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User-centred design: Pharma packaging’s new frontier

User-centred design: Pharma packaging’s new frontier


We often associate the term ‘user experience’ (UX) with technology and, more specifically, software. However, to ignore its role in the physical world is to limit the potential of product design in improving safety, efficiency and cost-effectiveness.
Editor: Rich Quelch Last Updated: 03-Aug-2021

Delivering exceptional UX means putting the user at the centre of design and incorporating the input of designers, stakeholders, experts and users themselves at every stage of the process. In pharma, this ‘user’ is the patient. 

It isn’t as simple as developing products that patients enjoy using, though. Truly user-centred pharmaceutical products mitigate all patient challenges, including safety and security and adherence. 

Built alongside patients, for patients 

User-centred design (UCD) is a growing trend in pharma because, unlike other innovations, it naturally entails less risk in terms of success and adoption. UCD places user experience at the forefront of all decisions, delivering more rewarding and desirable medical outcomes. 

However, it does require rethinking at almost every stage of product design and development. As the aim is to create products that fit seamlessly within the user’s environment, patients themselves naturally play a central role in conception, design, roll out and reviewing and testing. 

UCD replaces ideas with solutions, with patient challenges and pain points becoming the driving force behind design. Instead of pressing ahead with the realisation of products and only identifying their faults in the testing stage, UCD prioritises testing at every stage.  

The result is not only greater efficiency in time and cost – with less time and resources spent developing unsuitable products – but more importantly, effective products that deliver an effortless user experience and improve health outcomes. 

The knowledge and experience of healthcare professionals and patients inform product design, ensuring they deliver practical benefits and mitigate common challenges in consumption and adherence. 

For example, UCD innovations include wearable tech devices which alleviate challenges around consumption by monitoring blood and heart performance and alerting wearers when a dose is needed. 

The UCD framework also extends to packaging. For example, precision dispensing aids give users confidence over accurate dosages and safe delivery of medicines. Plus, patient adherence information – such as the medical instructions and interactive QR codes – can be built into products to improve safety and compliance. 

Balancing accessibility with patient safety 

The key driver of successful UCD in pharma is the inclusion of healthcare professionals and patients from day one of product design.  

This knowledge not only facilitates the innovation of efficient products, but key considerations and challenges – such as those in child-resistance and senior-friendly design – are also built-in from the start, rather than being an afterthought. 

These challenges represent both an ethical and financial minefield for big pharma, with over 28,000 children receiving treatment for poisoning each year in the UK alone, and the potential legal ramifications and damage to brand reputation as a result. 

However, the bright side for those adopting a UCD approach is that these risks can often be mitigated through critical review from field experts at the earliest opportunity. And incorporating this from the start also means manufacturers can deliver patient safety without compromising on accessibility. 

An example of UCD innovation can be seen in traditional blister packaging design, which lends itself to accurate dosing but suffers weaknesses in child-resistance. Bringing this challenge to the forefront of the design framework, however, has seen innovation in blister packaging products, so that pressure force is no longer enough to access medicines. 

The unique design of the product doesn’t simply negate child tampering, though. Taking a patient-centred approach, products are simultaneously developed to be senior-friendly. For example, by combining a traditional blister packaging design with a slider device, child tampering is negated without demanding significant strength or dexterity by the patient. 

Plus, printing instructions directly onto packaging means even new users can effortlessly navigate the new design, so they never miss a dose.  

UCD prioritises the holistic analysis of products in the design stage – rather than retrospectively reviewing products against safety and accessibility criteria – so, products are built functionally with these challenges in mind, not ticking boxes after production.        

Engaging patients in their own healthcare 

By tapping into the knowledge and experience of healthcare professionals and patients, UCD bridges the gap between product designer and user. The result is a move away from a focus on form and towards function. 

Under a UCD approach, designers understand and prioritise the headaches faced by the user. For patients, common challenges include accessing accurate doses, ensuring regular and timely consumption of medicines and often just the safe application of complex medical devices. 

Prioritising a solution to these problems increases compliance among patients – not only improving health outcomes but also reducing the pressure on healthcare systems by encouraging patients to take greater control over their own health. 

On-body delivery devices, or ‘wearable injectors’, are an example of user-centred innovations, allowing patients to take an active role in their healthcare and the administration of injectable medicines.   

Similarly, the next generation of pre-filled syringes offers patients stress-free and safe subcutaneous drug delivery without the need for clinical monitoring. This eliminates dosing errors and the potential safety concerns related to patient exposure. Plus, it reduces waste from the traditional vial overfill required by manufacturers. 

Patients gain confidence from the accurate and effortless administering of medicines in the home, ultimately improving compliance and medical performance, freeing up the demand on healthcare services.