UX Tips for working with Subject Matter Experts (SME)

We all know how to design for not-me.  We utilize user research to figure out what kind of shoes our target users wear and then we use empathy and our imagination to walk around in them and see how things feel.  But, what if the users wear Eskimo boots?  Or they run barefoot?  That’s when we call in the subject matter expert (SME) to help us gain understanding.

When a product is so niche or context is so deep that it’s impractical for us to “get up to speed” so that we can design, we turn to the SME.  We are often told that these people are the answer to any knowledge gap and we embrace them as if they were a persona brought to life.  We assume they have all the knowledge, experience the same pain points and embody the very motivations our  users live with day in and day out.  In project speak, they are our new best friends.

But, are they?

A typical SME knows a lot about context, users or both.  It’s our job as a UX designer to develop a relationship with them and elicit this valuable information and put it into good use.  Here are a few tips to getting the most out of working with an SME:


1. Start off on the right foot

A subject matter expert is used to being asked questions and providing measured answers.  That’s how they prove their worth and make their money.  To them, UX is just another acronym and design is just something other people do.  Take the time to explain what UX means, carefully touching on our desire to understand the context of a design problem and need to extrapolate what works for users.  Once they understand you aren’t there to simply write everything down, but to collaborate so you can design together, things will go smoother.

2. Map their expertise

Not all SME’s are created equal.  The breadth and depth of of knowledge can vary greatly.  The only thing you can depend on is that their expertise is simply greater than that of the person who hired them.  So handle this like a user research interview where you are trying to map their expertise.  How far and wide is their knowledge?  Where are the gaps?  Does their expertise look like it’ll satisfy you and your project needs?

You don’t need to write down actual data in the initial interview.  Instead, do a brainstorming session with them and map out the boundaries of what they know and the major topics that populate the areas.  You want to end up with a context map outlining industry knowledge, competitors, competing products and if you’re lucky, a historical perspective on how things got there.  The other item  which is helpful is a user map.  This isn’t quite a persona, but basically captures what the SME knows about users.  Different types of users, behaviors, motivations, levels of knowledge, and and insights.  Again, the main goal is to get a rough sketch of the knowledge boundaries so you know what you’re working with.

3. Use your head.  Both of them.

When you’re in the discovery phase of a project you know little about, it can be like learning a foreign language.  It’s a good idea to walk through your data with the SME.  If it’s a competitive analysis and you want to know the differences beyond usability and design, ask the SME to dig into a content analysis and see if you gain insights into strategic or philosophical differences in products.  If you are looking at user data, work with the SME to help bring user stories to life.  In my experience, an SME can provide a lot of color to the context of what’s normal for the industry, what is relevant to groups of people and what the technical jargon means.  All of this helps feed brainstorming activities where the SME can be a valuable contributor.

4. Design, stop and listen.

The SME isn’t going to help you wireframe.  But, they are great to discuss content ideas or process heavy designs where insight into how users think about the data are critical.  We can sometimes forget about nuanced content details when we dive into “design mode” and our friends make sure we don’t lose sight of the it.

5. Give Props

The SME, like any other member of our project team, wants to feel valued and understand their contribution.  So, be sure to give credit to them when it’s all said and done and outline how their expertise impacted the design.  Doing so not only garners more trust people place in you, it shows we are fully capable of designing for any scenario.


Integrating an SME into a project not only saves time, but allows you to focus on designing a great user experience.  The key to a productive relationship is bringing them into the UX process with transparency and explaining how you can work together.  Think about how you can get the most out of an expert by opening up your UX process and being creative in applying their knowledge to the design.  If everything goes well, you’ve got a new friend that can help improve the experience and help sweat the content details.


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