3 Things I Learned Working with Subject Matter Experts in my First Year as an ID

In my first year as an instructional designer (ID), I worked with college faculty to develop the courses they had taught face-to-face into online courses. I was eager to dive into my new role, create successful courses, and stick to a 3-month timeline for each project.

A few key lessons that I encountered in those early days continue to guide my work.

1 Hanging my diploma on the wall doesn’t guarantee a SME will trust me.

Training and experience are important, but trust is also necessary. Trust develops over time in any relationship. This sounds obvious, but it was a challenge in my first few projects with subject matter experts (SME).

When one of my SMEs submitted her materials, everything was in the Comic Sans typeface. I unceremoniously, and with no feedback, converted everything to our standard design format, which had excommunicated Comic Sans from all course design. At the end of a lengthy course development project, my SME reviewed all the course materials in the learning management system (LMS). When her review came back to me, she had (you guessed it) reverted everything back to Comic Sans!

I understand now that when SMEs are resistant to change, it is probably because they have invested so much time on their course materials—including hours of attending to details like colors, images, or typefaces. An early conversation with my SME regarding our standard design format would have saved time, frustration, and built a sense of trust between us. Giving rationale for my choices usually leads to productive discussion and mutual respect.

2 This may be the first time my SME has discussed their curriculum with another person.

Faculty are accustomed to working alone. From selecting the text to developing the assessments, they’re often the sole contributor on their course. It can be intimidating to open up their course design for discussion.

Fellow designer and founder of eLearning Industry, Christopher Pappas, refers to the SME as your “frenemy,” which has some truth to it! It is mutual trust that can smooth things out; once ID and SME are comfortable in our roles, “taking different approaches toward the same goal,” we will be on track to developing a successful course. (Pappas, 2015).

In one of my first projects, my SME was from the College of Education at the university. Being an expert in education, he also considered himself an expert in all things teaching and learning. Our discussions were long and unproductive, until I became genuinely curious and started asking questions about his course and experience with students. It was on this project I learned the value of active listening.

“One of the most sincere forms of respect is actually listening to what another has to say.” — Bryant H. McGill

Nancy Clark, Forbes, shares several steps for listening effectively. These are my favorite:

  • Create a visual image and story in my mind to follow what the SME says.
  • Give my SME my full attention, which means paying attention to eye contact and body language.
  • Keep my mind open, avoid judgment, and acknowledge that the SME’s perspective deserves full consideration.

I’ve learned that understanding what the SME values most helps me frame my suggestions and rationale for decisions. Everything I bring to the project will be more palatable for my SME if they understand I respect them and we share a common goal.

3 It will be difficult for a SME (and me) to estimate the time it will take to develop a course.

Let’s face it. Faculty of all levels are busy. There are classes to prepare, concepts to relay, students to teach, assignments to grade, impromptu meetings to attend, deadlines to meet, extracurricular responsibilities, committee meetings, and the list goes on.

Like Pappas says, “the sad truth is, your eLearning project is not your Subject Matter Expert’s top priority.” Even though I’m busy, my SME is likely even busier.

When I first asked SMEs when they would be able to give me content, neither of us were entirely sure what that would mean. At the end of a late Wednesday afternoon meeting I asked my SME when she would have the course outline ready for me. Her reply was thoughtful and serious: “I’m going to work on it this weekend, so I can have it to you on Monday.”

As you might guess, that deadline came and went. And as it turned out, the entire project consisted of missed deadlines and last-minute efforts. It’s normal for a first-time-SME (and ID) to be unsure of the time and effort involved in a course development project.

Because we will need to work around our busy lives, I take the time to get to know my SME a little bit. I ask about teaching load, conference dates, vacation plans, research deadlines and committee responsibilities. Once the next three months in my SME’s life are mapped out, I can share templates requiring essential information to help them pace the project.

Being familiar with their schedule helps make communication more authentic. I can send reminder emails at realistic times, ask how the conference presentation went, or comment about the beach vacation—and my genuine interest in their lives shows in the work we do together.

My first year as an ID taught me some valuable things about working with SMEs. What are some lessons you learned about working with yours? Let us know in the comments.



Christopher Pappas (September 2015). Working With Subject Matter Experts: The Ultimate Guide. Retrieved from: https://elearningindustry.com/working-subject-matter-experts-ultimate-guide

Nancy Clark (November 9, 2012). 10 Steps to Effective Listening. Forbes. Retrieved from: https://www.forbes.com/sites/womensmedia/2012/11/09/10-steps-to-effective-listening/#60942e9c3891



Author: Gwen Hersha, Assistant Professor & Instructional Designer

Gwen is fascinated with teaching and learning and loves designing ways of "doing it better." She finds joy in the everyday practicality of life: writing, teaching, gardening, and trying new things.

3 thoughts on “3 Things I Learned Working with Subject Matter Experts in my First Year as an ID”

  1. Just want to say your article is astounding.The clarity in your post is simply spectacular and I can assume you are an expert on this field.Thanks a million and please keep up the fabulous work.

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