Should Subject Matter Experts (SME’s) be in the UX group?

For most of my design career, I did not have a subject matter expert (SME) to work with when I was  designing a user experience.  Of course, I have limited experience – at Digital Equipment Corporatoiio FTP Software, Iris/Lotus/IBM. None of those companies had subject matter experts to help with the design. For example, when working on DEC Fortran, I didn’t have Fortran progammers hanging around to tell me how they worked. When I worked at Iris/Lotus/IBM I worked mainly on end-user software like instant messaging and email, so I didn’t need a subject matter expert.

However, in my 2 most recent jobs, there have been subject matter experts. At SolidWorks, there were “Product definition specialists” who really understood 3D CAD modeling. They reported into another department -still in engineering (I think), but not officially part of a UX Group. At EMC, in my UXD group, I have 3 “use case architects”, who are basically subject matter experts. They have been network and storage administrators. They have provisioned and diagnosed, etc.

These people are instrumental in helping the interaction desginers do their jobs – because the interaction designers (While they might have access to a test server running  the various management software) do not actually manage, monitor, or run any data centers.

While I am glad to have them – I wonder if the best place to put them is in a UX group. Maybe it is. I am certainly NOT trying to get rid of them. These people help not only the interaction designers, but also Product management, marketing, and quality assurance.  Is there a best place to put such SME’s so that  they have the best possible influence on the development of a product? What is your experience?

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  1. #1 by Stephan H. Wissel on January 7, 2013 - 21:12

    I would say absolutely. ISO 9241 defines usability as the extend that a given task can be completed by a given set of users with effectiveness, efficiency and satisfaction.
    So when you design a system for a specific audience, it is good to have that specific audience in your focus group.
    This is what once happened to me:
    In the dark ages (think DOS, 80×25 screens) I was designing an accounting system. I felt that hacking in account numbers was so cumbersome, so I drafted a UI with a nice dropdown (mouse activated – yes mouse on character display) to select accounts by name. Luckily we ran that draft past the accountants who were supposed to use that later.
    When I explained the UI and the reason, they laughed at me and shared, that every accountant knows the account numbers better than her/his own name and birthdate.
    We ended up designing the entry screen to be usable entirely from the right hand side numeric keyboard (with some fancy use of the / * – + buttons), so an accountant would have one hand free to siff through the paper trails while entering data.
    Without the SME in the focus group we would have missed that entirely.

  2. #2 by Mary Beth Raven on January 7, 2013 - 22:52

    Stephan – great comments and good anecdote! I am learning the most from my Subject matter experts – the “use case architects” – because I already know a lot about UI design and usability – I am learning most by learning the new domain- storage and network management – from them.

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