Image: Shutterstock

In the age of Covid-19 and digitally-oriented healthcare engagement by both patients and healthcare professionals (HCPs), a pharma company’s web presence is more important than ever.

Sometimes referred to as ‘portals’, pharma websites are the means through which HCPs and the general public can access information about pharma products and research, and the experience they have with these sites plays a major part in how much trust they have in the company’s treatments. HCPs in particular may be more likely to prescribe a pharma company’s products if the website provides credible, educational information about treatments and patient support beyond the pill.

However, both HCPs and the general public often interact with pharma websites in fraught circumstances: HCPs are likely to be time-poor, without the patience or energy to navigate a cluttered interface to find the right information, while patients and other members of the public may be stressed and worried about their health, feeling inundated by piles of daunting information.

This makes a good website user experience (UX) vital, as it can greatly improve the interactions that visitors have with a pharma website and the impression that it, and thereby the company and its products, leaves them with. This article will cover some key best practices for putting users at the heart of a pharma website experience, with examples illustrating the points in action.

Econsultancy offers training in customer/user experience, as well as running marketing academies for global brands.

Tailor the experience to different audiences

HCPs and patients will have very different needs and requirements from a pharma website, and in some parts of the world there may be different regulations governing what information they can be shown, so many pharma companies split up their web experience into two: one for healthcare professionals, and one for the general public.

However, it’s also worth bearing in mind the experience of other audiences, as well: for example, the caregivers and loved ones of patients; students; or educators; all of whom will need something a little different from a patient or HCP. An autumn 2021 survey of more than 2,000 caregivers conducted by Phreesia Life Sciences found that 92% of caregivers spearhead or play an active role in a patient’s doctor conversations, while 40% say that they aren’t equipped with enough resources to provide their patients with optimal care – suggesting a significant unmet need that pharma websites can cater to and in the process improve the experience of caregivers.

As alluded to above, users from different parts of the world will also need access to differing information, if the site serves an international audience. By thinking about the different groups (or personas) that could access a website and what they need from the experience, you can create a much more relevant and even personalised journey.

One way to achieve this is through audience segmentation: analysing data sets (usually first-party data such as website visits or demographic data) to determine the key groups that make up a company’s audience, and segmenting the data based on these. Personas, which are fictionalised representations of people who might use a company’s services or products, can also help to bring segments to life. Econsultancy’s Segmentations and Personas Best Practice Guide contains more practical detail on how to create and use segments and personas.

These can then be used to tailor the website journey based on what each audience is likely to need. For example, pharma giant GSK, as a multinational corporation, has a range of dedicated microsites for each region it operates in, and HCPs can select their region and market from a dropdown menu to be directed to the relevant regional site, translated into the correct language for that region.

Healthcare charity websites also serve as good examples of how to tailor a web experience to different circumstances, knowing that a visitor’s information needs, immediate priorities and concerns will differ greatly depending on their situation. For example, the website for Target Ovarian Cancer presents visitors with six potential paths on the homepage: those with a recent diagnosis, those with returning cancer, those with incurable cancer, those who have been diagnosed at a younger age, those who are worried they may have symptoms, and those who are friends or family members of someone with ovarian cancer.

screenshot target ovarian cancer - persona style nav
The website for Target Ovarian Cancer tailors the website journey to a range of possible user demographics. Image:

More elaborate features like intelligent recommendations – an AI-powered solution that uses data to present relevant content recommendations – can also be included to further personalise the experience, but at the core, the most important thing is to understand your target audience(s) and constantly consider the user experience from their perspective.

User testing is also an invaluable measure when it comes to understanding how members of different groups actually use a website, how easily they can navigate between different options, and whether the experience is as intuitive in practice as it was designed to be.

User testing – a beginner’s guide for marketers

Build in accessibility & inclusivity from the very start

A natural extension of considering different demographics and website users is considering accessibility. Digital experiences need to be accessible to, and inclusive of, a broad range of users with different requirements and impairments: this includes users with physical disabilities, users with mental disabilities, and users who might have limitations on what they can do due to illness.

Needless to say, this is particularly paramount for healthcare websites, including pharma websites. However, potential barriers to access go beyond the user themselves and can also include things like outdated technology and poor-quality internet connection.

Websites that are designed to be accessible will provide a better UX overall, as considerations for accessibility and usability are often one in the same. As James Longstaff, then-Digital Product Owner: UX and Optimisation at disability equality charity Scope, told Econsultancy in an interview about the charity’s web accessibility work, “If you’re trying to make your website easier to use – a lot of innovation comes from taking the problems faced by people with specific impairments and then applying them more generally. If you make something easy to use for someone with an impairment, it’s going to be even easier to use for everyone else.

He went on: “At the end of the day, disabled people are a section of your audience – there are very few businesses that can claim to have an entirely non-disabled audience. Usability is making something usable for your audience, and if you’re not catering to a section of your audience – you’re failing on that front.”

However, many companies treat accessibility as a tick-box exercise to be completed towards the end of a website design process, limiting how much it can truly be accounted for in the design and UX. Longstaff highlighted the importance of designing for accessibility from the ground up: “When [accessibility is] not baked in from the start … you can’t just click your fingers and add some code in the background to suddenly make things accessible.

“For us, the end goal wasn’t making sure that the site conformed to WCAG [Web Content Accessibility Guidelines]; our goal was to go beyond that, and make the site as easy to use for our disabled audiences as it would be for anyone else.” For Scope, this meant carrying out user testing with disabled people at every stage, from the initial designs and sketches through to the end of the project, and also partnering with an accessibility specialist called Hassell Inclusion to identify design elements that would be difficult to make accessible and find ways to approach things differently.

Designing for accessibility and inclusion, just like designing for usability, is a continuous process and not one that can be completed overnight. There might be pieces of legacy content, like PDFs, that are difficult to make accessible, or large backlogs of things like audio and video content that need the addition of transcripts and closed captions. No matter how thoroughly things are tested, there will also inevitably be some issues that are found further down the line. The important thing to do in these cases is to acknowledge the areas that still need to be worked on, provide workarounds wherever possible, and make it easy for users to flag up issues and get assistance if they can’t access the resources that they need.

Neurodiversity and Digital Inclusion Best Practice Guide

Ensure content is straightforward and easy to parse

Many of the individuals accessing pharma websites are likely to be doing so under pressured circumstances. Patients and caregivers may feel stressed and worried by their situation, and bombarded by information and advice that they are struggling to sort through.

HCPs, on the other hand, may be time-poor and not have the energy or time to sift through walls of text searching for the most relevant details; they may have reams of literature to wade through in order to decide on the best medication or course of treatment to prescribe, and so the easier this process is, the better their experience will be.

These are just a few of the many good reasons to ensure that pharma website content is presented in a straightforward manner that is easy to parse and navigate. Public-facing content in particular should be as free from jargon as possible in order to accommodate the widest possible audience, including those with learning disabilities and non-native speakers. This type of work should form part of any accessibility considerations anyway, but it bears highlighting in a dedicated point – especially as content created for HCPs, while it can be more technical, should still avoid being too dense and convoluted.

A good example of this in action is the website for German multinational pharma company Merck Group. The homepage of the company’s dedicated HCP portal has a very simply design, with clearly-labelled headings and links to point HCPs towards the relevant area of the website. The site uses imagery, graphics and bright colours in a way that makes the layout visually distinctive and varied without becoming overwhelming.

merck healthcare website has text links to therapeutic areas that are easy to navigate with the tab key and accessible
Merck Group’s HCP portal has a clean design and easy to navigate layout, using imagery and colour to add visual variety and draw attention to elements on the page without becoming overwhelming. Image: Merck Group website

The public-facing website has a similarly inviting design, with more bright colours and dynamic content, underlining the different goals of each web experience: for HCPs, prioritising functionality and quickly reaching the right goal, and for members of the public, making pharmaceutical subjects appealing and engaging.

As illustrated by the above example, making content easy to parse isn’t just about how it’s written; it has just as much to do with website layout and design, prioritising important elements to reduce cognitive load and breaking up content with visuals. (With this said, make sure that a positive navigation experience doesn’t rely on being able to see the website – again, good UX should be inclusive of all users). Consider also incorporating content in different formats, such as animations, audio and video, to vary the experience and appeal to people who process information in different ways.

Inform, don’t advertise

A pharma company’s website is their digital face, their shop window if you will, to the outside world and particularly to HCPs who are looking for information to help them determine what best to prescribe to a patient. Because of this, it’s easy to fall into the trap of approaching the website with an advertising mindset, making content persuasive or promotional rather than simply informative.

However, doing this can damage the trust that HCPs and members of the public alike have in pharma websites, as they will know that they are being advertised to and will be less likely to use pharma websites as a resource for information when conducting research. Therefore, when designing and creating content for a pharma website, the goal should be to educate and inform – not advertise. Some of the measures that can help with this include:

  • Keeping promotional banners and messaging to a minimum
  • Citing and linking to clinical case studies, scientific research, and reliable sources
  • Including patient, caregiver and HCP testimonies
  • Putting data, statistics and metrics front and centre
  • Signposting resources that visitors can use to educate themselves further

The Stories page on the website for Swiss pharmaceutical company Roche, for example, spotlights articles about urgent issues in healthcare and health research, from gene therapy to Spinal Muscular Atrophy (SMA) screening in newborns to the importance of clinical trials. While also informing about the topic in question, these articles give the company an opportunity to put a face to the specialists working behind the scenes, such as an article on the evolution of clinical trials that zooms in on a Clinical Pharmacologist and a Pharmacometrician working at Roche and their thoughts and experiences with conducting clinical trials, complete with two embedded videos.

Another piece published for oesophageal cancer awareness month spotlights the story of a cancer survivor (linking to her personal website for more detail) while also foregrounding key statistics about cancer survival rates, deaths and diagnosis numbers, as well as common signs and symptoms and available treatments, backed up by citations from research papers and cancer societies.

The American multinational pharmaceutical company Merck & Co (not to be confused with the previously referenced Merck Group, a former subsidiary that is now an independent company) similarly features a range of such stories on its front page from employees, health activists and patients. An article about understanding head and neck cancer features infographics about risk factors, a diagram illustrating the parts of the body where these cancers begin, and a range of support websites and resources at the end of the piece.


User-centricity can sometimes seem like, or be in danger of becoming, a buzzword, but it’s important to remember what it actually means: putting the user at the centre, i.e., beginning with the user and what will benefit them in every conversation, discussion, and design. A truly user-centric website experience will result in greater user satisfaction and trust towards a website, leading to longer visits, repeat visits, and increased interaction with the brand behind it. Thus, prioritising UX and user-centric design will always benefit both user and company.

The points outlined above are by no means an exhaustive list of what can be done to prioritise UX in the context of a pharma website, but they’re important building blocks and starting points: by covering off these fundamental best practices, pharma companies will have taken several important steps towards building a truly user-centric experience, and in the process, improved the digital interactions between themselves and the patients, caregivers, HCPs and other individuals that use their website.