Photography by Julia Hembree Smith

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Stephanie Yung: From Fertility to Identity, Design Can Dismantle Isolation

Photography by Julia Hembree Smith
Stephanie Yung: From Fertility to Identity, Design Can Dismantle Isolation
Published July 11, 2019 by Emily Ludolph

Smart’s Director of Design, Stephanie Yung gave a standout talk at the 99U Conference this year about her process of turning the experience navigating the fertility process into an app. Smart Design has long been a proponent of the idea of “design for one”—which zeroes in one a single user’s specific needs versus that of a large audience. This time, Yung turned the design for one process on herself to track the triumphs and adversities of fertility as a single parent. 

Ultimately, Yung’s life expanded to include a baby named Sigrid—only 6 months old when Yung spoke at 99U—and the prototype of a new app called Project Junior, which aims to bring together data, community, task tracking, and reminders to smooth out a fragmented and stressful fertility process with a bias toward designing for couples.

Yung (and her baby) joined us for a longer conversation about how her design process helped her cope with the fertility process, how apps can build community instead of isolate, and what it’s like to lead for a new parent dramatically rethinking her identity.  

Q. You used to work for an ad firm in Toronto and ten years ago you switched industries, jobs, and cities by joining Smart Design in New York.  Did that feel like a big leap to do all at the same time?

A. I’m kind of like that. I’m pretty much an all-or-nothing type of person. It’s probably evident with me having a baby on my own. That’s just me.

Picture of a woman in a red romper carrying a baby down a city street In building a fertility app, Yung applied her personal experience to Smart’s history of designing for one user.

Q. What did you think of New York?

A. I will say, I didn’t love New York. It’s almost like having so much inspiration at your fingertips makes things actually more challenging. I think creativity is really boring without constraints. 

Q. I’ve heard you talk about the idea of designing for “real people.” Is there a Smart project that you really felt epitomized that?

A. It’s seemingly a small project, but it was really important for me. We were looking at repositioning birth control to women. There’s a lot of stigma around it, and problems with general awareness and access. A big part of the project was meeting the people we’re designing for across America—in Atlanta, San Antonio, Charleston, and Indianapolis—and understanding what’s really troubling them and preventing them from seeking help.

Q.  I’m picturing you having these conversations across the country. And then we get to the idea of designing for one. Is that a totally opposite idea? 

A. It is seemingly counterintuitive, but “born from the same place” is a great way to put it. Designing for one is born from inclusive design [something that Smart has been practicing for over 30 years]. You’re deep-diving with one person for a longer period of time. 

Four screenshots of mobile phones Project Junior helps manage tasks, share info, and connect community during the fertility journey.

Q. How did you become the subject of a designing-for-one project? 

A. I was 40, single, and had just had gone through a breakup. I understood that a breakup was not going to kill me, yet I was so upset. I realized it was because I wanted biological children. And I hit this moment where I said, “Get over yourself. You could do this on your own.” It’s one of the hardest decisions I’ve ever made. 

“I think creativity is really boring without constraints.”

Q. How did your experience with fertility become a design project?

A. I noticed so many things wrong with the process, and it was just too emotionally taxing. I couldn’t have done it unless I applied my work-thinking to my personal life. I called it Project Junior.

Q. What was the Project Junior design process like? 

A. I had a Google spreadsheet, documented the entire journey, noted the key stakeholders, and identified my pain points. When it came to bringing the potential solves to life, I worked with a team that included visual design, interaction design, and strategy.

A picture of a baby sitting on a woman's shoulders "I’m pretty much an all-or-nothing type of person," says Yung.

Q. What’s an example of a pain point?

A. Often the most important information is relayed when you’re basically naked, after an invasive procedure. I was having my fallopian tubes X-rayed, with my feet in stirrups, and my doctor told me my next step was to buy sperm, and that it must be CMV negative sperm. It’s not like I had a pen, or even a phone on me. 

Months later, I ended up buying the wrong sperm. Luckily I went back to my notes, just to look, and figured out I had to return the sperm. If I had been inseminated with the wrong sperm, it would have increased my chances of miscarriage exponentially. 

Q. The Project Junior app can help by collecting data and showing you where you are in the fertility process. Why is that so important? 

A. Stress can be a major reason why, if you’re trying to get pregnant, you’re unsuccessful. It’s like the ultimate birth control. The app is designed in the hope that women, or people—I shouldn’t only say women—could focus on what’s most important at that moment. 

A woman in a white shirt and black hair against a white background Yung says motherhood has changed her thinking on leadership.

Q. A lot of the potential functionality of Project Junior aims to connect you to your community. How did that come about?

A. That’s the mood indicator, which lets you inform the rest of your community how you’re feeling and where you are in the process. The story behind that is that I had been inseminated and took an at-home pregnancy test. And it was negative. I was meeting a friend that night who I hadn’t seen in a while. He asked “How’s everything going with the fertility process? You’ll make such a great mom.” And I was so upset that I lied. There were just so many situations like that where I didn’t have positive news to share, but I still wanted to be around people instead of home wallowing. 

“Designing for one is born from inclusive design. You’re deep-diving with one person for a longer period of time.”

Q. How would the mood indicator solve situations like that?

A. It shows where you are in the fertility journey, so you don’t have to tell everyone a million times. The mood indicator removes an awkward interaction that can be very emotionally taxing. It just says, “This is where I’m at.”

Q. That could be useful in so many situations.

A. The idea of people wanting to help out in healthcare situations goes beyond fertility. I see its use when grieving or with other major emotional situations. There’s really nothing to facilitate that right now.

A woman in a white shirt against a backdrop of windows Yung says the fertility process, as it stands, is designed with couples, not single parents, in mind.

Q. How do you think about parental leave now that you’re on the other side of it?

A. You’re essentially shifting identities and trying to find who you are again, while trying to keep a baby alive. I think it’s a necessity. I come from Canada, where it’s not a benefit, it’s a right. 

Q. What kind of thinking around your identity did you experience? 

A. Who am I? Who are we? That’s the biggest thing, from “me” to “we.” What are your priorities? What will it look like going back to work? It’s not going to be the same and you’re not the same person. And that’s okay.

Q. What have you found works well as a new parent diving back into your career?

A. The first thing is setting a schedule, communicating it to people, blocking it off and being absolute about it. I’m in the studio from nine to five, and then I’m off the grid for about two hours. I’ve got to put my baby to bed. Then I can be online if I have to. 

A woman in a red romper plays on the floor with a baby Yung says one of the biggest mental shifts in motherhood is the switch from 'me' to 'we'.

Q. Speaking of working with other people, you’ve done a lot of mentoring. Has the idea of mentorship shifted now that you’re a parent?

A. Mentorship is important to me. It’s important to be responsible about what designers we're putting out there in the world. Who is going to be designing the future for my kid? 

Q. Has there been a shift in how you think about leadership? 

A. I’m more self-aware as a leader. Much like with my child, my team sees what I’m doing and how I react to and speak about things. I feel the importance of projecting and leading by example. I have a high standard, and that’s how I primarily used to lead: “This is an example of the quality of work we really need to aim for.” But now I realize it’s just as important to lead by showing the other things that make your career fulfilling and make you a good teammate.

Q. You do a lot of public talks and you teach, all as you’ve just gone through a transition. What is it like to share your experiences as you find that new voice?

A. You learn by doing. I could think and theorize all I want, but I’m learning more about myself, through experiences like this, talking to you. I don’t know how I feel about it until I talk about it. It’s going through these experiences that is helping me understand where I want to be. 

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.


More about Emily Ludolph

Emily Ludolph is a director at West Wing Writers. She has published in The New York Times, The Atlantic, Artsy, Airmail, Eye on Design, JSTOR Daily, Quartz, Narratively, TED Online and Design Observer. 

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