Redefining Innovation in Pharma with Design Thinking

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Through my work at Mad*Pow, an experience design agency that’s focused on improving health experiences through technology and design, I’ve had the fortune to work with a number of pharma companies on design and experiential innovation projects.

Pharma, in particular, is having a pivotal moment with the convergence of innovation trends that are requiring traditional pharma companies to ‘rethink’ their business models and explore new ways to ‘go beyond the pill’ to deliver value to patients.

From discovery and innovation of the molecule, development of new med tech and digital health technologies, organizational changes, new approaches to product commercialization and monetization, and incorporation of design thinking, I’ve come to learn that innovation is defined in many different ways.

The area, of most interest and relevance to me, is the role that design thinking plays in pharma innovation.

Design Thinking

The use cases for design thinking are many. Here at Mad*Pow, our experience in pharma includes:

  • Conducting research to understand user needs, perspectives and motivations
  • Usability testing of branded and unbranded websites, medical devices, etc.
  • Creating patient experience roadmaps, strategies, service delivery recommendations
  • Partnering to design and deliver future-forward digital health solutions, trainings, patient-provider engagement tools, internal systems, and more
  • Designing evidence-based patient and provider resources leveraging behavior change techniques that improve engagement, health outcomes and ROI
  • Co-designing solutions with patients, providers and stakeholders
Using drug therapy management as a use case for design, there is an opportunity to apply experience design in testing to understand how a patient’s ‘day in the life’ journey, individual health goals/aspirations, and social determinants of health impact their success with treatment, i.e. I want to play soccer and be active but it’s hard because the medication makes me tired.

These insights collected should help to inform both user needs as well as product system opportunities for pharma companies to deliver value to patients and differentiate their product. Examples of differentiation might include complementary or alternative treatment options, and personalized digital companions and other health trackers, wearables, etc.

From pre-diagnosis to diagnosis and authorization, onboarding, condition/therapy management to ongoing decision support, etc., there are many opportunities for pharma companies to innovate their approaches to drug development. According to Eye for Pharma, pharma companies that incorporate user experience in defining their objectives and strategies for their business demonstrate a higher return in investment. This same metric holds true outside of pharma, according to DMI, with ‘design-driven’ companies consistently outperforming the S&P 500 by 219%.

User Research

Also important to pharma innovation is the role of experience and or user research. While some would argue that traditional market research, which is different from user research, can inform product decisions, I would challenge these companies to take a deeper dive into these insights and focus in on the patient journey and key behaviors that should be accounted for from a design and business planning perspective. This isn’t to say that market research findings aren’t valuable but can and should be validated through user-centered research/design activities like ethnography, contextual inquiry, longitudinal studies, generative research, participatory design with users, etc.

Behavior Change

Another area I’m most excited about and believe is paramount to innovation in pharma is the application of behavior change for the evaluation and design of digital health solutions for patient engagement and adherence.

Digital trackers and wearables are a great test case for discussion.

Presently in pharma, most studies using digital trackers and wearables are focused on capturing continuous, objective data on bodily functions, i.e. heart rate, skin temperature, blood oxygen levels and physical activities to understand how physiological changes during various activities play a role in managing health, as well as diagnosing and analyzing disease. This article out of Stanford on ‘Digital Health: Tracking Physiomes and Activity Using Wearable Biosensors Reveals Useful Health-Related Information’ is a great example of a quantitative study, and one I’d argue could be complimented with behavior change research that looks at the subjective measures of health and wellbeing, which include things like social, emotional, psychological, and social wellbeing, etc., which can also have a direct correlation on one’s health.

From a design perspective, the value in combining objective with subjective data is that we’re able to capture a more holistic view of the patient journey and create a better health experience. For example, if we want to understand why a patient hasn’t been compliant with their medicine, it would be helpful to understand the potential causes for deviation. Stress, depression and lack of motivation are a few subjective variables that are not as easily captured using a digital tracker or wearable device, but if incorporated through active input into a medical device or digital companion, and through a phone conversation with an HCP or health coach, we have more context and provide more personalized feedback to change behavior. There are also new companies like Spire and Moodmetric that are experimenting with capture of mood and stress passively to help individuals understand certain patterns and better manage their health. This will be an interesting area of development in regards to the mastery of personalized feedback loops for users.

With behavior change design, we look at subjective data to uncover specifics on user needs, perspectives and motivations, as well as target behaviors so we can design solutions that incorporate the most effective interventions in design of meaningful and impactful experiences to drive engaging and lasting change.

If pharma companies were to work in collaboration with design partners to evaluate and design digital health solutions that incorporate both objective and subjective well-being data from patients, we would have a better understanding of the patient journey and associated challenges and opportunities with their treatment management. Insights collected that go beyond traditional market research and look closely at experiential data in context of the product ecosystem will result in a better understanding of the problem space, and how to design more effective products, services and solutions.

Organizational Design

Organizational design is another element of design that is essential to pharma innovation from a cultural/organizational lens. At Mad*Pow, our Organizational Design team helps organizations be prepared to incorporate new technologies, transform industries, and build stronger creative cultures that incorporate both design theory as well as the practical and real world project experience that we have encountered through industry work.

There's a famous quote by Steve Jobs that resonates with this culture first approach, 'Innovation has nothing to do with how many R&D dollars you have. When Apple came up with the Mac, IBM was spending at least 100 times more on R&D. It's not about money. It's about the people you have and how you’re led.’

Pharma companies that take a people first approach and invest in building cultures with a tolerance for risk-taking and a foundational knowledge of innovation and design thinking principles and processes will get ahead.


In conclusion, there are many opportunities for innovation within pharma and would welcome opportunities to help companies apply design thinking to transform their cultures/organizations and create more effective and engaging experiences for their patients. Through the application of behavior change design user research to incorporate subjective measures of health, pharma companies have an opportunity to create more meaningful and impactful experiences that are tailored to a person’s needs/condition to help drive adherence and sustained engagement.

Collaboration between patients and providers, and key stakeholders from within and outside of pharma like health technology and design is also key specific to exploring new business opportunities, evolving current methods of drug delivery and therapy management, and most importantly improving the lives of patients.

At the end of the day, we’re already making significant advances and have much to learn from each other, as well as explore new ways of working together.


By: Ashley Boyd

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