Establishing a Productive Working Relationship: Translating between SME Knowledge and Instructional Design

Jan 31, 2022

For the learning experience design team, one of the highlights of our job is collaborating with subject matter experts (SMEs). Working closely with faculty and practitioners from a wide range of fields gives our instructional designers the opportunity to embody our motto: “Always a Student.” We’ve partnered with experts in fraud prevention, public health, personal finance, tax law, climate science, cybersecurity, and psychology, to name just a few from 2021. Pairing our expertise in course design with our SMEs’ expertise in their fields allows us to create meaningful, engaging, and innovative learning experiences.

As rewarding as it is, the collaboration process can also present challenges. Some SMEs may have difficulty adapting their knowledge for the target audience. Others may be unfamiliar with creating the framing content that facilitates an online learning experience, such as learning objectives or module overviews. In those cases, our designers can help do the work of translating expert knowledge into well-designed content that meets the learner’s needs.

Working Sessions with SMEs

When working with SMEs in real time, we often like to invite them to share their knowledge in an infodump. This is a great strategy for getting raw content, and it can work for any component of a learning experience, from learning objectives to assignments to interactives. Here are a few tips for getting the most out of an infodump session:

  • Start with an open-ended question. “Can you give me the nutshell version of what students will learn in this lesson?” Or, “What do you want students to talk about in this discussion?”
  • Provide direction on the audience. “Imagine you’re explaining this to a colleague from a different department.” Or, “How would you describe this to an administrator?”
  • Capture everything you can. Just focus on taking notes, and don’t worry about understanding what you hear.
  • Paraphrase and repeat what you wrote so the SME can correct any errors (and so you can ask any follow-up questions). Remember: it doesn’t matter whether you understand the content in detail; you just need to get the gist and understand the basic structural elements, such as relative importance or cause and effect.


Two black women look at a laptop in a collaborative manner

After your infodump session, you can distill the information into the format you need and then pass the draft to the SME for editing. While the SME will have to make changes, it’s much less daunting to revise content that’s been drafted than to write it from scratch.

Communicating Back and Forth with SMEs

Much of the time, our work with SMEs occurs through asynchronous drafting, feedback, and revisions. Providing written feedback on writing allows us to communicate more detailed guidance and to have a direct hand in shaping the content. Here are some strategies that we use.

  • Provide model revisions. In many (read: most) cases, it is far more effective to roughly draft what you’re asking for than to just ask the SME to revise a passage. By doing an initial translation, you allow the SME to focus on the content rather than the form. Frame your suggestion by explaining what you’re trying to achieve, then introduce your suggestion. Try starting with something like, “How about something along these lines?” The SME can then correct what you’ve proposed instead of needing to rewrite from scratch.
  • Ask clarifying questions. If you can’t suggest a concrete revision because you’re unsure what the SME means, explain how you as a reader are interpreting the text. Instead of “This isn’t clear,” try, “It sounds to me like you mean … but I’m not sure. If that’s correct, can you make this more obvious? If it’s not, can you clarify what you do mean?” Remember: just like learners, SMEs need concrete, actionable feedback.
  • Use plain language. It can be all too easy to fall into a “do as we say, not as we do” pattern: we ask SMEs to simplify their writing and avoid jargon to make their content accessible, but then we forget to do the same. While terms such as course outcome, learning objective, and even module belong to our instructional design lingua franca, they may be unfamiliar to SMEs. So, before you ask a SME to complete a granular course template or rattle off COs and LOs, ask yourself whether it’s really necessary—or if a simple “What will students learn this week?” would do just fine.

Whichever strategies you adopt when collaborating with SMEs, perhaps the most essential tip is this: let your humility be your guide. Acknowledge that your translations will be imperfect and that you’ll need the SME’s expertise to fill in the gaps. Reminding our SMEs that we know they’re the experts goes a long way toward establishing a productive working relationship.

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