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Why pharma companies cannot afford to overlook user research across digital innovation

Our CEO, Rob Verheul, writes in Pharma Times Magazine, discussing the significance of digital user research in the pharma and healthcare sector, as well as strategies for overcoming typical internal obstacles encountered during project execution.

User research session Website image gallery
by Rob Verheul
12 July 23
  • Digital Product Success
  • UX Design

This article was originally published in Pharma Times Magazine:

The current approach to digital is not delivering results

In the new age of analytics, almost every organisation in the world is using data to track and monitor customer interaction.

While this may be commonplace, many in the pharma sector are neglecting one of the most important sources of information when it comes to building a strategy, projecting outcomes and identifying impact – first-hand customer insight.

Traditionally, when it comes to product development, pharma companies have focused on creating products that provide relief for or cure specific diseases through clinical trials. Yet rarely in their digital product development – whether websites, apps, eDetails or other channels – do brands solicit the input of their target audiences.

Companies often fall into the trap of imagining what HCPs or patients would benefit from, using their instincts, past experience, competitor activity or trends to steer their approach. They may have ‘avatars’ or ‘personas’ that help them orient their mindset.

This leaves a great deal of space for biases to impact the solution design. It also overlooks the reality of their target audiences who might be impeded by social, economic, physical or physiological barriers, which play a part in their mindset and the way they use a product.

According to our research, only 4% of pharma professionals agree that their digital product launches are regularly succeeding, which means the current approach is not delivering results – for businesses, HCPs or patients.

User experience

Ultimately, the success of a digital product comes down to the user experience it offers. If users do not have a good experience while using your digital tool, they simply will not interact, or may even look to a competitor for a preferable solution.

There is no ‘one-size-fits-all’ solution when it comes to creating a successful digital product. HCPs working within different therapy areas or markets will have different needs and preferences. The same goes for a patient. The only way to truly know what your users need or expect from their user journey is to ask them.

When you have ambitious plans, it may seem like a small thing to agonise over something like your onboarding process, website navigation and notification style.
These are the things that make a difference between a product becoming part of a user’s day-to-day routine, or being abandoned in favour of something that is easier or more enjoyable to use.

Beyond a faster horse

At a time when 42% of pharma leaders say that moving from a product-first to a customer-first mindset is their most important priority, it’s critical that companies start to ask customers what they need.

Companies cannot truly be customer-centric without taking the thoughts and experiences of their users into consideration, and listening to their views means you can build a product around their responses. One of the biggest push-backs against first-hand user research is that ‘customers do not know what they want’. We often hear people say that if you’d asked Henry Ford’s customers what they wanted, they would have said a faster horse.

While it may be true that people typically think within the realms of what exists already, and ask for improvements within a current system, this does not mean that we should ignore their opinions. Moreover, it fails to recognise the opportunity of user research — to understand their needs afresh and test solutions.

Patients are becoming better informed about and engaged with their health, and the products and services that impact it. HCPs can increasingly be described as ‘digital natives’ with clear ideas of what they need from the tools they interact with. Their views should be considered and respected, and to do that, we need to learn how to ask the right questions.

In the context of digital products in pharma, you are the experts on what can and cannot be achieved. Instead of asking what specific products or features they might want, ask your customers about their needs, pain points, day-to-day routines and experiences so that you can come up with innovative and effective solutions.

Getting over the line

So, we’ve established that conducting user research is a critical part of achieving digital product success. It can be difficult, however, to prove the ROI of user research to internal stakeholders and get your project over the line.

While the general consensus amongst the digital product community is that every $1 invested in user research will yield between $2 and $100 in return for the business, providing a distinct value in pharma is difficult, as linking digital product success with commercial value is complex. There are, however, other metrics you can use to demonstrate value internally and achieve buy-in.

User research will speed up product development timelines and reduce the risk of building something destined to fail. Armed with first-hand customer insight, you’ll have a better chance of creating a product or service that resonates and drives engagement. As development is the costliest and most time-consuming aspect of any digital product creation, this can avoid wasted spend.

Beyond the financial implications, a common barrier is access to end users of the product. It may be as a result of organisational culture or due to internal risk appetites, but there can be a lot of risk aversion, and strict rules about what can and cannot be asked or presented to users during research and testing.

Involve your compliance teams early on to educate them about what you’re trying to achieve and why. Reassure them that research processes will be compliant, with lines of questioning sticking to digital habits and products — not venturing into the territory of clinical research or specific treatments.

When you are just starting out with research, it can be helpful to run your first study around a problem that can deliver clear and actionable insights. With clear outcomes, it helps internal stakeholders to see the value, and you are more likely to get their buy-in for future research projects. Storytelling and sharing first-hand testimony from research sessions can also be a powerful tool.

When defining the value of research, ask yourself, what is the cost of not doing it? Products that don’t achieve customer or business goals; wasted effort and investment; damaged brand reputation and weakened customer relationships.

Culture of improvement

Once you have the budget and internal buy-in, user research should be one part of a holistic approach to informing your decision-making alongside data, analytics, competitor activity, trends and stakeholder insight. Bringing all of these factors together allows you to build tangible insights so that you can proceed with confidence.

The launch is not the only part of the journey that matters. Once your product or service is up and running, it’s critical to stay in touch with your users and listen to their feedback so that you can adjust, update, learn and improve on a continuous basis.

Continuous user research, even on a small scale, will help you to stay ahead of the game so that your digital products can achieve long-term success.

Want to find out more about user research?

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