Designing for intimate spaces
A look at menopause and inclusive design
When you hear or see the word “menopause,” what comes to mind? Do you picture an older woman fanning herself? Or do you think of someone you know?
Half of the world experiences menopause, and in about 20 years, I will go through this biological change. Despite this, I knew nothing about “the Change.” I never spoke with my mom about her experience, nor did I know much beyond the stereotype of a crazy woman experiencing a hot flash.
During my graduate studies at the University of Washington, I met Kelda Baljon and Agatha Tutia, who were equally curious about what our bodies had in store for us. Although our knowledge was lacking, our curiosity propelled us to pursue menopause for our graduate capstone project. As the project progressed, our understanding of menopause extended beyond the medical definitions and biological changes. We came to realize that menopause encompassed wider societal, political, and cultural issues that revolve around the body. As designers, we asked ourselves: How can we design intimate, inclusive experiences that don’t feel invasive? How can we de-stigmatize a taboo topic and broaden the conversation?
Understand Historical Context
Menopause has a long history of misconceptions involving the female body. In the 1930s, menopause was considered a “deficiency disease” that caused estrogen levels to drop, leading to the loss of womanhood. This label reinforced western gender norms and deemed menopause not as a naturally occurring change that the body goes through, but as an illness requiring medical attention.
Nancy Kenney, one of our subject matter experts, echoed a similar sentiment, saying, “There’s a belief that women went crazy because they were losing the one thing that made them a woman — the ability to reproduce.”
This belief still exists today and perpetuates outdated notions of gender.
It was important for us to understand the historical context of menopause because it shapes the current realities of what people experience. People’s perception of menopause stems from the historical and cultural context of their upbringing. This impacts not only how menopausal people react to their biological changes, but also how their communities react to people experiencing menopause.
“Because of the way menopause is talked about, especially growing up, it was considered more of a negative. Talked about in a more negative way. Things should be talked about differently or in a positive way to acknowledge that it may be challenging, but it’s a part of being a woman, part of getting older.” - Research Participant
The history of the space we’re designing for gives us the opportunity to analyze and question what is “normal.” We can also see which communities are excluded from the discussion. By looking at the past, we can thoughtfully design for today and for tomorrow.
Be Mindful of Language
When we started the project, I was excited to be on an all-female team that cared about empowerment and inclusivity. We focused on recruiting people from different ethnicities, socioeconomic backgrounds, and cultural perspectives. We didn’t want inclusivity to be just a checkbox we marked off when the project was over.
Even though we had good intentions, we didn’t realize that we were unintentionally excluding people through our spoken, written, and visual language. The content that we initially created was rooted in the binary definition of gender as male or female. Although most people who answered our recruitment survey identified as female, we did have one person who identified as transgender. This prompted us to think about the nuances of gender in our final concept. We decided to use gender-neutral pronouns in our copy and to only use terms such as “female body” if appropriate and necessary.
We later quickly realized that there was also potential for us to exclude people based on the diction we used. Menopause is closely tied to terms unfamiliar to the general public, including perimenopause and Hormone Replacement Therapy (HRT), to name a few. As such, we made an effort to define terms, give context, and write content that was understandable.
It is difficult to design for everyone, but we must ask ourselves if we are unintentionally excluding people through language. Is the vocabulary we’re using neutral and clear? Does our visual language reflect the diversity of ethnicities, ages, abilities, and more?
Recognize Diversity of Experiences
Throughout our research, each person we interviewed had a different menopause experience. One person spent a full interview talking about their insomnia, while another told us detailed stories about their mood swings. Some people told us that menopause was no big deal, but others said it hindered their quality of life.
Going beyond demographic data and considering the context of the person we’re designing for is crucial. There are many layers that influence how a person understands and interacts with the world. Additionally, we have to remember that one person does not represent the entire community.
“There’s so many different unique [menopause] experiences. You’ll have all these various symptoms, but the severity, frequency, all those things can be really unique to a person.” - Research Participant
To account for the diversity of menopause experiences, we designed our concept around four mindsets exploring how a person reacted to their biological changes. Our mindsets considered reactive/proactive behaviors, motivations, goals, and reflections.
Mindsets allowed us to design for inclusive use cases where people explored their bodies at their own speed and comfort. For example, one of our mindsets illustrated how a person might navigate menopause in the context of their culture, daily responsibilities, and relationship with their partner. By recognizing that there is a diversity of experiences, designs have the power to not only meet basic needs of a person, but have cascading effects on their communities.
Intimate spaces can provide us with a platform to look at design through different lenses and to acknowledge uncomfortable, taboo, or often ignored topics. It can teach us how to reframe the way we design to be more mindful of people’s worldviews. It can also help us recognize that our worldviews are baked into our design process — for better or worse. For me, menopause has challenged my definition of inclusivity and taught me to acknowledge my bias, which in turn has improved my designs.
When designing, we must take into account and question the history of the space we are exploring. We must ask ourselves how our written and visual languages might be excluding people. We must also consider the diversity of experiences beyond the individual. As conversations around intimate spaces broaden, I hope designers can continue to add to this discussion and challenge the way people view topics such as menopause.
Additionally, we are adding to the discussion on intimate spaces! Our research on menopause has been accepted into the 2019 ACM CHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems to be held in Glasgow, Scotland. If you would like more information on our menopause research, please drop me a line at email@example.com.