eLearning Software Recommendations for the Subject Matter Expert (SME)

Posted by bryanzug - 2006/02/03

I get asked a lot about what tools to use for creating software training eLearning.

I usually break things down into two specialist areas — that of the Subject Matter Expert (SME) and that of the Technical Producer. This post covers my short list of recommendations for the SME.

Producing eLearning is unique in that we are often asking people who have little background (or interest!) in full blown multimedia design to create multimedia lessons that are then aggregated, in various ways, to create courses.

To a typical SME, having to learn a second career as a multimedia developer is pretty discouraging.


Because it removes them from the natural habitat of their knowledge base (which is the reason you’ve asked them to be a SME in the first place — there’s a post in there somewhere about the care and feeding of SME’s, but I digress).

It is only natural that we want SME’s to have easy tools and methods at their disposal in order to rapidly prototype their content (you can probably tell I have one hand raised in favor of agile development).

Here’s my short list of SME tool categories with quick explanations of each of my picks.

Lesson Creation

Adobe Captivate (formerly Macromedia Captivate — $500 list)

I’ve used Captivate most over the past few years as my content creation tool of choice.

Captivate combines sequential object aware screen capture with a PowerPoint on steroids approach that leaves most SME’s feeling empowered (instead of intimidated). It also has tools to build in pretty nice interactive simulations and is SCORM compliant.

(SCORM compliancy for tools is something that deserves an article in itself — In short this is an industry standard that enables tools, systems, and content to talk to one another — ergo, you want to make sure any lesson creation tool you use is SCORM compliant.)

Go to this case study I wrote last year for MX Developers Journal for the details of why I used this tool for a particular project.

The short scoop — Captivate is easy for the SME’s to rough out their lessons, then the content can be pushed out to various formats for editorial review or further technical development (Microsoft .doc, compiled Flash .swf, developer Flash .fla).

Knowledge Planet’s Firefly ($10,000 list)

A tool that I have not had a chance to use but have been pretty impressed with in demo’s is Knowledge Planet’s Firefly. Don’t let the fact that it’s hard to find Firefly details on their web site fool you — this thing is powerful (see a Firefly demo here).

It is also SCORM compliant and does just about everything that Captivate does — but, instead of capturing screenshots of software, Firefly builds an interactive mimic of the entire application interface of anything you are capturing.

Not only does it provide a richer experience that feels much more like the real app, it also provide multiple task paths that SME’s can easily edit. (i.e. What’s the ‘correct’ way to print in Word?). This, combined with an instructionally sound “See, Try, Do, Test” lesson model may make Firefly worth the $$ (which I often see discounted every quarter to $5000 sans personal training).

Image Editing

I’m a firm believer that eLearning content prototyping should not bottleneck at the door of the geeks (read graphic designers and multimedia developers).

I don’t know about you, but my teams always have way too much great content to produce to wait around for anything that impedes the rapid prototyping process.

I say, let the designers create the master styles and set the SME’s free to rapidly storyboard their stuff.

As such, every SME needs to know how to do simple image formatting (crop, resize, outline, drop shadow) and they need an easy to use tool to do it.

Adobe Fireworks (formerly Macromedia — $300 list)

Fireworks is my tool of choice for editing images for the screen (this applies to SME’s as well as multimedia devs). It combines the best of pixel and vector image editing features into a single tool and keeps everything in a layered and fully editable .png file.

With the Adobe acquisition of Macromedia, it’s unclear what Fireworks future will be, given that it inhabits a middle space between the Adobe heavyweights of Photoshop and Illustrator.

For now, it’s still my tool of choice because I think it does the best job of handling this space without being an intimidating tool – again, a very important variable for the SME.

Version Control

Whenever a lot of file collaboration is necessary, version control software becomes imperative. The last thing you every want to do is lose vital pieces of work (which is easy to do if you are passing files around among even a few participants).

Microsoft Visual SourceSafe (VSS)

The standalone version of Microsoft Visual SourceSafe is the tool I’ve used most often on my teams. Problem is that it is woefully outdated in it’s standalone form (thought it’s great if everybody is an up to date Visual Studio developer — good luck with SME’s on that).

Microsoft’s standalone product offerings on this have been so lame for so long, that I’m actively looking for an alternate solution. (And, no, Microsoft’s Sharepoint is not a solution for this in my book – it wasn’t built for multimedia files and is more difficult to manage over the long haul than even the old standalone versions of VSS).


The tool that has generated the most buzz for standalone version control of late is called Subversion. While I have not used the tool, it (along with some accessories) looks very interesting. (e.g. Tortoise adds Subversion control to Windows via right click menuing in the file explorer).

If I were setting up a new environment, I would definitely take a look at Subversion. Did I mention that it is open source and free?

That’s the short scoop. These recommendations, of course, are all predicated on the supposition that you have a Learning Management System (LMS) and a Learning Content Management System (LCMS) to feed content through.

Feel free to send alternate suggestions in the comments — always interested in hearing about alternate solutions.

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