The impact of design on our perceptions of medical efficacy.

The result of the ¡Design Thinkers! winter experiment

If you’re a regular visitor to ¡Design Thinkers! you might remember that last winter we launched a small experiment and asked you to take a short survey to help. The idea behind this was to conduct an informal, online experiment on the effect packaging design has on perceived effectiveness of certain medical products.

The experiment was dreamt up after noticing that medical products tends to come packaged either in bright, colourful packaging, much like sweets and other confectionary; or very plain and functional wrappers.

Example of high level medical packaging design
Example of no-frills medical packaging design

Above: Example of two styles of medical packaging.

All the products we looked at were over-the-counter products and not prescription medicines. Understandably, prescription medicines are normally in plain style packaging because they don’t need to compete on the shelf with other products. Therefore, we wondered whether over-the-counter products would benefit from a greater perceived efficacy when they emulated the no-frills approach to their design. In other words, would people think medicines in plain packaging were going to be better for them than those in the bright, colourful packets?

For testing purposes then, the null hypothesis would be:

There will be no significant difference in people’s perceived effectiveness of over-the-counter medical products through the design of their packaging.

What we tried to do is set up the experiment to see if we could reject the null hypothesis.

Phase 1

We started by picking out a random set of packaging for a range of medicines that most people would be familiar with — in this case we choose cough and throat medicines.

Who are we to judge whether the packaging is fancy or no-frills? So we asked a set of graphic designers via Facebook to score each packet on a scale of 0–10 on if they felt it was an example of high design or low design (see below).

This survey has been created to rate the packaging of several throat sweet products. You’ve been asked especially because you’re a designer and have an eye for design. However we’re not asking you to judge whether the packets are a ‘good’ design in your opinion but whether they are example of high or low design.
What we mean by high or low design is whether you think the design has been thought out, considered its typography, colour and layout in terms of being an attractive packet for consumers to choose. This may seem the same as whether the design is ‘good’ or not but we’re not after your personal opinion on whether you like the design, but your professional opinion as a designer on the effort and thinking gone into the packaging.

40 people rated each of the 13 throat sweet packets. This enabled us to give each packet an average rating of design (as we defined it).

Above: The four highest rated packet designs

Above: The four lowest rated packet designs

Phase 2

The next stage was to see how people judged the effectiveness of the medicine when given only the packaging to make a judgement. We choose to create two scenarios for people to choose which brand of medicine they would more likely select; a low priority scenario and a high priority scenario. Doing this allowed us to see if people choose differently depending on the severity of their condition.

Scenario 1 — Low priority
It seems everybody is coming down with something at the moment and you’re no exception. You are suffering with a little bit of a sore throat and slight cough so you pop down to your local pharmacy and see the following products, which one would you buy?
four medical packets
Scenario 2 — High priority
It’s been two weeks and your sore throat and cough is not getting any better and is now irritating you a lot. You visit another pharmacist and see the following products, which one would you choose this time?
Four medical packets

Each scenario contained two packets that were judged as low design, and two that were judged as high design in the first phase of the experiment. If we hope to reject the null hypothesis we would be looking to see if people chose the products judged as low design more as the severity of their condition went up.

The results

Below shows the ratio of what people chose for scenario 1:

Medical packets with percentages

And for scenario 2:

Medical packets with percentages

In the first scenario you can see that the most popular choices correlated with the designer’s judgement of high design packaging. However, for the scenario that emphasised the more severe condition the opposite happened — people now preferred the products with low design rated packaging.


As I explained right at the beginning, this is just an informal experiment and no statistical analysis has been carried out on the data, so we cannot place any real significance on the outcome. There are also other variables that may have accounted for the outcome, such as peoples’ familiarity or previous experience with some products, the product name as well as the wording that was visible from the front.

However, the results informally suggest that people judge medical products as being less effective when their packaging has more detail, colours and style. This is fine when we just have a low-level need from our medicine, like a slight cough, but when we start to look more seriously for a solution, a no-nonsense approach to design is judged to be better for us. Therefore, the outcome does lean towards the fact that we can reject the null hypothesis.