Many technology product firms hire people formerly employed by their customers—people who know how to use the firm’s products, and how those products get used in the real world. Typically, these people are called subject matter experts, or SMEs. Product and service companies can leverage their SMEs’ experiences in the field. In turn, the SME can advocate for the users by helping to translate user needs and business requirements into features and product designs.
When we work with clients we provide design and usability expertise, but we usually need to rely on our client’s team to provide the domain knowledge. In my experience, when we work with a team that has SMEs who are not far removed from their time in the field, we are able to collaborate in an meaningful and productive way. In healthcare, an SME could be a former nurse or doctor. In military domains, the SME is often a former soldier. They provide valuable insights because of their unique, first-hand experiences—kind of like the former athletes hired by sports networks to analyze sporting events.
Here are five ways to make the most out of working with an SME:
1 . Learn From Them
When MAYA is asked to work on a project with a new client, we need to learn about that client’s business and their domain. We then like to visit with users and experience their environment, prototype a solution that will improve that experience, and then test those concepts to validate our design decisions. The SMEs become an invaluable resource along this journey—acting as tutors, reviewers and advisors—helping us navigate both the user’s environment and the client’s business.
MAYA recently worked on a project in the offshore oil industry. While many of us have worked on a multitude of manufacturing and energy projects, we had nothing in our backgrounds comparable to the in-depth knowledge needed for this project. Thankfully, there were a number of former offshore employees on the client’s team, with a variety of backgrounds and experiences, willing to help us novices. We were eager to learn as much as we could in a short period of time. The offshore drilling SMEs gave us a brief “drilling 101” talk, and arranged for us to visit a rig that was down for maintenance. These were invaluable experiences that allowed us to better understand what the real goals of the project needed to be, and what was really important to the people who would be using the system that we would be designing.
The ability to quickly ramp up on the domain knowledge and ‘talk-the-talk’ opened the door to interview more people, and to have richer conversations with those people.
2 . Have Them Review Your Work
Once we started designing, the SMEs became our biggest critics, and eventually our best advocates. As we shared our design ideas with them, the SMEs told us what they thought would work and what wouldn’t. They reminded us of stuff we had been learning, and filled us in on nuances that we hadn’t seen yet. With their partnership, we were able to work side-by-side and quickly iterate on our designs.
3 . Make Use of Their Connections
MAYA likes to usability test all of our designs with actual users to validate design decisions and ensure that the product meets the needs of the users, and will help them achieve their goals. When the design reached an initial plateau, the SMEs used their connections within the company to arrange for us to meet offshore employees who we could get to participate in usability tests, and see how our designs match up with their goals in real-life scenarios.
4 . Have Them Contribute to the Work
As we collected feedback and progressed our designs, the SMEs would provide ideas for features that we built into the system design. Now the system is not just being improved in terms of basic usability. All that knowledge and experience from the SMEs is becoming logic for diagnostics, alerts and improved data visualizations.
5 . Succeed Together
With access to SMEs and real users for three rounds of usability testing, we were able to achieve a System Usability Scale score that put the interface in the 97th percentile (way above the average score of 68). As they completed the tests, participants made comments like: “This made sense and was easy to complete,” “That’s pretty cool,” and “That’s stupid easy!”
In the end, with the help of the SMEs, we were able to produce a far superior experience for users. Their guidance and support enabled us to incorporate features and get the details right early in the design process, which gave users confidence knowing the system will work for them. It also gave us enough insight to mock-up an interface with rich detail that enables users and project stakeholders an ability to not only see, but experience the future.