“Empowering Journeys”: Designing to Nurture Experiential Learning for Women Managing Gestational Diabetes

Zaidat Ibrahim
Health and HCI
Published in
4 min readMay 8, 2024

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Photo by freestocks on Unsplash

This blog post is based on the research paper: Supporting Experiential Learning in People with Gestational Diabetes Mellitus, co-authored by Zaidat Ibrahim, Clara Caldeira, and Christina Chung. This work will be presented at the upcoming ACM CHI 2024 conference.

In the United States, the Center for Disease Control (CDC) estimates that 10% of pregnancies are diagnosed with Gestational Diabetes Mellitus (GDM) annually. Globally, the prevalence of GDM is 14 %. Our research team sought to understand the challenges pregnant individuals face managing their GDM condition and how researchers and designers could design to better support and empower individuals undergoing the GDM journey. To do this, we interviewed 13 pregnant individuals and leveraged Kolb’s Experiential Learning Cycle for analysis.

Kolb’s Experiential Learning Cycle is an influential model detailing the active engagement of learners within a situated context. The model highlights 4 key phases: Concrete Experience(CE), Reflective Observation(RO), Abstract Conceptualization (AC), and Active Experimentation (AE). The image below situates the model in the context of GDM.

Kolb’s Experiential Learning

What challenges do pregnant individuals experience at each Kolb’s Experiential Learning Cycle phase?

Concrete Experience (CE)

Participants in our study found the experience of GDM to be exhausting, and traumatic. They expressed that tracking blood sugar levels 4 times a day felt overwhelming.

“It’s exhausting, The amount of mental thought you have to put into it, because the guidelines are very tight for what you’re supposed to keep your sugars within […] To be perfectly honest, tracking four times a day for 30 some weeks is a little traumatic” — P3

Reflective Observation (RO)

Participants highlighted that the experience of GDM affected their relationship with food. For example, in some participants, the experience of baking as stress relief became more anxiety-inducing. In addition, participants reflected upon the sense of guilt and shame felt with being diagnosed with GDM and managing the condition.

“… It’s pretty intrusive, in many ways, because you have to change so much of your life habits revolving around eating. It takes the fun out of eating, so to speak.” –P8

Abstract Conceptualization (AC)

Participants came to a certain understanding of their condition and the experience of GDM. Some examples of this understanding include

  • The educational gap in making sense of a “bad number” (or number out of the normal range) from the blood glucose meter was challenging.
  • The challenge with consolidating multiple data points tracked during pregnancy.
  • Financial (opportunity cost for purchasing blood glucose supplies instead of investing in child support) and cultural (meals suggested were Western-based and people from different cultural backgrounds couldn’t adapt) implications with managing the condition.

“ I essentially have three ways of tracking. And I think they are all important… It’d be nice to consolidate all this into one place where I send everything … And there are logs out there. But I don’t feel like they’re as comprehensive as this … There were more resources or tools to help you get there. And we had to create it on our own…”–P13.

Active Experimentation (AE)

Participants in our study experimented with new knowledge and experiences gained about themselves during the GDM experience eg. testing out different levels of carbohydrate intake and its impact on their blood sugar.

“ One interesting thing is, as most people are told to exercise after they eat, and I think, based on a lot of my numbers, it’s almost better for me to do it before I eat … last week, I tried eating some beans, and I’m like, well, I’ll try a quarter of a cup. And it was like my numbers were fine. So then I was like, Okay, well, now I’m going to try a half a cup” –P6.

How might we design to better support experiential learning and mitigate some of these challenges?

Image credit: Noun Project

Designing to support the changing relationship with food

To support the RO and AE phase of the learning cycle, research and design can focus on minimizing the mental burden for pregnant individuals through meal recommender systems that attempt to balance personal preferences (e.g. preference for ethnic foods) and their pregnancy and GDM nutritional needs.

Image credit: Noun Project

Designing to support emotional wellbeing

Designing to support emotional well-being can leverage a virtual learning environment that offers anonymity to pregnant individuals and triggers additional support from a therapist when the GDM experience becomes too burdensome to manage on their own. In implementing a virtual learning environment to support CE, it’s crucial to move away from perpetuating the medicalization of pregnancy. This environment should avoid biases, and honor the stories and experiences of pregnant individuals.

For more details on these design recommendations structured by Kolb’s Experiential Learning Cycle, please check the discussions in our paper.

I’m happy to discuss this research further and to collaborate on more GDM-related research! Feel free to email me at zaibrahi@iu.edu or connect with me on X/Twitter to chat.

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Zaidat Ibrahim
Health and HCI

PhD Candidate Informatics (Health Track) @ Indiana University Bloomington. https://ibrahimzaidat.com/