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Learning & Development Blog

The SMEs Guide To Working With An Instructional Designer

The SMEs Guide To Working With An Instructional Designer

So, you’ve been asked to be a SME - a Subject Matter Expert - on an upcoming training project?  Congratulations!  It’s a big deal to be considered an expert. Your knowledge, and the relationship you form with the instructional designer (ID) picking your brain, will be vital to the success of your team’s training project. If it’s your first time around the block as a SME (or if you just want to improve the experience), here are some tips to make the collaboration a smooth one.

Tip #1: Communicate

We know you’re busy.  Sometimes, the irony of choosing the person who knows the most about a job or procedure, is that they’re the one busiest doing that job or procedure. The ID isn't going to be aware of all subject matter expert roles and responsibilities. Deciding ahead of time when and how to best communicate will help make your life easier throughout the project design and delivery process.

Be sure to attend the project kickoff meeting. Way more than just a meet-and-greet, the kickoff meeting is your chance to learn about project goals and expectations at a high level, and what’s needed and required from you, specifically. It’s also your chance to discuss your preferred communication method and availability with the ID. How do you best communicate?  Do you prefer to meet in person?  If that isn’t feasible, do you prefer email to phone calls? Can you do video meetings?

Communication is key to this collaborative process. The ID will use your preferred form of communication to set up an initial interview with you, and then to verify information, share their work, and get your feedback on what they’ve created. Provide your feedback in a timely manner to help the project stay on schedule.  The kickoff meeting is the time to raise any concerns you may have about how much time you have to contribute to the project. Be sure to let the ID know of an alternate person to assist them if you will be unavailable.

Tip #2: Be Concise

You know everything there is to know about your job and the procedures you do all the time.  You know the ins and outs, the exceptions, the weird little rules that you follow for compliance reasons, the tricks that save you a ton of time—you know all of it.  However, you’re being asked supply information to people who are brand new or unfamiliar to what you do. 

When describing a step-by-step procedure, make sure to clarify what the process is, who will perform the process, when the process is performed, where to locate the required resources to perform the process, and why the process is performed. After you answer those basic questions, you can focus on the how.

Be sure to include all pertinent information in your description, but stay concise. Because you are generally working with beginners, they need to know the basics of how to start the engine before they can fly the plane. Try to focus on the way the procedure should be done, not on each way it could be done. The goal is to increase efficiency, make tasks easier, and to avoid overwhelming the learners with information they rarely need.

Tip #3: Be Real

When taking screenshots or creating examples, use data that is realistic and accurate, and most commonly encountered in the day-to-day job. View your example through the eyes of the learner. Some questions to ask yourself: Does the instruction make sense to me as an end user? Is this a good example of something that would really happen in my job? Have I overlooked steps that seem obvious to me but may not to a new staff member? The ID should be able to catch gaps in the process, and work with you to fill them in before the training goes live.

Tip #4: Tell Stories

Remember that one time when all heck broke loose, and you had to come riding in on your white horse and save the day?  Or that time when you realized everyone was doing extra work because no one realized that two teams were duplicating effort but not communicating to each other? Relay those stories to your ID. These stories give insight to issues new users might face. Hearing about problems that actually happened and the problem solving that saved the day will provide the ID with a more in-depth understanding of your role, and help create more realistic, and therefore, more effective training material. 

Tip #5: Trust

Trust the ID - trust their expertise in how people learn best. The ID will take your insight and knowledge and break it down into bite-sized pieces of information, making it easier to consume and retain. They might get creative with the content, creating fictitious scenarios that have a bit of humor to them, or use other methods to keep the training engaging. They may also exclude information you would rather they include. Make sure you have the conversation to discuss this choice with them and decide together whether to add it back in, or whether it is better left out for training purposes.


Thank you for stepping up to the plate and putting on the SME hat; training projects wouldn’t be successful without you.  Your expertise in the content, and your enthusiasm inspire passion for the training project.  We know that you are busy, and that this responsibility is something extra you’ve taken on, and we’re grateful for all you do. Hopefully, the tips here will help you have a successful relationship with your ID, and lead to a successful project implementation.

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