time line. In the SMEs defensive, there was a recent death in her family, but that is equating to a delay for me. I’m such a “newbie” at this process still and am admittedly “socially awkward.” So, it is difficult for me to work with on anothers’ schedule.

  6. Dot Hale on February 9, 2010 at 10:29 am said:


    Interesting information you present. We do have to be careful of the ground we trod. Another interesting scenario I propose is what if the SME is also an instructional designer? Do you think there are some positives and negatives in these circumstance? With all due respect to both these roles, we have to be careful of assuming that we will get what we need. In some instances (especially where there is minimum top level support for the process), the SME/ID might be overwhelmed in the work environment, which could have a less than positive impact on the analysis . Great points Stacy.

  7. We are indeed finding out how important an SME is to a project. An SME has knowledge that has been acquired over time and this is the knowledge that can provide invaluable insight to a project. It’s difficult to have all the questions during the initial meeting with the SME. As the design and development of the project begins, specific questions tend to arise. I can see why rapid prototyping is a method used for development to ascertain feedback from the SME at different intervals. As instructional designers, we want the completed project to meet the expectations of the client/SME. We must use our soft skills with the SME to implement our instructional design skills.

  8. Great post Stacy. As the others mentioned, this is my first time not being my own SME for an instructional design project. I think working with SMEs is an important skill that I definitely need more practice with. I kind of wish that I had chosen someone else to be the SME for my other projects so I could have more experience with it.

  9. Stacy on March 18, 2010 at 8:17 pm said:

    Dot, I think the SME can often be the ID, especially in some academic settings (at least based on my own experiences).

    Amanda, I agree that the SME is so important when rapid prototyping. Making sure the SME is “on board” with the design is crucial.

    Joey, thanks for the comment. Since we are having a shared experience with our class project, I think we both can say that having a “real SME” is very different from ourselves. Sometimes I think that despite all of the practice in the world working with SMEs other than ourselves, SMEs will always be a challenge. Each person is different.

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