Building eLearning Content: 7 Tips for Working with Subject Matter Experts (SMEs)

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A Subject Matter Expert (SME) has the knowledge and experience you need to create your eLearning content, and it’s up to you to draw out that information. Often, you may feel like you come from a different world; you both want to develop a successful elearning course but your approaches are very different.

The relationship between you and your SME will determine the quality of your learning materials. Before creating a course, you must begin by conducting a content-gathering interview. Prior to the interview, it’s always wise to do a bit of background research. It’s easier to communicate with SMEs when you know some of their terminology and jargon. You may also want to prepare a list of questions before you talk to your SME. You want to ensure that you are prepared and that you aren’t wasting your SME’s time.

This article discusses 7 tips for effectively working with your SME. It also outlines key elements for ensuring you get what you need during your initial SME interview.

Building eLearning Content: 7 Tips for Working with Subject Matter Experts (SMEs)

1. Build a Strong Relationship with Your SME

Building a relationship with your SME can do a lot to facilitate the project. SMEs have many demands on their time, and your project is usually not their highest priority. A positive relationship can get the SME on your side and encourage them to listen to you and respond to your requests. The stronger your relationship is with your SME, the more likely you are to develop successful eLearning content.

Here are some tips:

  • Starting off with small talk sets an amicable tone and puts the SME at ease. It’s worth taking a few moments to set the stage for a pleasant and effective working relationship.
  • Begin by explaining to the SME the purpose of the interview and what you want to achieve.
  • As you proceed through your interview, listen carefully to your SME and ask follow-up questions. The more involved your SME is in the development process, the better your eLearning content will be.
  • At the conclusion of the interview, acknowledge their expertise and thank them for committing their time and effort to the project.

2. Identify the Audience

In order to build engaging courses and achieve your learning goals, it’s crucial that both you and the SME know who your audience is. Keeping the audience in mind will help you identify necessary content and choose appropriate teaching strategies.

3. Identify the Rationale

The rationale is the reason why a course is being written. The rationale will tell you what participants will be learning, why the elearning content needs to exist and how learners will be motivated to successfully complete the course.

4. Develop Clear Learning Objectives

A learning objective is a description of a performance or skill learners must achieve to become competent. Without clear learning objectives, it’s impossible to build your content and generate assessments.

Objectives form the foundation of instructional material. They determine what needs to be learned and how learning is evaluated, providing focus and purpose for the course. They are also key to avoiding scope creep. Your SME will help you determine the key learning objectives for your eLearning course.

5. Set Design Expectations

This might seem like an odd statement since SMEs aren’t responsible for design, but they may make a valuable contribution. At the same time, asking can help identify any pre-existing ideas the SME might have.

It’s next to impossible to work with a SME who has an entrenched idea of how a course should work when you’re going in a different direction. Identifying your SME’s expectations is an important step to managing them.

6. Gather Existing Material

Leveraging existing material is usually the quickest way to develop content, and it keeps you from reinventing the wheel. At the same time, a client who’s working with you may not be satisfied with their current courses. Ask them:

  • Why they are dissatisfied and what should be changed. Material may be outdated, incomplete, inaccurate or unengaging.
  • What isn’t working with the current program?
  • What don’t employees know that they should?
  • What do they struggle with or find confusing?

7. Define the eLearning Content

What do learners need to know to accomplish the learning objectives? Here’s where you elicit the expert’s expertise, and it’s a huge question. Your own expertise will be needed to guide SMEs, gather crucial information and organize it according to the training goals and objectives.

You might have to ask additional questions to draw out a quiet or uncertain SME, or you might find yourself trying to restrain their response by reminding them to focus on the objectives and remember the scope of the project.

One strategy for helping your SME is to classify the information you collect as critical, important or “nice to know” information.


Ensuring SMEs’ commitment to the project is crucial to creating engaging eLearning content. Working with SMEs can be hard because being a SME isn’t usually part of their job description. They’re experts at their own subject, not instructional design. However, despite all the challenges you might face, developing a good relationship will allow your eLearning courses to succeed. Check out this article 5 Keys to Success in Working with SMEs on eLearning Content Development to understand how to build good eLearning courses with your SMEs.

So what’s next? Check out our eBook and get tips to create a successful LMS implementation project plan and deliver your eLearning courses.

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Jill W.

Jill is an Instructional Designer at BaseCorp Learning Systems with more than 10 years of experience researching, writing and designing effective learning materials. She is fascinated by the English language and enjoys the challenge of adapting her work for different audiences. After work, Jill continues to leverage her professional experience as she works toward the development of a training program for her cats. So far, success has not been apparent.

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