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Pharmarama: best practice in digital learning design for the pharmaceutical industry

Blog posts | 10.05.2021


Shaping the future of learning

AstraZeneca or Pfizer? Viral vector or RNA? And what’s the R rate where you are? 

It seems like we’re all talking a new language these days, adopting scientific terms that many of us couldn’t have imagined getting our heads around a couple of years ago. Rarely have so many people been so directly impacted by a collected pharmaceutical leap of progress as in this last year. So now seems like the perfect opportunity to celebrate the altruism, expertise and dedication that run like arteries through the pharmaceutical industry.    

We love all our clients, but in this post we’re shining some extra love on our fellow learning friends in pharma, by looking at best practice in digital learning design for the pharmaceutical industry. Note: these tips have been tested on humans.   

What’s special and different for our pharma clients?

To find out more about the unique challenges of learning design for pharma organisations, who better to ask than one of our resident learning design experts? We put on our safety goggles and went knocking at the door of Tom Adams, who is the Design Lead on our biggest pharmaceutical account. He says:

 “As an industry, generally speaking, pharma is fast-moving and increasingly regulated and competitive. There’s a cultural mindset of innovation and continuous process improvement, all of which is being underpinned by digitisation and data. So as learning designers, it’s important to understand the wider context and culture we’re operating in.” 

So, when leaders need their people to keep up with fast-moving change, learning needs more than ever to be relevant, personalised, and meaningful, and to translate into practical action and behavioural change. 

So what does this mean for learning design?

Like any industry, organisations may need both specialist and non-specialist training. Non-specialist training subjects might include leadership and management, data protection, anti-money laundering, and so on. Specialist or technical scientific training subjects are where learning designers need to pause and reflect before plunging in. Traditionally a lot of our learning designers come from a writing, teaching or humanities background, so how can they get to grips with designing scientific content if they haven’t touched a Bunsen burner since they were 14? Tom says:

“Differences come when the content is focused on detailed, scientifically-rigorous content that is part of the day-to-day reality for individuals who work in pharma. There’s a requirement on the designer to understand the industry context and expectations that come from the audience. That is around the rigour and consistency applied to scientific data: familiarity with peer-reviewed journal articles that look at different medical interventions, evidence and methodology. So, we need to get up to speed with that complexity and rigour that doesn’t always apply to other industries.” 

What does that mean in practice?

Learning designers, writers and graphic designers need to work with an industry-standard language, both textual and graphical. For example, they must understand how to visually represent complex graphs, detailed experimentation methodologies and lengthy equations in a clear and consistent way, aligning with the conventions of scientific research and discourse. It’s essential to cite sources and give proper accreditations, and to ensure that the data that’s represented within the learning is as precise and accurate as you would find in a research paper. 

As Tom says:

“These things don’t leap out at you if you’re not from that world, they are harder to identify for a lay person, but if you’re a biopharmaceutical production scientist you will fully expect the content to be presented in exactly the right way. If it’s not, it will detract from the authenticity of the content, the learner’s engagement and the effectiveness of the training.” 

So how to avoid that happening? As ever, the solution is to engage early: 

“The answer is to work closely with the subject matter expert early on to understand the correct terminology, to become fully conversant with the vocabulary and graphical layouts, and to ensure the content is thoroughly checked. Also, it’s essential to immerse yourself in the relevant media, articles, online papers, and so on.”

But much of our best practice is still valid. The essential principles of learning design still apply, such as presenting material in a meaningful flow, chunking it into digestible blocks, and aligning to defined objectives. So, what’s different? Tom explains:

“There’s a temptation to make an assumption that the audience might find material dry or intimidating, because it might seem that way to a lay person. But for this audience, that’s not the case. They are very familiar with technical content and will bring a sophisticated eye to the learning. So, the learning designer also needs to be mindful to use questions that ask the learner to reflect and apply knowledge, not simply show comprehension and retention.”


How to bring creativity and make it add value?

Non-specialist content can benefit from a creative treatment using storylines, analogies, drama – any of the tools in the learning designer’s toolbox – and can be particularly welcome in an industry that values innovation. But technical content requires a different approach. Tom says: 

“In one of my projects, we created a scenario with fictional characters and a mini storyline, but ultimately this didn’t feel right. It felt like an over-simplification. So we changed the creative treatment to internal experts sharing their views through selfie videos. They talk the language that resonates with the learners and bring the authenticity and real world experience that gives the learning weight and impact. It just felt right.”


Top tips

So, what top tips do we have for our pharma clients preparing to create digital learning? Tom says:

“Get your different stakeholders and SMEs involved together early. A field of expertise can be broad and varied, so different SMEs might have their expertise grounded in different studies and different perspectives on core concepts. It makes sense to bring that diversity of views together early on and get SMEs to collaborate on creating the material together, rather than have one person create it and another person review it later on.” 

Another top tip for when you’re creating the content and facing the eternal dilemmas of what to include and what not to include, is to imagine that you’re talking to a learner (use personas if that helps – we can draw them up with you) and use that as a guide to indicate the level of detail that’s needed. Be aware of how much time the learner has and how long it will take them to take in that information.   

So, as we put Tom back in his fume cupboard, what can we take away from his words of wisdom for designing digital learning for the pharmaceutical industry? As ever, as a learning designer, it is crucial to step into the shoes of your learner (nothing open-toed in case of chemical spillage), and to immerse yourself in the industry culture, content conventions and visual language. And for clients preparing to embark on digital learning, use the tips above on content creation to prepare your SMEs and your content for the fun-packed journey ahead.

If you'd like to talk to us about any aspect of digital learning get in touch - we're here to help.


Shaping the future of learning

Kineo helps the world’s leading businesses improve performance through learning and technology. We’re proud of our reputation for being flexible and innovative, and of our award-winning work with clients across the world.