Comments on The Specialized Web: Working with Subject-Matter Experts

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  1. Thank you Amanda, an interesting article. As a web developer it is always difficult to keep up with the latest technologies, however, in this article you talk about skills such as communication that are just as valuable and that have obviously been around a lot longer. I find discussing web strategy with a SME very challenging. The tendency is for the conversation to become about how the website should look and what content goes where. However, from this article I have learned that these topics should come much later in the process. Next time I have a conversation with an SME I will ensure I take the time to find out more about their area and tap into some of that knowledge. At times I realise that I might make them uneasy when talking immediately about web strategies and concepts that might make take them outside of their comfort zone. In the ideal scenario where there is humility and respect for people we work with, we would all feel like we can add value and that surely would make for a more productive meeting.


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  2. Ok I think you got your terms confused. The professor is THE key stakeholder. The Fact she is the SME for her field of study is secondary. You are the SME in web development and you should understand she is the web site owner. Basically you are working for her so treat her with respect and try not to force your ideas and concepts during the initial meeting.

    If you had approached her by asking 4 basic questions (below). And if you had let her dictate the direction of the conversation. You might have gotten a very different result.

    I use these simple questions and listen and take notes. Expand on the topics with follow-up questions.  Understanding her point of view is critical to the redesign process.

    1. What do you like about the current website (include process)?
    2. What don’t you like about the current website (include process)?
    3. What is your wish-list for the new web site?
    4. What do you need from the new site?

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  3. Paolo, you hit the nail on the head. I don’t even bring a laptop or tablet to the first meeting or two that I have with an SME. We don’t look at designs or layouts or anything. We talk about target audience, we talk about goals—not web site goals, but goals outside the web site that the site could help to achieve. It’s amazing how, as Amanda said, *listening* to people about their needs and fears helps to make a better project all around.

    Dave, I have to disagree with one of your comments. The professor is not the key stakeholder. The user of that web site (often a student, researcher, or grant funding agency) is the key stakeholder. We don’t build web sites for professors, we build web sites about professors and their work so that people other than the professor can learn, read, understand, and act. As I often tell my SME colleagues, “You are not your target audience.” As a web SME, I have a much better understanding of their target audience than they do—or I have the tools at my disposal to figure them out, if I don’t know already.

    This is, of course, somewhat different in industry—where one has paying customers, no governing body that may have complementary or competing interests, no “part of a monolithic whole” where everyone has to fit in, but everyone also is a unique snowflake. But higher ed is a different world. We’re not trying to convert visitors into customers (except in an admission sense, of course).

    What you explain is a service-bureau model (which many schools still have!), involving a low-level web designer or developer listening to what the SME wants, and then doing it. A (superstar) content strategist such as Amanda is, you’re right, an SME, but she’s not an SME in just web development, she’s the SME in how to identify, and then best serve the users of the *university’s* web site. She’s an SME in web content, in converting a narrative into a web site using words, art, layout, color, typography, and overall architecture to convert the original SME’s information and goals into something more than a brochure she could have written herself.

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  4. Kerri you are confusing Key Stakeholder with Target Audience.

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  5. As someone who’s wetting their feet into whole web development and promotions thing, your article is a great help for me to understand further what I can do for our site. It’s hard to keep up with the rapid changes but we will get by.

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  6. Thanks for writing this from an in-house perspective. I was in-house for many years and was frustrated by the dearth of articles discussing these dynamics.

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  7. Thank for very interesting article. You think and you done it. You are right. A site developing is very difficult and more difficult is unique content writing. Than target set up. Than optimization to bring visitors on site. You choose specialists and follow their instructions. Now you succeeded.

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  8. Sounds like your two meetings occurred in reverse order. The first should be listening and the second meeting is the one where you present your ideas. It’s a good reminder that we must listen first before we expect to accomplish anything.

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  9. Great article, Amanda! Listening is the first and most important step with SMEs - I could not agree more. Taking the time to draw out why people are being difficult is also so important. Like you said, everyone brings baggage to the table, and it takes time to build trust and break down old walls. I often think to myself that I’m not really running web redesign projects so much as I’m running cultural change management projects where the web redesign represents the primary shift in thinking and behavior.

    So many projects live and die based on the human relationships that are tended or neglected throughout. Brilliant strategy and breathtaking design will never overcome mistrust, doubt, fear and bitterness on their own. Groundbreaking technology will never solve people problems. Healthy human relationships are the foundation for success on all fronts, and the foundation to healthy relationships is the ability to listen well!

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  10. Sorry, commenting is closed on this article.