20+ Helpful Tips For Working With SMEs


Working with Subject Matter Experts is an important part of being an Instructional Designer. Some SMEs are friendly, knowledgeable people who you genuinely like, and who are more than willing to help you out. Others are egotistical know-it-alls that you can’t stand being in the room with. Regardless of that, it’s important to have a good relationship with SMEs, as they are critical to the success of your instructional design projects.

The more relevant, accurate and concise the information provided by the SME is, the easier it is for an instructional designer to complete their projects successfully. Here are 20 plus tips to help you build a strong relationship with your SMEs, and to get the most out of your time with them.

  1. Introduce yourself. It’s nice to do a little introduction (even just an email) to let the SME know who you are, what your role is, that you look forward to working with them, etc. Don’t have to be overly sappy, just a friendly hello.
  2. Get management’s commitment. This is not always possible but try to get management to commit to a certain amount of hours with the SME. This might help reduce the SME’s stress when they have to be away from their regular duties that still need to get done.
  3. Respect the SMEs profession. Whether it’s a janitor, a secretary, a data entry clerk or a factory worker, it is important to be respectful of what someone does for a living. Every job needs to be done by someone and nobody likes to feel diminished.
  4. Do your homework. Gather as much information about the subject as you can in advance to meeting with your SMEs. This demonstrates that you value their time, which could be wasted going over basic stuff if you haven’t already taken the time to look into it.
  5. Be friendly. Seems simple enough, but many IDs don’t realize how critical the SME is to the overall success of your project; they are more willing to help out people they actually like.
  6. Use plain language. Avoid complicated language and technical learning jargon. Don’t toss around terms or words like ADDIE model, Blooms Taxonomy, Kirkpatrick Levels of Evaluation…. This most likely means nada to your SME. Talk like a regular human being.
  7. Do not waste time. Ensure the time you spend with a SME is valuable. Be on time for meetings and be considerate of their other work obligations (meetings, other deadlines, etc.) If you know Monday is the busiest day of the week for your SME, it would be considerate to attempt to book meetings on other days when possible.
  8. Check before scheduling long meetings. If the SME is not part of a project (i.e., he’s just being told to help out), it is considerate to check with him or her before scheduling a meeting that will be more than an hour long.
  9. Have a plan for meetings. Before going into any meeting with a SME, have a plan prepared. Make sure you know what you need to go over prioritize what is most important.
  10. Ask the right questions. Write out a list of relevant and thoughtful questions that you can ask your SME. If more questions come up as they are talking or explaining, write them down so you don’t forget.
  11. Provide a list of questions. Give the list of questions to your SME a day or two before your meeting. This can help them prepare their answers and sort out what they need to share with you.
  12. Ask for examples. Get your SME’s to provide you with at least 2 or 3 examples or scenarios, that show how what they are showing you is used by the organization.
  13. Ask for demonstrations. Especially when it comes to software (but not only then), it is very useful for them to actually walk through the steps. This ensures they are accurate, and might lead to questions that you need to ask them.
  14. Keep it simple. SMEs will sometimes go off into deep explanations, or use big words, that aren’t really required. Keep them on track and stick to only what is relevant to your learners.
  15. Demonstrate samples. Showing the SME a sample or template of what you are trying to achieve (whether it be a step by step document, a previous eLearning course) can be really helpful. This helps ensure you are on the same page and might help the SME provide you with more accurate information.
  16. Record interviews and meetings. You can use a small recorder that you can buy for less than 30$ at Future Shop. Remember to turn it on, have enough recording space, place it close by and try to speak loudly enough that you don’t have to hold it to your ear to make out the words when you listen to it later.
  17. Record software simulations.  Use software like Bridgit or Webex to record anything that is done on the computer. This is really helpful (especially for software simulations) as something you can refer to after the fact, should you need clarification.
  18. Keep management involved. CC them on any appropriate communications with SMEs and keep an accurate record of tasks completed by SMEs.
  19. Define their tasks clearly. If there are specific action items for the SME to complete, lay it out for them clearly in an email, with a timeline. CC appropriate individuals.
  20. Share deadlines. Keep the SMEs in the loop about timelines and deadlines, so they have clear knowledge of when things are due.
  21. Give credit where it’s due. When a SME has been really helpful, has devoted a lot of time, or has provided you with really good information to complete your job, send them (and the project manager) an email to recognize and thank them.

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