close up picture of a garland of pink feathers

Photo by Claire McWeeney

Meet Clue

App creators need to rethink their design approach “for women”

Moving beyond the stereotypes of lazy product design

Search “women” in the iTunes Store and you’ll notice a pattern—a swath of pink, tons of flowers, and other clichéd icons hiding behind euphemisms.

There are some marketing reasons for this. When competing in a crowded space, a potential customer needs to know at first glance what your product is about. Stereotypical iconography can make that easier, but at a cost.

In my design research, I’ve had conversations with hundreds of women—few think very much of pink.

When I first started designing the app that became Clue—and yes, I’m a guy who designed an app about menstrual cycles—our CEO Ida Tin and I chose to not design for an abstract persona of a “woman.” Pink was not allowed in the color palette and “cute” was not permitted in our vocabulary.

Instead of designing for women, my goals were to design for happiness, rapid data entry, and to help in the discovery of accurate insights. Happiness, because our cultural norm is to pretend like the period doesn’t exist. Rapid data-entry, because the app should be easy to use every day. And great math and in-depth text that’s based on science, because the period is typically an uncomfortable topic, and, due to this, there’s a lot of misinformation.

This is why we chose to design a beautiful app that provides information and features that allow women to feel confident—maybe even sexy—and, yes, happy. As it turns out, women don’t need to be looking at pink, rainbows, and glitter to feel good about themselves.

We deliberately didn’t want to design an app just for women, and we made an effort to not consider personas. Personas can be helpful, but ultimately they’re just a stereotype for a specific user segment. Thirty percent of our Facebook fans are men (hint to you ladies: they’re tracking your cycle). Trans*men may still have their original reproductive organs and may still need to track their periods, but they aren’t likely to identify with a “traditional” gender archetype. Should we ignore them when designing an app?

We know we’re designing effectively for happiness because our users tell us when we get it right—and we also hear very quickly when we’ve got it wrong.

For example, I had to design an icon for Clue’s sex section that would represent the withdrawal method. I was stuck and couldn’t move past designing an icon of an off-centered target. But that’s a very male-centric interpretation. So I asked the women on the team for their input. For them, withdrawal is about cleaning up afterwards.

So the icon for withdrawal is a towel, and that’s consistently one of our users’ favorite images in Clue. It seems to provoke a smile and hopefully also a sexy memory.

Ultimately, the vast majority of women-focused apps out there are flat-out embarrassing. They’re embarrassing because they reinforce an offensive, out-dated stereotype of femininity, and they sadly emphasize the embarrassment that our culture—and consequently, many women—feel about the topic of menstruation. They aren’t designed for user happiness, to say the least.

My design decision from day one was to not reinforce that embarrassment. If the goal is to quickly provide real, helpful information to our users in a positive way, we can’t do that if we’re hiding behind euphemisms or stereotypes about femininity and sex, in both content and design. We also can’t do it right if we’re not talking to women and designing a product that speaks to their real-world perspective.

Designers and media tend to reinforce an image of femininity that very few women relate to. Do women really need to open an app that’s plastered with teenage projections of femininity: Barbie-doll body shapes and Hello Kitty imagery? No.

Not only are stereotypes overly simplified, but they’re also harmful. They are based on assumptions that make design easy, but also make it easy to be a lazy designer.

It’s time we designers stop pandering to cultural norms, start disassembling our stereotypes, and get in touch with how people—who have a huge amount of variability—actually feel about themselves.

Beautiful app design is more than skin deep.

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