How to avoid putting lipstick on a pig

Pig requesting lipstickWhich of the following requests do you hear more often?

  1. “Please help us find the best instructional approach.”
  2. “Please put this material online and make it look good.”

If you hear B more often than A, you’re not alone. I posed this question to participants in the eLearning Guild’s recent online forum, and most people chose B.

One participant was asked to “put lipstick on the pig” (from the idiom, “You can put lipstick on a pig but it’s still a pig.”).

“Our term is the ‘make it pretty’ people,” another participant said.

Cosmeticians on strike!

Some existing materials can go online and be effective with only some tweaking. Often, however, existing materials need more than cosmetics–they need surgery. How can we convince stakeholders of that?

Here are four ideas, but I’ll need your help to find more solutions.

1. Focus on activities, not information

To help avoid information dumps, you might take your stakeholders and SMEs through the following steps:

A. Identify the business goal–specify in concrete terms how the business will benefit from the project.

Example: “Mega-widget sales will increase 6% by Q3.”

B. Identify the real-world behaviors people must take to reach that business goal.

Example: “Identify which mega-widget will best meet each customer’s needs.”

C. Brainstorm activities that will help learners practice the real-world behaviors.

Example: A fictional customer explains what they need. The learner selects the best mega-widget and defends their choice.

D. Identify the minimum information the learners need to complete each activity.

Example: To complete the activity, the learners need to know the features of each mega-widget and what benefits each feature brings.

E. Cut everything else.

Example: Delete the history of widgets, detailed information about mini-widgets, and the flowchart showing the widget parts supply chain.

This approach emphasizes practical activities, not information, and it encourages you to cut everything that doesn’t directly support the business goal. Most existing materials use the opposite approach–they have a vague goal, provide too much information, and have few, if any, activities.

If you make the above approach your standard and take everyone through it, stakeholders might understand when their materials need to be overhauled.

In future posts, I’ll go into more detail about each step.

2. Don’t let SMEs create PowerPoints

As forum participants pointed out, subject matter experts (SMEs) spend a lot of time choosing their words and images, so naturally they don’t want things to be changed. This increases the pressure to simply put their work online.

One solution: Ask SMEs to do an informal “brain dump.” Encourage them to type a Word document without fancy formatting, speak into a voice recorder, or (possibly best) let you interview them. Point out that this will take a lot less of their time and will probably capture more information. The benefit to you: SMEs will feel less ownership of the materials, leaving you free to find the best instructional approach.

3. Show stakeholders sample activities or courses

To get people to focus on activities rather than information, mock up some sample activities or show them existing ones. You might find some ideas on the elearning samples page.

4. Arm yourself with research

Books like e-Learning and the Science of Instruction and Efficiency in Learning will help you keep conversations focused on instructional value, not personal taste.

5… What else?

What has worked for you? How do you help stakeholders understand when a quick conversion isn’t the best solution? How do you encourage SMEs to collaborate with you as consultants rather than authors? What else have I missed? Let us know in the comments!

Photo: ©iStockPhoto/ZE14361


  1. Hi Cathy,

    This is certainly a very interesting post.

    I have seen so many such SMEs who send content in Powerpoint presentations and want the same content to be put as it is in the elearning course.

    I really appreciate that you have brought out some interesting points in your post.

  2. Re: How do you encourage SMEs to collaborate with you as consultants rather than authors?

    Educate them on what you do. The “everybody’s a trainer” mentality – that what we do is something anybody can do – is a unique opportunity to educate SMEs. For me, it led to respect. Sometimes it meant getting a little assertive – “I don’t presume to know your job….so let me help you understand what I do…”

  3. Maria Hlas says:

    These are really good points and Janet proposes a good way to help with the job separation question (I do this, you do that). As far as #3 on showing samples, this is great. Sometimes showing them examples of activities and interactivity also proves that you can create something they probably can’t. Presenting screen after screen of information with some clipart thrown in – anyone can do that (but probably shouldn’t!) Sometimes the activities and creative treatment of information is the knock on the head they need to see where your talents as an instructional designer go beyond what an SME can come up with.

    One caution is that if you know the subject material, objectives, etc. try to tailor the examples you show. When I was a consultant, we did this when we could, but you do have to be careful they don’t fixate on something. We sometimes had clients who thought a certain activity or type of interaction was so great, they wanted it in every course, whether it made sense or not. Then we had to work to make them understand when it was appropriate to apply this type of approach and back them off. But then that is where the education and research to back things up can come in.

  4. V yonkers says:

    I think the most important thing to do is to start with making sure they have defined what they hope to accomplish (this was brought up in the online conference on corporate trends in e-learning). Once you know what they want to accomplish (for example, perhaps all they want to accomplish is compliance with a law making sure all employees have been exposed to information verbatim), it is easier to develop a strategy the works best. Sometimes you do have to put lipstick on a pig to gain student interest. Let’s face it, even though its a pig, you’re going to look at it more intently if it has lipstick on it! And if the goal is to identify the pig later on, just putting lipstick on it will meet the objectives. Other times, if there are outcomes that require more complex learning, however, you need to be able to demonstrate how a more complex design will achieve their goals (and be ready to back it up with facts and figures–such as previous training and how it impacted sales or revenue for example).

  5. Thanks, everyone, for your ideas. I like the suggested ways to challenge the “everyone’s a trainer” mindset. Another idea that might need challenging is “an instructional designer is someone who knows Tool X.” So when we show a creative activity to a SME or client, we need to help them understand that it was the creativity, not the tool, that made the activity appealing.

    It can be fun to get a client to identify what exactly they’re trying to do, because sometimes their answer really is “Just get the pig out there.” My mission is to save the world from boring elearning, so I’m tempted to get annoying and say, “But WHY?” over and over again like a 7-year-old.

  6. I’d augment the PowerPoint tip by saying don’t let the SMEs give you formatted PowerPoint slides. I like when they use PowerPoint because they know how to use the tool and they can put placeholders and other content on the screen.

    It’s also a great storyboarding tool even if you end up building your course in something other than a PPT to flash tool. The challenge is getting the SME’s to think outside of the PPT box.

    I think one of the challenges we have with SMEs is that we don’t come prepared. The SME usually knows elearning from the perspective of the courses they’ve seen or ILT type training. It’s our job to show them a different perspective.

    Another reality is that sometimes all you need is a pic. Why not get her dolled up and call it good:)

  7. We toss around the term “subject-matter expert” freely. My colleague John Howe makes what I think is a very useful distinction between subject-matter expert and exemplar — the latter term meaning an expert practitioner.

    What’s the difference? An exemplar is someone who currently does the job in question, and who’s seen by the organization as a expert in producing the results the job calls for.

    All too often, the subject-matter expert is someone who used to do the job. And the longer ago that “used to” is, the greater the risk that the subject-matter expert will provide folklore, ritual, or war stories.

    Few things will be as anti-lipstick as the experience and input of someone who has to do this job today.

  8. That’s a good point Dave. One of my first goals is to get as close to the real experts who are doing the job rather than the person who used to do the job but now manages those people.

  9. > How do you encourage SMEs to collaborate with you as consultants rather than authors?

    In my experience, SMEs never have enough time, they are rarely compensated for working on e-learning and nobody cuts them slack on their daily duties, so working on e-learning is mostly unpaid overtime for them. As a result you can easily push them into believing that a quick interview will save them time and effort, and they tell you “Do whatever you want as long as whoever is in charge of elearning is happy”.

  10. While I agree with most of what you have suggested, the idea of identifying a specific business goal is very subjective and out of scope. At the most the ID can identify the goal as “Sales staff will become more efficient”.
    But to specify it as you have is more of the sales manager’s domain. Increasing sales performance is related to increasing staff effectiveness and efficiency.
    However, I do agree that clients dump content and want to make it look better rather than perform any L&D kind of task for their employees.

  11. Karuna, thanks for your comment. While it isn’t the instructional designer’s job to set performance goals for the organization, I strongly feel that it’s their job to know those goals and to uncover them if necessary by asking clients to be more specific.

    For example, if a manager goes to an ID and says, “We need a course about widgets for our salespeople,” the ID could do two things.

    1. He or she could say, “OK. Give me all the information you have about widgets.” The result: an information dump about all the features of all widgets.

    2. OR, the ID could ask, “Why do you need a course about widgets?” The resulting discussion could go something like this:

    Manager: My department won’t make its sales goals unless the salespeople sell more widgets.

    ID: How many more widgets do they need to sell?

    Manager: We need to increase sales by at least 5% in the next six months.

    ID: Does the problem affect all types of widgets?

    Manager: No, it’s mostly the mega-widgets that aren’t selling. I think the salespeople don’t know how to upsell from micro-widgets to mega-widgets.

    The result from this would be a far more focused and activity-based course on how to persuade customers that a mega-widget would be the best solution to their problem.

    While it’s not the ID’s job to set strategy for the company, I do think it’s the ID’s job to uncover and clearly state the performance problem before designing a solution for it.

  12. Wow… just found this website… Touche’

    Relationship is everything. I work in an industry where egos abound.

    For a host of reasons, SMEs often feel that because they are the masters of their profession, they naturally have mastered ours too.

    Unfortunately, they aren’t far off when I look around and see some of the design that has been passed off as “professional” in the past.

    So what to do?

    I find it helpful to sit down with the Project Manager and the SME beforehand to define roles and responsibilities. How THAT is briefed carries over into how the next part goes.

    I then sit down with the SME and guide him/her as he/she puts together a Task List, from which we’ll draw the objectives for each medium and subsequent Lesson.

    Next, I’ve found that a “Smart Board” (or white board if that’s all you have) can really help. I do the drawing and writing on the Board. The SME sits at an adjacent table.

    The SME and I take those objectives and “storyboard” on the Smart Board. I ask a lot of questions, and make it a point to hold on to the marker. I’ve found that this allows me to better-guide the conversation. It also allows me to apply screen-design on the front end so the SME and I both know what is going to be on-screen later.

    If the SME has a preference, I can weigh it at this time and either adjust to accommodate, or explain why that might not be the most effective and efficient way to present it.

    When we are done with the Smart Board work, we then have a product we both buy into and can go back to the Project Manager with the plan for approval.

    After that, I either produce the Storyboards into the deliverable myself, or “contract” it out to a developer.

    I tap the SME for technical input, and when complete, we get the PM’s final approval for distribution and delivery.

    Easy as pie!

    Then I wake up from my daydream as the SME directs me to nudge his stick-figure graphic 3 points over to the right on the screen and not to change his blazing puce background with neon orange font because he thinks it’s cool!!! 😉

    but seriously, SME’s get a bad rap sometimes, and frankly, some deserve it; but I’ve found that bad situations are usually the result of poor front-end planning, poor role clarification, weak management support, Designer incompetence, or failure of the Designer to establish boundaries.

    My one cent,


  13. Daniel Goldberg says:

    Cathy, I would love to see you come up with a blue-print similar to your eLearning Blueprint for other types of training instructional design, like ILT or immersive learning experiences. I’m sure a lot of concepts would be the same but there are probably some major differences in the execution.

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