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9 tips for working better with subject matter experts

You could say that a learning designer, eLearning project manager, or learning consultant is a jack of all trades. We apply our skills to an endless range of topics, but what we really master is learning.

That’s why subject matter experts (SMEs) are such an essential part of any learning design team, and the relationship we build with them can make or break a learning design project.

What is an SME?

Subject matter experts are, as the name suggests, experts in the field related to the course being designed. They are an integral part of any learning experience design. While you are the expert in the design of the course, they are the expert in the content. 

Without their full cooperation, integration in the team and understanding of their role, your learning design project will be ill-fated from the start. 

1. Ask the right questions

The SME is not only your key to the source material, but they also provide valuable insight into the learners and real experience from which you can draw case studies and scenarios. 

To get this information out of them, you need to ask the right questions, not just about the source material, but about the learners and the course itself.

  • What is the goal or purpose of this learning?
  • Has this course been delivered before? If so, how? 
  • Who are the target learners? What are their motivations/barriers to doing this learning?
  • What level of existing knowledge do the learners have? 
  • What actions/behaviours will the learners need to be able to perform?
  • What information do the learners need to know to perform these actions/behaviours?
  • How will you assess the learners?
  • How will you measure success? 

If you're using the Learning Canvas, these are questions that will come up as you move throughout the canvas, especially if you're using it in a workshop environment with the project team. 

2. Set expectations

It is critical to set expectations and roles upfront. This may be the first time your SME has worked on a project like this, so they need to be aware of the scope of the project, and the time and resources they need to put towards it. 

Here are the key responsibilities for each role outlined in the Learning Canvas:


  • Provides subject matter expertise and source content
  • Reviews content for accuracy 
  • Provides information regarding technical content queries 

Learning Designer: 

  • Leads the planning/scoping workshop
  • Writes and develops outlines, prototypes and final digital experiences
  • Updates and amends digital experiences based on reviewer feedback 

Make sure to share these with the SME and ask if there is anything else they’d like to add or clarify. 

3. Project plan with set deadlines 

While they may seem like the centre of your universe for a while, don’t forget that SMEs have jobs and conflicting priorities outside of being your SME.

Creating a project plan upfront, with realistic deadlines for both yourself and your SME, keeps you both on track and accountable. Include milestones like outlines, drafts, review rounds and feedback, and final sign off. It is also helpful to book in regular catch-ups where you can ask any questions or clarify any content.

4. Show them what goes on behind the scenes 

Not many people understand what actually goes on behind the scenes to create engaging and effective learning experiences. Helping your SME to understand the design and development process will have two key benefits. Firstly, it will help them to better understand the role they play and how they can be most effective. Secondly, it gives them an insight into the time and work that goes into each stage, therefore helping to understand what is and isn’t possible within the scope.

5. Reviews and feedback 

One of the SME’s key roles is reviewing and providing feedback. Establish early on how this process will be carried out, how long they will need to review and how many rounds of review there will be.

Clearly explain what they should be looking for in the review and define the scope of possible changes. For example, in the alpha review, they can make more significant changes to content, structure and visual design, while the beta review should only be for minor text changes and to confirm all earlier feedback was correctly incorporated. 

An important question to ask upfront is who will need to review. If you have multiple reviewers, you might suggest that one person collate the feedback and make sure there are no overlapping or conflicting comments before sending it to you. 

6. Keep them on track 

You may find, especially during review rounds, that it's easy to get caught up in the content, and all the bells and whistles of the learning, and lose sight of the overarching goals. 

Go back to the questions you asked them at the beginning of the project and remind them of the learner personas and program goals that were established. Having these questions to refer back to throughout the project will help keep you both on-track to creating learning experiences that are focused on both learner and business goals. 

7. Build a relationship 

One of the biggest mistakes learning designers make is seeing their SME as an obstacle. You and your SME are both working toward the same goal and if you follow all of the above tips, you should be able to avoid hindrances like SMEs missing deadlines or requesting out-of-scope changes. 

Build a good working relationship with your SME by getting them involved early on, keeping them in the loop, and actively listening to their input. Not only will this make the entire project more enjoyable, but it will also make it more successful!

8. Acknowledge their efforts

This is key to building a strong working relationship. Your SME is investing a significant amount of time and resources into ensuring the success of your project. Part of acknowledging their efforts also means keeping them engaged and informed from the beginning of the process and throughout and actively listening to their suggestions. Also, you’ll be surprised how far a simple thank you email will go. 

9. Follow up

While we strive for perfection in every learning program we create, it’s always important to recognise areas for improvement for next time. Reach out to your SME once the project is complete and ask them for feedback. Remember, this will be easier to do if you’ve already built a strong relationship. 

Following these tips will not only help your project be more stress-free and enjoyable, but it will also help to create great learning content and outcomes. 


Samantha Harris
30 June 2020 4 Min Read

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