How to Design a Companion App People Won’t Want to Delete

Companion apps have the potential to revolutionize how people access health care. So why are users deleting so many of them after only eight days?

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the massive acceleration of digital across every industry is well upon us. Health care is no different

One way pharma brands are building out their digital experiences and supporting their patients remotely is with companion apps that complement a drug launch or help a person navigate life with a specific condition. 

The potential of companion apps is vast and varied. On the less complicated side, direct motivators increase adherence rates or alerts to perform other necessary actions. From a more visionary perspective, they have the power to be a true digital therapeutic and give users access to diagnostic tools and resources that can help profoundly ease their condition and live a better life. 

At the same time, don’t forget that your target pharma or health care customer is also regularly using apps from digital leaders like Uber. Their expectations for your companion app are just as big.

Traditionally, companion apps are incredibly low performing and most customers delete them in less than a week after download. There’s shaky ROI and digital experience that can hurt, rather than help, how your customers value your brand, the importance of medication adherence and disease state management. 


Most companion apps fail. But yours doesn’t have to. 

There’s no point spending precious time and internal resources on companion apps that miss the mark and get tossed into the digital landfill. And yet lots of leading health care and pharma companies aren’t setting themselves up for success.

Here are three of the biggest reasons health innovation solutions are falling flat and how you can leverage best practices to make sure they don’t happen to you. 


1. Lack of true patient-centricity

We talk about patient-centricity a lot, but our definition of “patient” can be a bit too narrow. We’re only fully aware of what’s happening with a patient during the regular milestones of diagnosis, in-person treatment and managing maturity. But what about the multitude of other moments in between that could have led to better treatment, but the patient forgot or didn’t realize they mattered?

With a proactive strategy that addresses the patient-experience blindspot, you can not only use existing health tech to pick up that data but distill and simplify it so both patients and doctors know what to do with it. At the end of the day, what’s the point of collecting data if your audiences won’t be motivated to look at it and ultimately change behavior? 

Rather than planning expensive, one-time research to kick off a project, it’s as simple as putting your product in front of real patients as you’re building it. Weaving on-going user testing and behavioural feedback as a cyclical part of the entire development process would be a game-changer.

Going through lengthy Medical, Legal and Regulatory (MLR) processes makes it harder to keep customers at the focus during research and planning. That’s why we use desirability testing, a method to conduct light-weight research that will adhere to your company’s regulations. With this confidential and brand-neutral approach, you help confirm if your audience really wants to use your product and end up with incredibly important timely insights to refine what you’re doing based on needs directly expressed by your patients. 

It helps ensure that you’re building an app that solves real-world problems with real-world users. Further, through this type of timely user testing, we've found that something as simple as an opening screen animation can not only inform the user of what to do next but also surprise and delight them. Small, empathetic touches can make your customers feel less intimidated about the importance of the digital journey they’re about to go down. Without testing directly with your audience, you won’t know what will work well and why they might not want to use your solutions.

2. Silos and a lack of design thinking

Internal business silos and a lack of agility end up with struggles to make efficient decisions. Slow-moving, high-level business strategies don’t regularly include concrete plans for acquisition that go beyond just creating a product. 

Why? Processes are too rigid, and budgets don’t include scope for inventive marketing or customer acquisition strategies that think outside of the box. There’s no holistic marketing success because nobody is thinking holistically. 

I think user-centred design is more important in health care than many other industries. Especially with companion apps, where small details make a massive difference. 

Companion apps operate within sensitive and emotionally involved stages of behavioural change. Their use, the messages they give and the actions they elicit hinge on striking a delicate balance. Tiny missteps can quickly alienate health tech users from taking the actions they need to become healthier. Unlike some of the most frequently used customer apps, many feelings and motivations around personal health and chronic conditions are nuanced and possibly negative. 

Ordering a Starbucks through their app is fun — being educated on the life-saving importance of taking your meds on time is less fun. But it’s incredibly important and needs to be equally, if not even more, engaging.

This can be easier than you might think.  Once again it boils down to thorough user testing – we've found that something as simple as an opening screen animation can not only inform the user of what to do next but also surprise and delight them. Small, empathetic touches can make your customers feel less intimidated about the importance of the digital journey they’re about to go down.

3. Misaligned goals 

Be honest and straightforward about what you ultimately want the companion app to do. Do you need it to generate sales? If you do, that’s an entirely acceptable answer. But be transparent and open with those KPIs from the beginning so that you can align the eventual product with what you really want it to achieve. 

There are many brand-enhancing gains that a great companion app can create outside of sales, from building loyalty and perception to added value from improved data collection or partnerships with crucial advocacy groups. 

If you start to design for a particular goal and then change it, your design won’t function the way you want it to. Audiences are smart, and they’ll feel and see that disfunction… and then they’ll delete your app. 

The answer is to build with a product mentality and the processes of iterative innovation. 

A companion app isn’t a one-and-done. It’s a living, breathing product that you need to build on over time and iterate as you learn from your users. If you don’t build it with the mindset that the product comes first but is always in beta, you won’t put out an app that people want to use or keep. 

Iterative innovation is one of the keys to shifting your brand’s internal ways of thinking and doing. It’s not an unattainable ideal. It’s a step-by-step business management process that gives you the power to free creative thinking and distil big ideas into the solutions, like companion apps, that drive your business forward. 

To plan for success, we look at both extremes for a health innovation solution. We start by asking two key questions:

  • Is it a minimal solution?

What’s the most important thing that you need to do to make sure that your audience will want to use the solution from day one? This will be more of an MVP angle, but the balance here is to make sure you don’t fall into the trap of over-engineering your app while also making sure you’ve done enough that your audience will want to use it and keep it after download. 

  • Is it an aspirational solution?

What’s your ultimate end goal? How do you need to successfully position it inside your organization to get it done on time and on budget while also driving unique value?

Before you get too far into the development process, make sure you have buy-in internally on what long-term success looks like. The most common mistake I see is brands that plan to fund a solution for one year, launch it, start to see traction… and then the whole app is sunset because the program wasn't prepared for longevity. Plan for the future and inspire all of your internal stakeholders on your app’s potential and you’ll be setting the stage for success.

If there’s one thing to take action from here, make sure you show up for your patients and design your solutions with them at the centre, all along the way. You’ll learn much more about what’s truly needed. Focusing on real needs and putting them at the core of your digital solution is what will make it a meaningful success. 

I’d love to know what challenges we can help you solve or the other health care topics that are on your mind. Email me directly at and let’s chat. 



Read Next
Is Your Tech Stack Standing In The Way Of Your Success?

Is Your Tech Stack Standing In The Way Of Your Success?

19 November, 2020|4 min