My next chapter: hacking women’s health

Originally posted by Carolyn Witte, CEO of Tabu Health

I’ve always been a hacker. Not one of those cyber-hackery types you might be thinking of sitting in a dark room somewhere, aggressively scheming their way into your email. Rather, I am a hacker of everyday things… of ordinary objects, products and processes.

A hack is simply a mechanism of solving a problem — a creative work-around or way of overcoming limitations when a product/object/system fails you. Often, hacks involve using something for a purpose outside of its original intent. Think: walking around with an umbrella on a hot, sunny day.

A few examples…

In college, I hacked a bed-net — you know, one of those hot, uncomfortable insecticide-treated mosquito contraptions you sleep under in Africa — with a solar panel, a battery, a circuit breaker, and a cell phone charger. Our goal was to incentivize people to use bed-nets — something they needed to stay healthy — with the thing they wanted most — the ability to charge their phone. It was like putting vitamins in ice cream.

At Google, my team and I hacked messaging apps to make it easier to consume and share information in the context of your conversation. Rather than create a new behavior that users had to learn, we leaned into the hack users were already doing — copy-pasting back and forth from Google Search and Translate to messaging apps — to make it easier to search and translate within any app on your phone. (You can read more about the user hacks that inspired Gboard and Tap to Translate here).

Of greatest interest to me is how hacks can be the tell-tale sign of a problem that needs solving. They’re like a blinking red light that’s trying to tell you: PROBLEM THAT NEEDS TACKLING LIVES HERE! (After all, if a solution existed, you wouldn’t need a hack!). When you discover a hack and can turn into a tangible product insight, it becomes the seed of a solution.

Six months ago, I left Google to apply this hack-centric design thinking to women’s health, a longtime passion of mine. I sought out to unearth the hacks in this space by interviewing dozens of women spanning puberty to menopause. Through this process I heard hilarious, heartfelt, and tragic stories of women hacking their own health care, almost always caveated by “I’m probably the only one that does this, but…”

Spoiler alert: none of you are the only one. Here’s a shortlist of some of my favorite hacks I discovered through this process:

  • Tracking your basal body temperature in an Excel spreadsheet every single day while you’re trying to get pregnant
  • Postmate-ing your birth control from CVS when you get stuck late at the office and need it that night to not screw up your cycle
  • Google image searching “IUD insertion” when you’re too embarrassed to ask where “that thing” goes (and screaming when you see the results page)
  • Putting on double underwear on those heavy period days when you’re just not sure if you’ll be able to leave that meeting in time to change your tampon
  • Setting up iPhone alarms in multiple time zones to make sure you always take your birth control on time, no matter where you are
  • Always searching for “girl things” in incognito windows to avoid that awkward moment when your boyfriend borrows your phone to search for pizza nearby and stumbles on your egg freezing search history instead
  • Creating your own emoji code language in your calendar to remind you when your period is supposed to start
  • Scrambling to get Plan B when you’re “just not sure” how many birth control pills you took late that month

These are just some of the hacks that half the world’s population resorts to in order to manage their health, often, without ever talking to anyone about them. While certainly indicative of women’s creativity and problem-solving capabilities, these hacks also reveal some fundamental issues facing women’s health today:

1. Decision complexity: Women — and at times, their healthcare providers — are all too often “guessing” about their health
2. Lack of personalized information: a lack of easy access to information about your own body exacerbates this guesswork problem
3. Taboo topics: the hush-hush nature of women’s basic healthcare prevents important dialogue needed to spearhead solutions

Eager to turn these hacks into insights, I’ve started Tabu Health, a new kind of women’s health-tech company reimagining reproductive health through the lens of individual women. Our approach is to turn women’s health hacks into insights that can power new products and services that give women agency in their health care — products that give women access to the information, community, and care they need to make decisions about their health and bodies with confidence.

We are starting by hacking birth control — an issue that affects 99% of women in their lifetime — with a digital women’s health assistant app named Tia. You can follow our progress here and sign up to be a beta tester here.

Have your own women’s health hack you’d like to share? Message me!

Interested in joining our team? Let’s chat!