translation guideYou’re working on a new project. There isn’t a lot of time left and you need answers to your questions soon. So, you type up an email and send it to the SME. Two days go by and you don’t get a reply. On the third day, you send another email asking for help. The SME emails you back saying, “I thought that list was just an FYI. I didn’t realize you needed me to do anything. Sorry about that. I’ll work on it today.” What happened? It’s like you need a translation guide to communicate.

Communication is a two-way street. And it makes a big difference. If the instructional designer (ID) and SME don’t understand one another that’s going to cause problems. With that said, let’s look at what an ID/SME translation guide might look like.

Translation Guide for IDs

  • Coordinate with the SME in advance to set up when and how you should send them questions. Are they okay with getting an email every time there’s a question? Do they prefer to get a consolidated Excel sheet at the end of the day?
  • Thank the SME whenever they send you a file or answer a question. That way they’ll know that you received it and you appreciate their time and expertise.
  • Feel free to ask the SME about anything they said or wrote that you don’t understand. They love explaining things but sometimes forget that they use words other people don’t know.
  • Try not to use ID jargon.
  • Give directions and examples of the type of feedback you’re looking for when you ask them to review something.
  • Set up reviews where the SME doesn’t need to do a lot of typing. Using an Excel sheet with dropdown options is one way to do this. This gets you basic information, like storyboard numbers, without making the SME write them out every time. It also makes sure the format is always the same.
  • Send the SME reference images when you ask them questions. Even if they already have the needed files, it’s easier and faster for them to have everything in one place.
  • Tell the SME exactly what you need from them. It’s easier for them to answer direct questions than it is to provide general answers. Ex. “Do you have any ideas for making this feedback more realistic?” instead of “Can you help with this question?”
  • Be clear about deadlines.
  • Respect the SME’s experience and try to work with them. You’re good at putting the puzzle pieces together, but the SME has the pieces with the needed pictures.

Translation Guide for SMEs

  • When an ID marks something as “urgent,” “hot,” or something like that they need the answer right away. It’s probably something you already know and can answer quickly. But if they don’t get the answer in time it will cause delays.
  • Let the ID know if you don’t have time to answer a question or review a document right away. That way they’ll know that you received it and aren’t ignoring them.
  • Feel free to ask the ID about anything they said or wrote that you don’t understand. They love explaining things but sometimes forget that they use words other people don’t know.
  • Try not to use your industry’s jargon in regular communications. Or explain the terms so the ID will know what they mean.
  • Give constructive feedback when you’re asked to review something.
  • Let the ID know if there’s something in the content that you’re not sure about. Remember to get the answer and let them know about it.
  • Your replies should answer questions clearly. Ex. If the ID asks, “Which of these do you prefer?” don’t reply with “Looks good.” That doesn’t tell them which one you like. If you like both options say that you like both options.
  • Tell the ID if you need something from them. They’re usually happy to help speed up the process if it’s within their power.
  • Keep track of deadlines. Let the ID know if you can’t make them.
  • Respect the ID’s experience and try to work with them. You have the pieces to the puzzle, but they can help put them together to create a clear picture for the learners.


IDs and SMEs can do lots of things to work together. And it’s better for everyone when things don’t get lost in translation.

If you’d like to read more about training, learning, and instructional design check out the rest of this author’s blogs.

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