Design Thinking: A Human-Centered Approach for Pharma

Thinking like a designer can prove transformational in improving the customer experience and fulfilling deep-seated desires.



According to Marie Hartmann, Design Director and Partner at Designit, a team with over 300 experts who aim to create experiences that are enabled by technology, “Design has always been about problem solving and creating something better.” And what better environment to problem solve and improve than the pharma industry? Indeed, while design is a concept that has traditionally been linked with creative professions, looking at some of the most innovative companies reveals that design is now strongly integrated into businesses. Design is no longer limited to artists, graphic designers or architects, but it is a tool for innovation that businesses, including pharma organizations, must necessarily integrate.

“A human-centered approach to innovation that draws from the designer’s toolkit to integrate the needs of people, the possibilities of technology, and the requirements for business success.”

So, what exactly is design thinking? Tim Brown, President and CEO of IDEO, an innovations company that aims to make an impact through design, defines design thinking as, “A human-centered approach to innovation that draws from the designer’s toolkit to integrate the needs of people, the possibilities of technology, and the requirements for business success.”

Hartmann agrees, adding, “When designers approach a problem, the primary and most important consideration is always the end user.” For pharma, design thinking means using design to drive ideas to better connect with and serve patient experience. Given the current demand for more patient-centered products and services, design thinking can be viewed as a core competence that can set a pharma company apart from the rest.

A design with patient experience at the center

While the end goal of design thinking, in the context of healthcare, is to elicit a simple yet meaningful patient experience, the design flow that leads to that goal is far from simple. Pharma needs to be responsive and intuitive, as well as account for patient behavior and personalities. By putting the user experience at the forefront, the end product or service needs to communicate emotionally, which requires a cultural shift in the way many pharma professionals think. For strict rational thinkers who depend solely on quantitative data in making decisions, Brown points to a quote on the IDEO website: “Nobody wants to run an organization on feeling, intuition, and inspiration, but an over-reliance on the rational and the analytical can be just as risky.”

Design thinking can also be challenging due to the fact that companies aren’t usually created with the primary intention of understanding the patient’s journey. “The user experience is often just a by-product of the service provider’s organizational structure and processes,” explains Hartmann.

However, if big pharma is ready for the challenge, design thinking can be used to improve technology, organizational processes, drug manufacturing, and many other processes. GE Healthcare, for instance, has a named role dedicated to making meaningful experiences come alive through end products and services. According to Greg Petroff, GE’s Chief Patient Officer, “I am responsible for the experience that our customers have with GE’s software and platform for developing software. The role sits between user experience design and marketing, and is focused on the touch points our customers and users have with us and making those moments spectacular and useful.”

“Nobody wants to run an organization on feeling, intuition, and inspiration, but an over-reliance on the rational and the analytical can be just as risky.”

Pharma can adopt design thinking to provide clear and simple experiences that really get to the heart of patients, without having the need to hassle or overwhelm them with medical information, procedures and jargon. According to Petroff, the human-centered approach can effectively capture problems in pharma. “I would use design thinking to have multidisciplinary teams frame the problem space more accurately. It’s a great process for stakeholder alignment,” he suggests.

Basic steps of design thinking

Design thinking is highly flexible, but far from disorganized. Indeed, design thinking can appear to be a simultaneous assortment of events because it is highly iterative and primed for immediate adjustments. The basic steps are empathizing, defining, ideating, prototyping, and testing.

With regard to the first step of empathizing, Petroff says, “Empathy is always based on the end user, so understanding the lives of people who take certain drugs and treatment – these populations should be researched.” Petroff also suggests ways to empathize with patients: “Tools like contextual inquiry and having people with ethnography backgrounds help.”

In Hartmann’s experience with healthcare organizations, many fail to empathize with their patients. “When conducting user research within healthcare, I have often heard patients express the need for doctors, nurses, or even the healthcare system itself, to acknowledge them as a person beyond their illness,” she says. Patients reveal to her that they feel a lack of support when it comes to loneliness, financial difficulties, self-medication issues, and exercising their independence. By taking the first step of empathizing, pharma can begin targeting these experiential issues. “I believe the element of empathy would quickly become more evident if the pharmaceutical industry started to treat the patient, not just the disease,” suggests Hartmann.

The second step, defining, refers to the identification of the problem, while ideating is brainstorming alternative solutions to that problem. According to Petroff, “Design thinking is mostly about problem framing. There is a part of it that generates ideas and narrows those down to a set of concepts to develop. For pharma, I think it would be most useful for helping stakeholders define what problem they are trying to solve before resources are allocated to solving the problem.”

What pain points do patients with a particular illnesses deal with when visiting their doctor, picking up their prescription or taking their medication? How is their relationship with their doctor? What causes them to miss a dose or not follow the doctor’s instructions? Who do they trust for information?”

Hartmann explains these two steps as the stages of constant questioning. “We should seek to answer questions related to the patient and their context. The questions will always reveal opportunity areas, and often with big potential for improvements,” she explains. For defining, Hartmann suggests asking, “What pain points do patients with a particular illnesses deal with when visiting their doctor, picking up their prescription or taking their medication? How is their relationship with their doctor? What causes them to miss a dose or not follow the doctor’s instructions? Who do they trust for information?”

For ideating, Hartmann asks, “What can we create or improve to ensure that medication is taken correctly and therefore works better? Can we, somehow, influence the patient to change their lifestyle to improve the effect of the drugs? What else can we do to help the patient to live a better life?”

In addition to asking several questions, visualization tools must also be developed to help stakeholders comprehend the situation. ‘Design artifacts’ such as mind maps, patient journeys, and diagrams, can be put together to provide a physical representation to help stakeholders grasp the problem and its potential solutions. According to Hartmann, “Designers visualize both to communicate the current situation, as well as to envision what it could look like in the future. Concrete visualizations allow us to create a common understanding of how the patient experience looks today, and then to work collaboratively with healthcare providers and pharmaceutical companies to create the ideal experience.”

The final two steps of design thinking, prototyping and testing, go hand-in-hand by ensuring that an idea doesn’t simply stay as an abstract and unused idea. Whereas design artifacts represent the problem, prototypes represent the chosen solution. Testing then involves transparent experimentation so that pharma can immediately see and assess the solution’s real-world feasibility. “When designers prototype and test, the real value is the richness of the insight we get when involving real people,” says Hartmann.

Opportunities for design thinking within pharma

Pharma has several touch points with patients that provide opportunities to apply design thinking, such as during clinical trials, diagnosis, and treatment. Examples of design thinking in pharma include GE Healthcare’s SensorySuite, a mammography exam machine that distracts patients from feelings of anxiety and discomfort. This innovation was driven by research showing that one out of four women avoid having a mammography due to fear of the procedure.

Many companies are using innovative design to improve self-management experience for patients. Bayer Diabetes Care, for example, partnered with IDEO to develop the design, interface, and on-the-shelf packaging for a self-management gadget called the Contour USB Blood Glucose Monitor. On one end, it is a rod that touches and measures blood, and on the other end it is a USB, which can provide a blood sugar levels summary using GE software.

Hartmann cites further examples: “Through a long-term collaboration with Designit, Novo Nordisk has developed several solutions that enable diabetes patients to take their medication in a less scary way with a device looking more like a pen than a needle. In collaboration with Smart Design and OXO, UCB also created Cimzia, which rethinks the self-injection process for arthritis patients.”

Beyond machines and technological gadgets, design thinking can be applied in many other ways. Packaging design, for example, is a strategic way to support patient self-management. IDEO assisted a specialized pharmacy, PillPack, to develop a system that can provide quick and simple home deliveries to patients who lose track of their medication for various reasons. Every interaction with the patient was designed to be straightforward and reassuring. The medication is sorted into separated and personalized packets with time, date and an image of the pill.

Design thinking is also used to detect and solve experiential problems throughout healthcare programs. Designit recently helped improve and design the experience of breast cancer patients by reducing their waiting time between learning of their lump and getting a specialist’s formal diagnosis. They managed to reduce the waiting time by 90%, from up to 12 weeks down to an average of 7 days, at the Oslo University Hospital in Norway.

The challenge of human-centered approach

Hartmann admits that shifting towards a human-centered approach is no easy feat: “Even though there are good examples, I think it will take time before we see big pharmaceutical organizations shifting their entire culture to be truly design-driven. Pharma companies are traditionally made up by scientists (and business people). They are wired to take a technology (or business) approach to innovation, not a user experience approach,” she surmises.

Nonetheless, design thinking remains critical to potentially improving patient experiences across pharma; and it can only begin with empathizing. “Firstly, companies should invest time and resources in understanding their users’ needs,” suggests Hartmann. Pharma needs to ask how the patient’s quality of life can be improved, and not how the disease can be cured. “How do we, as an organization, need to change to deliver this experience?” she asks.

From empathy, pharma can define and ideate - identify the problems that must be addressed within organizations and brainstorm for possible solutions. To ensure that ideas gain traction, are brought to life, and are communicated to healthcare providers, pharma then needs to prototype and test. By involving real patients during testing, pharma can come up with the simplest yet most emotionally meaningful patient experiences for clinical trials, diagnoses, treatments, and medication packaging.


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