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SEO, UX Key to Finding – and Understanding – Clinical Trials


November 28, 2018

NOVEMBER 28, 2018

Marketing efforts designed for clinical trial recruitment are a combination of science and art. Healthcare professionals are engaged in an increasingly competitive fight to attract and retain clinical trial participants. Their arsenal includes digital marketing strategies, such as user experience (UX), as well as traditional ones.  

On average, 20 percent of clinical trial participants are found via online recruitment strategies, according to Cutting Edge research. When patients and caregivers search online for relevant treatment information, they are often land at While the site contains detailed information about studies in the U.S., it was created with healthcare professionals in mind, not the general public. L. Steven Pashley, director of UX for Elsevier Clinical Solutions, says government sites such as and may be trying to serve multiple audiences and thus fall short for any single audience. He noted, however, that for clinical trial sites the patient should be the primary audience.

As a rule, sponsors who dedicate a website to clinical trials usually focus on patient needs. If the website is enhanced for search engine optimization (SEO), then someone searching online for trials will be directed to that site. This site is often a patient’s first impression of not only the trial but of the sponsor brand itself. Unfortunately, according to the same Cutting Edge research, sponsor trial websites tend to present noticeable UX issues for first-time visitors. These issues lead to frustration which, in turn, can result in a loss of trust in the sponsor, its trial and its products.

Similar to the challenge posed by, sponsor trial websites are more often driven by data than design, which may be an afterthought. Case in point: Sponsor sites may not be optimized for mobile. This is a missed opportunity, considering that 52 percent of smartphone owners have used their device to search online for health information, according to Pew research.

Because of such issues, potential participants still may be unsure whether they qualify for a trial — even after visiting a sponsor’s trials site. Through a dedicated website for clinical trials, a sponsor can boost patient engagement by connecting with candidates, matching them to trials, and informing the public about its disclosure and transparency policies. The question is, how?

Sponsors’ clinical trials websites should focus on three primary areas: patient-centric content and design, navigation and mobile friendliness. This is where good UX and user interface (UI) come into play. Services such as TrialScope’s Clinical Trial Transparency Service (CTTS), which builds and maintains clinical trials sites for sponsors, ensure that these best practices are followed:

  • Patient-centric content means presenting information in simple language that’s easily understandable. Design elements can include icons and graphics that convey complicated details in a format that is easy to comprehend, as well as images depicting patients.
  • Navigational considerations include a robust site search engine, minimal number of clicks to access relevant information, and clear visual calls to action (for example, a button labeled “ASK TO JOIN TRIAL”).
  • Mobile-friendly design elements include adapting for various screens, buttons sized and spaced to accommodate thumbs and a vertical layout.

According to an article on crowdspring, an effective UI design should not only be aesthetically pleasing, it should also be simple, consistent, and timeless. But UI is only part of the solution. Time is of the essence. According to Time magazine, 55 percent of web users spend fewer than 15 seconds on a website. This underscores the importance of information flow and content organization. A well-organized, easy-to-use, appealing clinical trials site will encourage, not hinder, participation.

Pashley approaches UX from both the patient and professional perspective. Pashley has type 2 diabetes, and even formed the Dare Two Foundation, which applies behavioral economics and design thinking to develop products and apps to help patients make healthy lifestyle choices to reverse prediabetes and prevent type 2 diabetes. 

To those developing clinical trial sites, he advises: “First, understand your audience and communicate with them at the level they need to be communicated to. Keep it simple and focused.” For example, he warned against giving prospective participants a 50-question form to complete.

“Make sure you keep the user’s intent top of mind,” he continues. “Help them solve the problem they came to your site to solve. From a design standpoint, simpler, cleaner is better. The trend is toward flat, minimalist design. It’s not about the sales pitch; it’s about giving them what they need to make smart decisions.”

Pashley acknowledges the fact that clinical trial recruiters must comply with a myriad of legal regulations, but “the patient doesn’t care about that. The patient wants to get better.”

Sponsors must put the patient first, adapting to the ever-changing expectations and needs of prospective participants in order to boost online trial recruitment. Providing online resources is a good place to start.

This article originally appeared in Applied Clinical Trials.