At university, I started advocating for drug policy reform after learning about how addiction is closely tied to mental health. Our current approach disproportionately affected communities of colour while failing to protect the most vulnerable members of society. This led to decades of misinformation, stigma, and devastating health effects.
Public messaging around drug use popularised catchy slogans like 'Just Say No' and 'Not Even Once.' Instead of disseminating practical, health-based information, they preached abstinence. Rather than appealing to reason, they appealed to fear.
Harm reduction is a public health strategy that aims to minimise the consequences of risky behaviours through evidence-based interventions. These interventions could take the form of education (advertising campaigns), interventions (needle exchange programs), and legislation (drink driving penalties).
Harm reduction examples
Drug and alcohol misuse is risky for individual health and safety, while also being costly for healthcare systems and law enforcement. When we started this project in 2016, drug-related deaths in the UK were at an all-time high.
of Europe's drug-related deaths occur in the UK
spent by the NHS ANNUALLY on alcohol-related harms
Deaths in the UK per week due to drugs AND alcohol
In 2016, I collaborated with students from the University College of London (UCL) and Cambridge to launch Drugs and Me, a harm reduction education website targeted at UK university students. We aimed to provide accessible, evidence-based information to help students minimise the potential risks of drug and alcohol use.
After surveying 280 university students in Europe and the UK, we found that:
of respondents reported that they increased their drug use in university.
weren't given drug safety information or training by their university.
wanted information to reduce drug and alcohol-related harms.
My high-level goal was to design an education harm reduction website targeted at university students. To succeed, the website would need to be:
Jargon-free content, simple navigation, and compatibility with various devices.
Provide information with links to primary sources, and empower users to improve the content.
Appealing to young audiences, can easily be shared on social media, and translates seamlessly into print/event collateral.
As the sole designer on the team from 2016 – 2017, I led branding, web design, and print collateral. As the only team member who didn't come from a scientific background, I edited our written content to ensure that it could easily be understood by everyone in our target audience.
Based on our initial research, I outlined the following user types:
At the start of the project, we had a few burgeoning partnerships with advocacy groups as well as one key stakeholder: UCL.
UCL wanted to protect their students' health, but they also didn’t want to be perceived as condoning drug and alcohol use. To secure their trust, Drugs and Me needed to appeal to their reputation as an evidence-led institution at the forefront of scientific innovation.
Our competitors included Talk to Frank, the UK government’s anti-drug advisory service. While their website was accessible and easy to use, it wasn't adopted by our target audience as it lacked credible information. On the other end of the spectrum was Erowid, which offered carefully curated information but intimidated first-time users with its complex interface and formidable content.
After mapping our competitors, I conducted a SWOT analysis to identify the unique opportunities that would set us apart.
Drugs and Me is the Home of Harm Reduction. We provide accessible, objective, and health-based information to help students minimize drug- and alcohol-related harms. You can access it from any device, at any time, to make informed, smart decisions based on evidence and primary resources.
I crafted an intentionally whimsical design to engage young people and make them feel safe, supported, and welcome. Two main navigation streams ('Drugs' and 'Me') simplifies the user experience.
Each substance has a dedicated resource page. On each page, essential harm reduction advice is highlighted through three key ‘tips’.
Psychoactive substances have a range positive and negative of effects. We categorised the most common ones and included warning signs of an overdose.
83% of students mix substances. Some combinations, such as alcohol and ketamine, can be deadly. We use an interactive table to visualise the risk levels of combining different substances, including over-the-counter and prescription medications.
This section offers some of our most valuable harm reduction advice, including preventative information and ways to avoid long-term risks. To reduce cognitive load, I segmented it into sections of chronological information.
To supplement substance pages, the ‘Me’ section gives advice on topics like tolerance, substance abuse, addiction, and the law.
To understand when users might want to access harm reduction information, I created a series of storyboards. This exercise highlighted that our solution would need to take a friendly, non-judgmental tone to comfort anxious users and be easy to navigate while intoxicated.
Storyboard: 'Before the Trip'
Storyboard: 'During the Trip'
Our website would have two simple navigation streams: one page dedicated to each substance, and a 'Me' section to provide general advice around health and the law.
I sketched different interactions and layouts. To set us apart from competitors, I use interactive elements and illustrations to break up dense content.
Drugs and Me's brand is aligned with its product mission: simple, functional, and beautiful. In retrospect, I would have used a system font stack to minimise page loading times and ensured that colour contrast ratios comply with accessibility guidelines.
I continually iterated my designs based on internal feedback. Here are some iterations that didn't make the cut:
To show how different effects become more pronounced as substance intake increases, I experimented with using an interactive slider. However, we didn't have enough primary information to correlate effects with intake levels.
I explored separating positive, neutral, and negative effects into separate tabs. However, this would have taken users extra clicks to surface vital information. Instead, we went for a simple text list that focuses on the effects themselves.
To communicate the legal statuses different of substances by country, I created a colour-coded map that offers information at a glance.
However, the maps for most substances (except alcohol and cannabis) would have been completely red, offering limited information. Again, we opted for a simple text section that could be enriched with links to primary sources.
In October 2016, we launched our MVP on social media. The feedback was positive and enthusiastic, while we also yielded some helpful suggestions about improving our navigation and content:
"The graphics are very helpful."
“I don’t bother with other similar sites as they’re too hard to navigate."
“I prefer your drug interaction table to TripSit's one."
Drugs and Me provides a full educational experience that goes beyond the browser. I designed print collateral to support our marketing initiatives and education workshops. In October 2016, I spoke at a 'sold out' lecture for UCL's Neuroscience Society, describing my design process and the motivation for the project.
Since its release in 2016, Drugs and Me has gained a prominent online presence without any paid advertising. It partners with leading institutions such as The Beckley Foundation and SSDP while regularly hosting educational workshops.
In 2017, I stepped down from the project after overseeing the website's first few successful releases. Since then, Drugs and Me has grown to include:
Diverse teams win
As the only person on the team who didn't come from a scientific background, I ensured that our content, tone, and user experience was inclusive of everyone in our target audience. For a project to be successful, working with the right mix of people is just as important as having the right problem to work on.
Assume intelligent readers
Having the health and safety of others is your hands is a humbling responsibility. Instead of telling our users what to do or how to act, we gave them a breath of information and left the decision up to them. Assume that your users are intelligent, capable, and curious in order to empower them.
Who needs our help?
Universities might be hotbeds for drug and alcohol experimentation, but other demographics are more at risk of substance misuse. For example, the North East of England has the UK's highest rate of drug-related deaths, while in the States, youth who aren't in college are twice as likely to use marijuana daily than peers who are in college. To increase the social impact of this project, I would explore how design-led interventions can protect those who are most at risk of substance dependence.
Consider the full user journey
Looking back on this project four years later, I find myself exploring ways to make Drugs and Me even more 'sticky' and situated within the context of users. What internal or external triggers lead them to seek information? When do they most frequently access the website? I would use this data to craft a full user journey and surface relevant information at the right time.