Un-Responsive Designs Plague Pharma Brand Websites

In North America, smartphones now account for over 63% of all mobile phones, according to VisionMobile, and global smartphone penetration has reached 27%. With smartphone penetration now over 44% per capita in the U.S., according to TomiAhonen Consulting, and continuing to grow on the global scale, the topic of responsive web design has become more important than ever. While the concept is not new—using a single set of code to deliver a tailored experience on multiple platforms—both the need and the complexity have grown.

Fifteen years ago, in the nascent days of the web and DTC pharmaceutical marketing, adapting a website meant accounting for the different browsers and operating systems in use with all sorts of hard-coded conditional chicanery. Invariably, as Netscape and Internet Explorer evolved and newer players like Mozilla emerged, all of that code had to be re-written.



Now the browsers are generally standards-compliant … or enough so that updates in the rendering engine rarely break a well-coded website. The current challenge is the emergence of new platforms, such as smartphones, tablets and e-readers, whose screen orientation can change from portrait to landscape and back with no warning, in ever-expanding contexts of use.

A recent study revealed that the most common location in which a mobile device is used to obtain health-related information is the home, according to Manhattan Research Cybercitizen Health, at 76% for smartphone owners and 55% of feature-phone owners.

This signals that mobility alone is not the only attribute that makes a mobile device the device of choice. Customized apps, available for free, map more directly to the user’s needs than websites riddled with callouts, cross-promotions, and unwanted information.

There’s no reason that a well-designed web experience can’t be equally responsive to customer needs and context of use—but few are.

Of the top ten pharmaceutical brands (by 2010 U.S. sales rank), only Plavix has a mobile-optimized website. The navigation and content are designed for display on a mobile device and the experience is honed for the context of use, with key messages translated for the mobile platform while ancillary content (like patient videos) is still presented in desktop format. One may argue the validity of the assumptions, but there is at least evidence that the architects of the experience were trying to focus their efforts on relevant mobile content.

Unlike earlier trends in platform-specific presentation—like a “fluid layout” that scales to fit screens greater than 800 pixels wide, and sites that “gracefully degrades” to the proprietary AOL browser—the responsive web design trend focuses on the user more than the technology and encompasses the context.

Most uses of the mobile web focus on information in a single window. Task-based interactions prevail, with more immersive interactions like comparing and validating information reserved for the multi-modal capabilities of the device designed specifically for multi-tasking, the desktop or laptop computer. With task-based interactions, the length of focus is shorter and the desire for related content is diminished, which means that the heavily interconnected experiences crafted for the desktop represent cognitive noise and the “paradox of choice” for most users.

Brands should adopt and enforce strict interface guidelines for their mobile experiences (such as those published by Apple and Samsung), but must also develop contextual content strategies that determine how information and services adapt and translate between the desktop and the mobile device. Agency partners that design holistically are best positioned to deliver on this mandate, creating a single responsive experience that delivers brand value efficiently across platforms.

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