How harnessing design can help pharma connect with patients and customers and save lives

Good design is probably not something most people would associate with the pharma industry, but those working in design agencies are keen to emphasise that it can impact far more than a company’s image.

“Health related sectors need human-centred design thinking for purposeful brand and marketing strategies and products, but also with the increased need to connect directly with the end-user,” says Lee Fasciani, founder of branding and digital product design agency Territory Projects. “Good design that puts the user at the heart of the solution can create clarity and integrity in a product, create a service that helps to attract and engage the right customers/users and increase brand loyalty.”

This can include the design for digital products like apps (e.g. user interface and user experience design), brand communications, and also drug packaging, where patients medicating correctly can mean the difference between recovery and decline.

“Packaging design can generate significant value, clarifying the complex, and indicating understanding and support,” says Thom Newton, CEO and managing partner of Conran Design. “For example, the majority of existing medical product packaging doesn’t account for the one in five people globally that have little to no basic reading skills. With an ageing population and an ever-increasing number of complex treatments, companies have an ethical responsibility to ensure product signposting is straightforward.”

But despite the many benefits of good design, it seems pharma has not embraced it as much as it should have. Conran Design conducted research last year analysing 44,800 interactions on Twitter between patients and 14 global pharmaceutical brands, and found that:

  • 43% of pharma brands are failing to align with patient needs online and this is negatively impacting customer experience
  • Pharma brands that are emotionally disconnected to patients generate 15% more anger and 10% more disgust compared to the industry benchmark
  • Pharma brands that are emotionally ‘connected’ to patients generate 8% more trust from patients compared to the industry benchmark
  • The study suggests that pharma brands need to become more emotionally connected to patients to build longer-term customer relationships

“The study findings pointed to a real disconnect between the intended objective of the messages delivered by pharma companies and the way that they are being perceived by consumers,” says Newton.

“Medical product packaging is a key point of interaction between patients, practitioners and healthcare companies. Historically, it has largely been led by regulatory guidelines, with what seems like little consideration for the patient, carer or practitioner’s needs. Companies have in many cases been alienating the very people they are trying to help. If implemented successfully, good design helps the patient experience become more inclusive and human, enabling companies to better communicate their product and purpose. This will not only improve consumer understanding of the product but will also leverage brand difference at the point of interaction.”

Newton adds: “Design can offer a powerful point of connection. It’s proven to help patients feel supported both practically, in terms of clarity of guidance, and emotionally, in terms of the care and consideration being given by companies to their circumstances.”
Vicki Young, CEO of Nalla Design, agrees: “From working within the pharma and healthcare sector I’ve found that many businesses focus on explaining the scientific approach or chemical explanation ahead of focusing on communicating the outcomes/benefits of what the product does and ensuring it’s got the end user in mind and is desirable for them. Often businesses forget that they are dealing with real people not symptoms only.

“It’s vital to consider the needs of your audience. What I mean by that is to consider the consumers’ wants and needs; how they might receive something, not only at launch but right from the product development stage.

“We’ve found that good design doesn’t just affect a patient’s opinion on your business, but can actually change their outlook on the disease or disorder they are suffering from.”

It is important, then, to consider the patient in every element of design.

“Patient needs should be paramount within the design process,” says Fasciani. “To gain market traction, a product needs to be useful to the end user/service provider. The product should solve problems or enhance information – and we need to understand the user’s perspective on that throughout the design process.”

What good design looks like

Fasciani says that one way Territory Projects seeks to apply these lessons is to create common threads throughout every aspect of  the design.

“Design plays different roles within the industry, from branding to packaging, interactive installations to personalised digital healthcare. Every one of these touchpoints should be underpinned by what we like to call a ‘Brand DNA’. For the product or service to gain traction and trust, marketers, suppliers and consumers need to thoroughly understand it – and they need a consistency of communication.

“The application of a coherent brand to a digital product (logo, colourways, tone of voice, etc.) should provide an assurance of integrity that builds trust.

“This is helped by offering clear information about how patient information is used, how to access support, provide feedback, and the security measures in place.”

Fasciani adds that designing and signposting a clear hierarchy of information that addresses what a user needs to know, when they need to know it and distilling complex information into simple, essential messages are two other key elements of design to consider.

In packaging, Newton says that colours and iconography must play a clearer role in identifying medicines and clarifying dosage in order to overcome miscommunication problems through language or literacy issues: “Pharmaceutical companies need to improve the clarity of product information, increase pack and leaflet navigation and use design to ensure that product variants are defined quickly and easily.”

Young echoes these points by saying that building a strong design for a brand involves consistency, clarity and communication.
“Powerful brands find it effortless to talk to their customers and future customers in a powerful way,” she says. “This is because they have a set of tools that we in the design world refer to as assets, using visual cues that capture the company’s values such as colour, tone of voice and logo, ensuring all of their messaging is consistent and coherent.

“Clarity can come in the form of product design (such as a physical dispenser) or interface (if it’s a digital product). Considering the user first is key to giving clarity on what the problem or challenge is. Design is essentially the tool used to solve problems and a design thinking methodology is useful in ensuring that your investment in design remains on track to answering a genuine problem or ‘user need’ by putting the customer first and designing it so it’s easier to use ensures that your product has the best advantage of adoption.

“Finally, ensuring that the brand has one voice and a clearly communicated purpose (why a business exists) is a core advantage. A powerful tool is communicating the benefits of your healthcare product or service – such as the pack design that helps explain to a consumer the product benefits and drives them to purchase your product over another or communicates clearly to the medical profession the benefits of your service. People will only buy what they understand and this needs to be done easily and without too much effort on the customers’ behalf.”

Newton concludes: “Our responsibility within the creative industry is to make sure that we approach design in healthcare with a thorough understanding of both the needs of the audiences and the regulatory complexities of the industry. We must plot the most effective course between compliance, clarity and creative impact. Great design can unite these, often conflicting, requirements and help shape a new healthcare experience that benefits all.”