Your subject matter expert is wrong

Many industries operate on complex and idiosyncratic systems. As demand for better design grows, designers who may not have insight or understanding, are more and more likely to work on complex systems used by a small number of experts.

As designers, we are never the experts. The ability to leverage a SMEs insight and knowledge is invaluable. However, challenging the norm and popular opinion should be encouraged in order to obtain the best results.

Putting ALL of your trust in a SME is a dangerous precedent to set.
Sticking to your guns with a set of design methodologies in support can build your way to success

Setting the scene: it is estimated that over 80% of digital projects fail, and 97% of companies have experienced a failed digital project. Common problems are shifting priorities, bad scope, releasing too much in one go, silos between departments.

A quick disclaimer: SMEs are vital to the UXD process. Sam loves them!

Three disruptive SME personas/types you may encounter:

  • The fake SME. The most common, aka the ignorant egotist. Avoid confrontations and back up decisions with research.
  • The loner. When you are stuck getting feedback from one single person. Try to bring in other people who work alongside them.
  • Resistant to change. They may go as far as deliberately disrupting the work. They may be afraid the work is making their job obsolete.

These archetypes all have motivations and there are ways to deal with them.

Servian design methodologies:

  • deep dive
  • service design
  • rapid xp

If you can get into peoples world, you can learn enough to play the role of SME when you need to. Or at least know enough to engage them more effectively.

You still can’t win them all. Great case was Sara Wachter-Boettcher’s example of a bunch of male stakeholders making assumptions about how women shopped, leading to them launching a product that was a total failure. If you can’t talk SMEs down from their assumptions, you can’t stop them making mistakes.

Book recommendation: Tragic Design – Jonathon Shariat

Wrong can be good! Most of the time in failing fast and early is a good thing. Facebook has tried a few ideas out like Poke, Slingshot and expiring posts – they didn’t succeed, but without those perhaps we wouldn’t have got Facebook stories and Snapchat. We see this pattern in many companies.

SMEs hold most of the pieces to the puzzle, but have no idea as to how to put it together. If they did, none of us would have a job.