For anyone who's ever Googled their medical symptoms and then flown into a panic over the results, good news is on the way in the form of a slew of new, allegedly life-altering healthcare apps, many of which are specifically targeted at women. There are period-tracking apps designed for a variety of different users, from hopeful parents trying to conceive, to those tracking how hormonal cycles affect their skin. There are fertility apps that come with their own Bluetooth thermometers, and others for people going through menopause. There’s even a pregnancy app that provides prenatal imaging (the result is strangely similar to the floating Star Child in 2001: A Space Odyssey). Beyond services that collect data, there are telemedicine platforms that link users to doctors who can prescribe birth control, and an app that sends alerts designed to help catch breast cancer at an early phase.
The digitization of health is on the rise. On the one hand, this brave new world has garnered praise for its egalitarian and educational possibilities, but the landscape hasn’t shifted without due criticism, either. Some argue that trackers marketed to female consumers encourage yet another way to obsess about the body. Medical experts bemoan the problem of false claims generated by incorrect data entry, as well as the decline of vital in-person patient/physician relationships, and the issue of the way private medical information is shared. Then there's the way an app represents its user base; one of the biggest challenges to emerge from the growing number of health startups dealing with female reproduction is how they engage with marginalized groups typically left out of the design process.
The health app industry has given way to a whole new range of challenges for UX designers; challenges that will not only affect a user’s digital experience, but their mental and physical well-being, too. How can UX effectively inform and console a user in the deeply personal topic of health? And how can design not only encourage trust, but also provide us with a truly trustworthy analysis?
Maven app screens. Courtesy of Maven.
Maven, founded in 2015, is a telemedicine startup that specializes in women’s healthcare in the US. It’s just undergone a significant redesign, and the number one challenge for its design team was creating a space that felt dependable. The platform offers people advice and prescriptions without the need to actually visit a doctor’s office; for most, trusting an app with your sensitive healthcare needs is not an easy leap of faith to take. As with any other telemedicine network, users book video appointments directly through the app, but Maven differentiates itself through the experts it makes available, such as lactation specialists ($25 for 20 minutes) and midwives ($18 for 10 minutes).
One positive implication of Maven is access. Considering the high cost of healthcare in the U.S., the platform is especially helpful when it comes to providing information, services, and birth control to those who might not otherwise be able to receive attention. But Maven doesn’t want to replace office visits to a doctor. Instead, it wants to replace the practice of Googling symptoms or ignoring a problem because it feels embarrassing. As a result, the app’s design attempts to create a space that makes users feel comfortable and at ease, “as if they’re talking to a best friend,” as Maven’s design director, Kara Yeomans, puts it.
“Our goal with the rebrand was to reject the clinical feel that a lot of telemedicine apps have—they’re medical, white, and rigid, not personable at all,” Yeomans says. “On the other hand, we didn’t want something too playful. When you’re trusting a medical app on your phone, fun isn’t the first thing you want. We decided to use a serif and earthy tones to connect the user with a feeling that we’re here for you.”
Maven app screens. Courtesy of Maven.
Maven doesn’t use millennial rhetoric like many of the new healthcare apps do—its tone is critical for communicating that sense of dependability to its audience. Friendly, hand-drawn icons rendered in a soft palette of pink, green, and brown balance this authoritative tone, providing a user with that all-important friendly feel. “They’re our favorite elements to design,” says Yeomans. “They have to be universally understood and inclusive for all demographics. The only problem we’ve ever had with an icon was a symbol for the breastfeeding category—a pair of naked breasts—which conservative users had a problem with.”
Viewed from the perspective of gender, Maven leans slightly towards the stereotypically feminine. Although it’s not teeming with flowers and swirls like many health apps marketed towards female-bodied consumers, its soft pink tones and curving font suggest that all its users identify as female. For those who don’t, the feminine elements can feel alienating, and not like a friendly, like-minded hub at all.
A good, certified health app can become an authoritative, safe space for a user, a place that tells you what’s normal and helps you understand what isn’t. If a platform is going to make statements about what’s normal, it should consider how its iconography depicts gender and sexuality, too. Not all pregnant users, for example, are heterosexual or female-identifying, and so UX must encompass a range of identities if it truly intends to be inclusive.
A 2017 report published by Human Computer Interaction & Design research group DUB (Design, Use, Build) out of the University of Washington, found that women’s health apps regularly fail to support marginalized populations of gender and sexual minorities. One of the biggest complaints is how app iconography often assumes that all users identify as female and their sexual partners are male, excluding same-sex relationships, transgender users, and people with non-binary gender identities.
Clue app screens. Courtesy of Clue.
This is something that Clue, a period tracking startup based in Berlin, takes very seriously. “Clue’s philosophy is that more than 50% of the world’s population get their period, so the design should speak to all of those people,” says design director Katrin Friedmann. Clue’s design doesn’t rely on any stereotypes. Rather, it stems from the company’s overarching brand concept, which focuses on the idea of cycles and balance. Its brand colors span the color wheel, aligning with the idea of a cycle, and its header font, Mrs. Eaves, was designed by type designer Zuzana Licko in 1996 as a homage to the forgotten women in the history of typography. All aspects of the design of Clue embody a feminist sensibility, right down to the icon colors.
For example, where Clue uses red to represent mensuration in your calendar, other period trackers use bright pink, or even worse, a pattern made from flower petals. “We also didn’t want to use that clinical blue to signify menstrual blood, which you often see in period-related products,” says Friedmann. “People bleed during their period, and we shouldn’t shy away from that.” Turquoise represents ovulation in the calendar, and storm clouds represent PMS. These clouds have spurred some criticism from Clue’s user base, as the design perpetuates a negative expectation. “Sometimes PMS comes with positive symptoms, which a lot of people don’t know,” notes Friedmann. “We’re working on replacing the clouds at the moment.”
Like Maven, Clue uses a series of icons to represent different health categories and symptoms. Lightning bolts represent cramps, for example, and a non-gendered stick figure represents high or low energy levels. For skin, a can of tuna represents oily, and a cactus represents dry. While most period-tracking apps use icons of male figures to indicate whether or not a user has had sex that day, Clue uses a boot to designate protected sex, and a rabbit to denote high sex drive. “We love playing around with the icons,” says Friedmann. “To avoid alienating any potential user, we often have to think playfully and creatively. At the same time, the icon’s symbolism has to be immediately obvious to a user; there needs to be that ‘a-ha’ moment.”
Clue app screens. Courtesy of Clue.
While Clue is bold about its use of red, a quick glance at the screen doesn’t obviously suggest that the platform is a period tracker at all. Its playful icons don’t scream “sex” or “acne.” Clue’s design manages to be empowering in its frank discussion of periods, but it’s also as subtle as a wink for those don’t want subway companions to see the private data they’re inputting in their phone. Its icons are like a secret language exchanged between best friends.
The design of Clue is especially progressive and refreshing compared to some of the other trackers available from the App Store. Yet its UX designers, as well as the UX teams at all other tracking platforms, still haven’t found a solution for effectively addressing and responding to the forgetfulness of a user. While it’s possible to turn on alerts, it’s easy to swipe reminders off the screen when you’re busy, and not all users necessarily realize the importance of regularly entering their data into a tracker. Forgetfulness severely impacts predictions and the reliability of a platform.
One important detail highlighted by DUB’s 2017 report is the negative impact that the visual language of certainty has on users. Instead of emphasizing probability, especially if a user hasn’t inputted much data into an app, most trackers visually suggest that a prediction is a certainty. Recent studies have shown that many U.S. teenagers rely on apps as a primary form of birth control, so this small design detail can have serious implications. Design has yet to adapt fully to these new responsibilities and obligations. It must suggest, for example, that “you might get your period tomorrow,” or “you might be ovulating in two weeks.”
Currently, UX designers of women’s health apps like Maven and Clue have successfully created user experiences that feel authoritative, friendly, and trustworthy, guiding users through the new world health tech like a big sister extending a helping hand. But, moving forward, the largest challenge for UX designers in the health industry will be responsibly addressing the potential ineffectiveness of their platforms, too.
Madeleine Morley is a design and architecture writer based in Berlin. She studied English literature at Cambridge University and went on to complete an MA in art history at the Courtauld Institute of Art. She has written for Creative Review, AIGA, Monotype, magCulture, AnOther, and The Guardian among others.