Can We Avoid Marginalizing Women with the Internet of Things?

In mid-2014, Apple announced the release of its promised HealthKit app framework for tracking and managing multiple personal health and wellness metrics. It didn’t take long though for someone to notice that there had been a glaring omission — HealthKit didn’t include a period tracker amongst its array of base options. Even though the program had gone through multiple revisions before its release to the public, with inputs from medical specialists and developers alike, it seemed that no one had thought a widget for keeping track of one’s menstrual cycle might be useful. In fact, for many reasons, period tracking is — for a significant portion of their lives — the most relevant personal metric women need to have an ongoing awareness of.

Could Apple have been completely in the dark about women’s health practices, or, was it just easier to leave tracking apps specific to women on the drafting table? Contrary to what many have supposed, I don’t think it’s about ignorance or laziness, it’s about outdated assumptions which frame the worldview by which our products, services and apps are designed and delivered to users. Male metrics and relevancy continue to be the standard on which all are user experiences are modeled.

“Until the lion learns to write, every story will glorify the hunter.” —African proverb

Women don’t have binary systems

Even though it’s only relevant for slightly more than half of the population, trackers are a very useful and yes, necessary product addition for delivering a comprehensive picture of general health. A woman’s cycle, or lack thereof, is a reliable top-line indicator of overall wellness. So many variables can impact this one element of a woman’s physical wellbeing, and its variance over a lifetime can indicate many, many things—both positive and negative. Awareness of that particular bodily function can provide clues and signposts for a multitude of circumstances across a woman’s lifetime.

Though there are standalone menstrual cycle and ovulation trackers available, (Healthkit did include one in its most recent release) and some are better and more comprehensive than others, all of them seem to work on a standard assumption that someone who uses them is interested in only one of two things:

  • Getting pregnant (when to have sex)
  • Not getting pregnant (when to not have sex)

In the most basic terms, this is reasonably true, but working from that overly simplified, binary use case is why so many products specifically aimed at women often fail to deliver a truly valuable user experience. A woman tracks her period (or ovulation cycle) for very different reasons at 25 than she does at 45, and even a group of one hundred, 25-year-old women will have a myriad of reasons for wanting to keep track of their cycles, beyond the binary of pregnancy. Misunderstanding, or flattening out the motivations for someone to want to know more about her cycle greatly diminishes the usefulness of these products, since realistically, self-tracking physical and mental changes with a traditional calendar or diary (print or digital) is equally informative and no more, or less time consuming.

Interactive tracking apps also seem to work on the assumption that products for women have to be youthful, pink, pastel and “feminine,” which generally means they are skinned with bright, ornamental, or sometimes ridiculously cartoony depictions of female characters or silhouettes. Since having a period indicates a woman has reached physical maturity, it seems quite odd that visually, period and ovulation trackers resort to such infantilized depictions — one even uses a rabbit silhouette to indicate “fertile” days on the calendar.

A five-year-old would totally want to play these games.

Who gets to know?

Unlike traditional self-tracking methods, using an app creates some sticky problems or unanticipated consequences for women, because so much of our data is shared with the makers of all the products we use. Do women actually want anyone else to know if they missed an expected period? An employer or health insurance provider might start to wonder if you’re starting a family (btw, are you married?) or could it be uterine fibroids? A missed period could unleash a torrent of ads for OBGYNs, crisis pregnancy centers, or discount coupons for prenatal vitamins from Target.

A future, connected, “smart” pregnancy test might potentially report your results to a doctor, or maybe, to all your Twitter, LinkedIn and Instagram followers. Oops. In our current data climate, most people give up their right of data privacy the minute they download an app and add their personal information. Apps can’t work without the data and users are rarely aware of the extent to which that data may leak out to unknown actors. At the moment, we worry about predictive targeting of advertising, but what if future products (and their algorithms) claim to be able to predict both mental and physical scenarios related to our personal data, leading to interventions from medical, psychological, or even law-enforcement personnel?

Our TVs and phones (and cameras, and refrigerators, and thermostats, and on and on and on…) are already listening to us much more right now than we might realize, and while the ideal application for this listening technology is to recognize our needs without us having to do anything to have those needs actualized, or discerning potentially dangerous situations — domestic abuse, child abuse, depression and/or suicidal tendencies — at the moment, it’s just as likely that our technology will make a wrong assumption as it will a correct one. It’s predicted that the algorithms will get better over time, but are they getting better at guessing our genuine situational needs (even from a somewhat paternalistic perspective) or, at alerting product developers and advertisers that we are an accurate target for their offerings?

This can be particularly troublesome for women when male biases drive the algorithms determining, say physical identification metrics such as stress response. Would a plane seat which reports elevated stress levels to the flight crew (as indicated by a faster heart beat) identify women as more often stressed because their resting heart rates tend to be naturally faster?

The IoT continues to rely on antiquated assumptions about women

Reading about the many new IoT products being developed exclusively around women’s health is an equally eye-opening experience. Much like the majority of “femvertising,” these products seem positioned to solve problems that women might not even know they have. The focus of development is on creating solutions which prey on women’s assumptive need to correct problematic behaviors or unacceptable physical deviancies — a standard which has existed for centuries and is certainly not exclusive to the Internet of Things.

Take this recent piece from FashNerd about Elvie (a connected device for improving pelvic floor strength) and the Looncup (a “smart” menstrual cup). The writer has completely bought into the promotional product positioning that women need these products to become better at being women.

“Elvie’s mission is to help women feel happy and confident about their bodies, especially at their most intimate level. By combining research and innovation, Chiaro are transforming the way women think and feel about themselves. Headed by Boler, Chiaro is changing the way technology is used, by developing new products like Elvie, that break down stigma and change lives.”


“Created with the objective to give women the opportunity to take back control, measure, analyze, and track, LOON Lab are hoping to redefine our menstruation experience. Described as our “monthly period partner” the LOONCUP can do so much more than a tampon, pad, or even a regular menstrual cup can do. The world’s first smart menstruation cup, will tell you exactly how full the cup is, and when it’s time to refresh.”

It seems incredible that women have managed to survive at all without these new inventions to help us understand our bodies, much less managing to know how we “think and feel” about ourselves without their help. And, can someone please explain how a “menstruation experience” is redefined or, how one can “take back control” by relegating the decision-making process to “refresh” to a connected device?

One of the latest app releases for women is Glow, which offers three services: Eve. (a period tracker and QS sexual health app), Glow (a fertility tracker) and Glow Nurture (a pregnancy tracker). Glow’s tagline is “Womanhood, Demystified by Data,” which is surely as much a shout-out to the men who (probably) developed and coded the products, (clueless guy video here) as it is a salvo to the women it claims to support and empower through data capture about “what’s up down there.”

Everything makes more sense in a spreadsheet.

These devices and apps are providing a service model approach to women’s health, selling them as products which offer control and confidence while at the same time reinforcing the notion that women are completely mystified by their own bodies and need a lot of information and support to be successful as women. It’s sad that so many women continue to buy into the notion that without the right products we are doomed to failure in every aspect of our lives. Imagine if men were marketed to this way.

Too smart, or not smart enough?

In the real world, IoT devices, wearables and apps are, for the most part simple machines which are quite dumb about anything outside their programming. They do a specific thing within a firm set of parameters which make them useful for very tailored, and often, quite detailed metrics. Unfortunately, this can sometimes lead to “means well technology” which misunderstands when users have goals different to those for which a product has been developed.

If someone buys a “smart” connected scale, that scale is generally programmed with an assumption that everyone who uses it wants support in setting a (presumably lower) goal weight and maintaining it. This can quickly become problematic if a user is, for example, a growing child, an elderly person, or a woman with an eating disorder. While scales as a product line might realistically be considered something bought primarily by women, the addition of IoT capabilities remains equally entrenched in a misguided and again, quite singularly focused metric of documenting/praising/reporting weight loss. But why?

As IoT products become more ubiquitous, and their developers more experienced in the diversity of users, they will, out of necessity, become better at handling multiple algorithmic operations which lead to more refined (and hopefully, rigorously-protected and anonymous) data about a larger population of users, leading to better-designed products, apps and services which can be tailored to a wider range of user needs. What’s already becoming more evident though, is that the humans who devise those algorithms are subject to bias and assumptions which influence how those algorithms work. Thus, the goal becomes two-fold — to include more women in the development of these products, but also, to encourage all developers to leave behind the default bias of a male user case or a male-centric understanding of a non-male user.

“If you don’t define yourself for yourself, then you will be crushed into other’s fantasies of you, and eaten alive.” —Audre Lorde

Women are complex and that’s not a bad thing

Defaulting to male has been the historical user story from the earliest days of product development from banking to bicycles. For the same reasons that medical research often fails to consider the differences between the sexes, app and product developers also mistakenly assume a one-size-fits-all mentality when it comes to building their offerings.

Our current, app-based economy depends on breakthrough technologies which can be quickly and easily distributed to the largest possible audiences. Scalability is the ultimate measure of success, and investors are never as interested in products which are only useful for half of the population, since they can never achieve 100 percent penetration in the global marketplace. As long as a majority of start-up teams, investors, marketers and corporate executives are male, we will continue to see a gross tendency to marginalize women’s lives and experiences as outside the norms and in need of specialized initiatives to create products separate and apart from those for “everyone.”

As more of the data of our lives become documented, tracked, posted, compared, and sold, it is even more important to consider the truth that all people’s lives are more susceptible to negative consequences when their data is made public, with, or without prior consent. At the 2015 CES show in Las Vegas, F.T.C. Chairwoman Edith Ramirez noted, “In the not-too-distant future, many, if not most, aspects of our everyday lives will be digitally observed and stored. That data trove will contain a wealth of revealing information that, when patched together, will present a deeply personal and startlingly complete picture of each of us.” Ramirez went on to urge companies to invest in “privacy by design” for their products, so that data security becomes a feature, not an afterthought.

“Women will have true equality when men share with them the responsibility of bringing up the next generation.”
 — Supreme Court Justice, Ruth Bader Ginsburg

When we think ahead to the next generation of the Internet of Things, we would do well to heed Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s advice to share the responsibility with equality. Human-centered design works best when all humans inform the use case. After all, women have been around at least as long as men.