Donald A Norman vs. Steve Jobs and Jony Ive: Design principles for pharma digital strategy

Alex Butler

The Earthworks

Alex Butler highlights five design principles that can be applied to the strategic challenges for pharma digital strategy.

Donald Arthur Norman is an icon of cognitive science, design and usability engineering, and is in many ways the founder of user-centred design: a process in which the needs, wants, and limitations of end users of a product are given extensive attention.

Steve Jobs and Jonathan Ive’s unique partnership saved Apple as a company, together they produced the iMac, the iPod, the iPhone and the iPad. Steve’s design ethos was user centred but mostly intuitive while Ive is a disciple of the ex-chief designer at Braun, Dieter Rams, who believes Apple is one of only a handful of companies on the planet that adhere to his ‘ten principles of good design’.

Many of the badly formed articles on digital strategy for pharma frame the challenge as a ‘quest’ or an emotional journey, this is unhelpful. I spend a great deal of my time advising on, and developing, digital strategy for pharma and I am a recent student of design. I have been fascinated to see the parallels between design principles and the strategic challenge for organisations. So how could we apply some of the most famous principles of Donald Norman along with the design ethos of Steve Jobs and Jony Ive to the problem of pharma digital strategy? Apply these five and you won’t go far wrong:

Use both knowledge in the world and knowledge in the head

Donald Arthur Norman

In the context of design this relates to how we interact with objects. Norman distinguishes between the elements of good design for items that are encountered infrequently or used only occasionally and those with which the individual becomes intimately familiar through constant use. When someone hasn’t learned to type you have to visually scan the keyboard to find the right key. The knowledge comes from the world. However, people who frequently use a computer learn to touch type, transferring the knowledge to the head. Their efficiency and speed far exceed that of the hunt-and-peck typist.


“It is hard but we need to re-learn our response to customers, patients and the media.”


Pharma is one of the most organisationally defined industries on the planet. To put this more bluntly they can be blinkered when it comes to developing marketing and communications strategy. This is especially dangerous in digital. In the context of design, working from the head can be hard to learn but very fast and efficient. Unfortunately for pharma working from the head often means entrenchment in practices from the past, refusal to develop new strategies and reticence to a more transparent philosophy. It is also slow.

As someone who is very proud to work firstly within pharma and now servicing the industry for my entire career, I want to make the call for us all to start working from the world. It is hard but we need to relearn our response to customers, patients and the media. Companies such as IBM and NIKE are being more innovative in their approach to healthcare, we need to step up and relearn from the highly dynamic and fast changing world of health in the 21st Century.

Bridge gulfs between Execution and Evaluation

Donald Arthur Norman

Within the context of design this is straightforward: the user should be able to figure out the use of an object by seeing the right buttons or devices for executing an operation. When translated for pharma I believe this relates to the capacity to integrate true-closed loop strategy into all functions of the business. We have heard the mantra of closed-loop marketing (CLM) for many years, but in truth the major focus has been on the collection of proxy data points with little meaning (number of pages seen on a detail aid, time spent on a topic etc.) and virtually no effort placed on the whole crux of the philosophy-closing the loop. Data is the ultimate abstraction of information, information needs to be translated into knowledge. If we are to progress we need to put in place the foundation of a truly dynamic and responsive link between our real-time evaluation of customer’s interaction with our digital touch points and the execution. Get to know the people we are trying to communicate with and respond to them by evolving what we deliver and how we execute. I believe that this should also hold true for the market research and business intelligence functions who will need to integrate new models and work at a pace at odds with practices of the past.

Exploit the power of constraints

Donald Arthur Norman

Within design this means that defined rules, both natural and artificial, are helpful and powerful for users as they give direction and the feel that there is one thing to do. For myself as an advocate of motivational design and the use of game principles in digital technology, I could not agree more. People need rules in order to create, connect and be productive.


“Get to know the people we are trying to communicate with and respond to them by evolving what we deliver and how we execute.”


Within pharma, constraints are often used not as a means of driving innovation but as a reason not to improve or embrace new technology. All industries are regulated, there are many people who believe pharma is less highly regulated than the telecoms, aerospace or even the postal service. The regulations are in place to protect our industry. If you have the right objectives and the right philosophy there is nothing in digital that cannot be effectively executed by pharmaceutical companies. In order to do this you need to understand the regulations as well as the digital technology and communication. I have said this before but will say it again: we cannot expect regulatory authorities to be the driver of regulation, we must do it ourselves.

Simplify the structure of tasks, “Less but better”

Donald Arthur Norman &amp, Steve Jobs/ Jony Ive

“Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication” is often attributed to Leonardo Da Vinci and was the early slogan of Apple computers in 1977. Norman believed you must make sure any task is consistent and that the user has control. Jony Ive was a disciple of Dieter Rams and believed passionately in the ethos ‘weniger aber besser’. When combined with Job’s obsession with the simplicity that comes from conquering complexities, it made for a very powerful combination. In the Isaacson biography of Jobs he is quoted as saying “it takes a lot of hard work to make something simple, to truly understand the underlying challenges and come up with elegant solutions”.

If you look at large organisations such as Coca Cola or BMW they don’t make the mistake almost wholly made by big pharma, by trying to mirror the complexity of their organisation online.


“…there are many people who believe pharma is less highly regulated than the telecoms, aerospace or even the postal service.”


It is essential that you deeply understand your customer, what they need and how you can help them? The only reasons people use the internet in 2013 are to be entertained, to connect with each other or to solve a process or a problem – to find information or complete a task such as online shopping. This is explicit in health but pharma rarely does the work to truly understand what customers really need.

You also have to understand what the competitor landscape is, if customers are looking for a certain solution or to solve a particular problem, what do they encounter in the digital landscape? Don’t compete where there is an obvious met need.

Thirdly you need to truly understand your own organisation so you can meet your business objectives and build sustainable solutions. This involves mapping and auditing the key areas of people (organisational structure, culture and philosophy and executive sponsorship), process (guidelines, guidance, strategic and business planning models) and finally technology (systems, platforms, hardware and infrastructure).

The simplicity of a great digital strategy is to build solutions for customers where your strength is maximised and sustainable, their need is strong and your competitors are weak. As Jobs said, this is hard, but it is essential for pharma.

Don’t let great design get lost in the process

Steve Jobs / Jony Ive

Within the Isaacson biography of Jobs there is a memorable conversation relayed between the biographer and Jony Ive. Ive was upset that to outsiders Jobs was perceived as the only ideas man in the company. This he believed made the company vulnerable. However with some reflection he then outlines the importance of executive sponsorship and the culture and philosophy of a business in the digital world:

“In so many other companies, ideas and great design get lost in the process. The ideas that come from me and my team would have been completely irrelevant, nowhere, if Steve hadn’t been there to push us, work with us, and drive through all the resistance to turn our ideas into products.”

Finally, I believe there is no innovation that cannot be stopped by the right process. We need the senior leaders in pharma to recognise the urgent need to refine the marketing and communications strategy for pharma and to have the courage to drive this through to the conclusion and the application.


About the author:

Alex is the most followed name in pharma digital and is considered a thought leader for pharmaceutical and healthcare digital marketing and strategy. Alex has overseen many award-winning projects for innovative digital sales solutions and pioneering social media projects and has written digital strategy and social media guidance and process for a number of pharma and healthcare companies.

Alex was responsible for the earliest pharmaceutical digital marketing campaigns and the first UK twitter account in pharmaceuticals and the world’s first pharma Facebook disease community, which led to him to win the inaugural Global Social Media Pioneer award in Philadelphia, USA, in October 2010.

Having previously worked for over a decade in the pharma industry, he now heads up the digital consultancy The EarthWorks focused on digital marketing in pharmaceuticals and is a member of the popular podcast-driven digital pharma thought leadership blog, ‘Digitally Sick’.

Alex is a member of the prestigious Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania ‘Future of Advertising’ Global Advisory Team, which is interested in the impact new media has had on advertising. He also works with other academic institutions on projects looking at the impact digital media has had on society.

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What strategic challenges does pharma face that could be overcome by design principles?