You've seen the ads and the "viral campaigns," that either say too much or not enough. As a visual designer in the healthcare industry, I look for the messaging, the target audience, and the call to action. Here are my top five reasons why some healthcare campaigns fail:

1.    The Scare Tactic

In health behavior change theory, there is something called the “extended parallel process model” (a.k.a., the scare tactic), which paints a nightmarish reality of what your life will be like if you continue down a certain path in the hopes of scaring you into changing your behavior. Take, for example, the NYC anti-teen pregnancy ads:

                         Source: Human Resources Adminstration

                         Source: Human Resources Adminstration

Scary? Yes, but maybe a little too much. Imagine if you saw this ad when carrying an unplanned pregnancy. The choice, or lack of choice, has already been made for you. When we feel fear, many of us tend to ignore taking action to do what needs to be done to help us out of the situation. While the message of this ad is intended to motivate young moms to reach out for help, it’s possible that it may do the opposite and drive those moms deeper into denial. 

2.    The nanny approach

Another approach that tends to fail is the paternalist angle, where the campaign tells you what NOT to do. We all know why messaging like this doesn’t work—no one wants to be told what we can or cannot do. Just think of the backlash that was directed at New York City’s attempt at a soda ban. We’re a nation of people who like choices. We want to customize, cater, and curate what we eat to enjoy what’s best for us. Taking away these choices, even if we never order these options, can make us feel like a kid again—when we had no control over what we ate. 

The only time this approach is really relevant? When the illusion of choice literally means a life-or-death situation:

Source: MTA

Source: MTA


3.    We care (maybe too much) about your health.

While national fast food chains may have no problem selling you more hamburgers, healthcare workers care deeply about what's best for you. We took an oath to “do no harm,” and we consider the consequences of the information we communicate to you. From a design perspective, this often translates into packing too many facts into a single visual in order to comprehensively highlight what you need to make an informed decision. This doesn’t always look pretty.

4.    Development before design—What’s the message, now?

We don't bring in designers early enough in the development of the message. I work with many healthcare professionals on building visuals to raise awareness about certain issues. Most of the time, this is the workflow for these projects:

Source: Vivian Peng

Source: Vivian Peng

 1.    Experts identify the issue
2.    Experts decide on the key message
3.    Experts develop specific ideas on what kind of tools they need (infographic, video, website, brochure, handout, etc.)
4.    Experts scope out the specs of the document
5.    Bring me in to create the specified deliverable

Sometimes this process works. Oftentimes, it doesn't, because those who are experts in this topic are not always expert storytellers. What I end up getting are long documents with huge blocks of text as the key takeaway message. They’re packed with industry-specific terminology that means nothing to those outside of healthcare. At this point, I take my colleagues a couple steps back in the workflow and we collaborate on redesigning the key message. We work to whittle the message down to something that is elegant, simple, and delivers high impact. 

Bringing in designers earlier into the development stage would not only save time and resources on a project, but would also allow opportunities to develop a unique and truly audience-focused campaign. 

5.    We need to answer the "Why?"
Healthcare is known to be a "lagging" industry. We follow trends, we do not set them. 

When you only have industry-specific experts in the early stages of development, you tend to get ideas that are replicas of what's popular at the moment. I believe in taking a model that has been proven successful and reworking it to fit our needs. But the danger of doing this without a creative strategist is that you don't ask the question "Why?" Why does this specific model work? Why do WE want to use it, and does it make sense in the context that we're creating this for? Without asking these questions, it's easy to get swept away by the social media, the gamification, and the viral components. These things are not the meat of what makes these models work–they're just the trimmings.

Let’s Work together and Create Better Healthcare Campaigns
Join us at the HITLAB Innovators Summit to dive deeper into these challenges.