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There’s a business case to ask patients, and we’re not the only ones talking about it. 

As we recently explored, devoting time and resources toward patient engagement and user research can actually have a significant ROI and save you big bucks in the long run.

Regulatory bodies are getting on board with this too. The FDA has progressively increased their guidance for patient engagement in drug and device development, with an eye specifically on helping pharma companies and other innovators determine which outcomes are most meaningful to patients, also known as “patient-centered outcomes.” This is a departure from  selecting endpoints solely related to sponsor, provider, or researcher priorities. 

As more and more are coming around to the value of patient insights, there is still a dearth of understanding around how to do the work well. For some, their first instinct is to leverage a patient-reported outcome (PRO) measure, which typically takes the form of a quantitative survey. Others may try their hand at more dynamic conversations, but are unsure how to get started. So, where do you get started?  

Well, you need to start by building a culture that values the patient experience and includes diverse patient voices in the product development process. Then, you need to take action.

But, like any habit that sticks, it’s okay to start with a specific focus and master that first. The first part of asking patients that we will help you master is the in-depth interview (IDI). 

In this article, we’ll introduce you to the key tenets of the IDI as we use it at Savvy for our own clients, and over the course of the next few weeks we will take you on an in-depth (heh) journey, covering numerous areas so you can be confident in applying this invaluable methodology to your product development process at any point.  

In the series, we’ll cover:

  • How to craft research questions around your key objectives
  • Different methodologies to collect patient insights, and when IDIs are the right tool 
  • How and where to start an in-depth interview project with patients
  • Who to talk to, how to ask (best practices), and good qualities of moderation
  • How to work up your learnings and share them with your colleagues, and how to drive your organization to act with your learnings
  • How to make sure the whole organization benefits from what was learned

Below is a taster of the different areas we will be covering in the series as it rolls out in the coming weeks. Be sure to check back or subscribe for more juicy details! 

ask patients dialog bubbles

Part 1: Start from the end - Research questions, objectives, decisions and the research plan

Just like any good research, be it a clinical trial or product test, every qualitative research project begins by understanding the objectives. What is it that your team wants to learn?

Your research question and how you craft it will determine the success of your team’s investment in patient research. If you don’t take the time to understand the terrain of the problem you’re exploring, you won’t end up with useful insights. 

So where to begin? Simple, we kick off our work by asking our clients what’s the point of doing this project? We want to understand what hypotheses they already have, and how the patient input they gather will impact specific business decisions. This helps them structure their thinking around exactly what they need to ask, who would be in the target population for the project, and often leads to something approximating a research question. 

For example:

What should our go-to-market messaging be for our new digital therapeutic that promises to help type 2 diabetes patients better control their blood sugar, reducing dizziness, sweating, and other symptoms of low blood sugar?

Our new drug candidate for eczema has a potentially burdensome dosing schedule.  Will this prevent adoption by patients? How might we measure this?

Once you identify your research questions, you can really start to see which concepts need to be explored, and how you’d go about it (methodologies). 

Psst. Diverse Patient Insights are already here.

Our comprehensive guide is a great way to learn the how of patient insights. If you're into the why, check out our ebook, You Need to Ask Patients, and learn how to get executive buy-in for patient insights.

You Need to Ask Patients eBook Cover

Part 2: Methodologies - There are lots of ways to ask patients.

Now that you may have a research question or two, how do you know the right approach to asking patients? Picking the right methods depends on a number of factors, but usually it is constrained by where your team is in the product development cycle, and what kind of information they need to make a decision. 

While there are benefits of doing larger quantitative work, certain parts of the development process call for richer, more in-depth insights from patients. There are plenty of places to get patient input, each with a slightly different flavor of how you might go about collecting. Whether it’s trying to understand unmet needs in a new therapeutic area, getting feedback on a complicated trial protocol, testing out a new app prototype, or reviewing marketing copy and creative, there are different ways you may consider collecting these patient insights. 

There are also some folks who think that you must conduct these in person in a focus group, in order to get the best insights. In our time, especially post-pandemic, this is no longer true. There are many technologies that can give you what we call virtual patient insights, and there are many ways to work this into your remote research practice.

In this part of the series, we’ll take a deep dive into other methodologies we deploy at Savvy to help our clients gather qualitative feedback, such as the in-depth interviews, surveys, online activity boards, concept testing, focus groups and advisory boards and beyond! 

Part 3: So you want to conduct in-depth interviews. What should you ask?

Research questions are not interview questions. You can’t just ask people that one burning question you want to know—sorry, it doesn’t work that way (if only!). 

However, it’s not as much of a lift as you may think. You’re off to a great start if you’ve identified key business decisions you need to unlock with patient insights. Next, take a look at your set of research questions, objectives, and decisions to make. What would you need to ask to kick off a conversation about that specific area?

If you’re interested in go-to-market messaging for a digital therapeutic (DTx) in type 2 diabetes, then you may be seeking answers to questions like:

What was the patient experience like prior to using the DTx? 
How long have they been on drugs to help them control their blood sugar? 
How often do they run into symptoms of low blood sugar, such as dizziness and sweating?
How would they describe the effort it takes to stay on top of your meds and measurements to control blood sugar?
Did the DTx help or hinder these efforts? How?How did their experiences change once they started using the DTx? What were the ups and downs they remember? What could be improved? 

If you squint a bit, you can see that we have an Opening, a Middle, and an End. This is a super small version of an interview guide, but you can see how it ladders up to the overall goal of getting the patient to speak about their experience. 

We will go deeper into developing a good discussion guide as well as pitfalls to avoid, such as leading questions, difficult conversations, privacy concerns, and more.

magnifying glass assessing insights

Part 4: You’re done with your interviews - How to analyze and share what you learned

There are a number of frameworks that trained researchers use to analyze free-form text, ethnographic artifacts, video, and more. A popular one that qualitative researchers use is grounded theory. In the simplest terms, grounded theory is a methodology for qualitative text analysis (among other things) used by social scientists to construct key takeaways and theories from free-form text and data. 

This analytical approach is ideal for IDIs and helps identify the terminology and lexicon with which patients speak about their condition and experiences, as well as the key concepts their experiences coalesce around. 

Grounded theory takes many researchers years to learn and adopt into their practice, and we are by no means going to make you an expert. We’ll cover the basics and give you a simplified framework to extract insights from your raw learnings, and ensure your team can digest the most important ones. 

Now that you’ve got your interviews analyzed and your key takeaways identified, you’re ready to share your learnings.

Part 5: Being a research leader in your organization - Institutional knowledge, storing and sharing insights

Don’t be the company that forgets who did what, when, and whether you had ever asked this question before, and who did that study again? 

Once you do research, it doesn’t mean you’ll NEVER do it again - it always makes sense to  update insights. But it’s a huge waste of org resources to lose your institutional memory - what you’ve asked, from who, what you learned, and most importantly, what decisions you made with the insights. How to never let that happen again is a team effort, but it can start with a few simple steps. 

We’ll cover how to build a company Knowledge Base to store your insights and research, how to build a taxonomy of concepts that makes it easy for your stakeholders to explore your data, and how to ensure that they can find and evangelize your message when it comes time for reviewing budgets and setting priorities. 

We’re super excited to take you on this journey with us. At Savvy there are no secrets. The more people we can get to talk to patients, the better this ecosystem is for everyone, and we’re super excited to show you how we do it, and help YOU do it too!


About Us

Jahed Momand is VP of Product & Marketing at Savvy Cooperative, and previously led patient-focused research groups at digital health startups such as Conversa Health and ZoomCare.

Savvy Cooperative helps the healthcare industry create patient-centered products and solutions by providing a marketplace for patient insights. Pharma and startups alike can connect directly with patients to participate in clinical, UX, and market research. Savvy’s unique co-op model leverages its members’ networks to quickly recruit diverse patients, and pays patients for sharing their insights! Savvy’s award-winning co-op has been featured in FastCompany, TechCrunch, The Boston Globe, and named one of the 50 Most Daring Entrepreneurs by Entrepreneur Magazine.

Jahed Momand
Post by Jahed Momand
August 2, 2021