If I had a dollar for every time someone using a breast pump told me it feels like a device that was designed by a man…
The modern breast pump was designed by men (nearly 200 years ago). But, if you're a good designer, it shouldn’t really matter where you are on the gender spectrum, because good designers centre their design process on the person who is using the product. In this case, women who pump.
If you’re a designer, or a founder who is designing products for women, the typical design process often considers the opinions and experiences of women way too late in the process. In this article, I’ll touch on:
- What a typical design process looks like
- How this typical design process often accidentally ignores women (until it’s too late), and the barriers to designing great products for women
- Why this matters (in case it’s not super obvious)
- What we’re doing about it at Milkdrop
- What other brands, designers and founders can do to better design for women.
Let’s get cracking!
Here’s what the typical product design process looks like (if you’re designing well):
When you’re designing well, you will find yourself:
- Actively seeking out and listening to those who have lived experienced of the problem you’re trying to solve.
- Deeply involving those people in the design process, and not just at the beginning or end of the project.
- Designing beautiful things, even without having used or experienced them yourself.
Most designers follow a design methodology, and while there are plenty of them, one that I like to work with is called the Double Diamond Framework.
For designers using the Double Diamond approach, the truncated process usually looks like this (with opportunities for feedback highlighted in bold):
- Survey people about their current experiences of the problem (usually a mix of qualitative and quantitative research).
- Review the results.
- Go through a design approach – perhaps you’re making slight changes to existing designs, or perhaps you’re going back to the drawing board.
- Run focus groups or trials on close-to-final functional design (i.e. a working prototype).
- Make minor adjustments to the design, mostly form factors (how it looks), rather than functional factors (how it works).
- Manufacture the product and bring it to market.
Of course, if you have lived experience of the problem yourself, you might be able to short-cut a bit of the research work. But watch out! The problem with shortcutting the research phase is that you might mistakenly assume your own experiences are representative of all other people in your category, which is usually not the case.
Take breast pumps for example. About 15-18% of people who use breast pumps have nipple injury or damage and 70% have discomfort. The 15% of people with injury (I was one of those), have a very different experience to the 60% of people who have discomfort and hate pumping because it makes them feel like a cow (I was one of those too, but the emotional toll of pumping took a backseat to the physical damage).
If we were to design a product based on just my own experience, we’d only be addressing 15-18% of the problem. Sure, everyone in the group is lactating, and everyone is using a breast pump, but it’s a diverse group with different opinions and needs.
Even if you’re trying to apply best-practice design principles, in reality, things get in the way, which means that our designs don’t always work for women.
Why the typical design process isn’t working for women
Design processes can involve the end user (in our case, the woman) too little, too late, and a bit too sporadically.
The best-practice design approach has plenty of back and forth built into the process. It’s not linear, there are plenty of opportunities for the designer to circle back to the end user and back again. However, many designers (us included!) may drop one of these feedback loops because design-by-committee usually results in Homer Simpson’s car.
On top of this, there are plenty of other barriers to creating products for women. Most of them are accidental - it’s not like there’s a bunch of evil men in a conference room staring at a whiteboard with the words:
Innovative ways to inflict more pain on women. Discuss.
BUT, products are still often designed without women in mind. It’s unconscious and baked into the systems of design and manufacture.
Here’s what I mean by that:
Design is expensive and time consuming.
Creating products (particularly new and innovative ones) is risky. It’s expensive and time consuming. It’s even more so when you have to build in multiple feedback loops into your design process. While it may seem counterintuitive, taking the time to deeply know your audience can make it more expensive and time consuming to bring a product to market, so it’s tempting to shortcut those steps.
Women’s pain “isn’t real”.
We have a whole set of existing sub-conscious and conscious cultural setpoints about women’s pain. If a woman says she’s hurting, we don’t really listen, or we don’t do much about it, including allocating funds to research it, or design products to alleviate it.
Designers and engineers are mostly male, still.
Engineers pride ourselves on being great problem solvers. It’s true that we tend to be good at understanding different aspects of a problem, and working with lots of different people to overcome it. But humans (engineers or not) naturally tend also to focus on the problems we personally see and experience in the world.
If we never use a breast pump, why would we think to fix it? If we’ve never had to walk home at night, hyper-aware of other people on the street, clutching our keys between the fingers of our fist, why would we think to change the streetscape to feel safer? If we never have to use a wheelchair to get around, why would we think to change the way cities are designed to accommodate people using them?
This is all changing, as people become more aware of lived experiences that are different to their own, but without having lived experience, it takes a lot of effort to really listen to how somebody feels about something, and even more to ask the right questions. You really don’t know what you don’t know.
When I started Milkdrop, I sent out a survey to 100 people asking them about breast pumps (after being shocked about the experience of having to use one myself). I included some open-ended questions about how pumps make us feel because I wanted to understand the emotions behind the experience, rather than just the physical sensation of pumping.
What blew me away was that, while 15 to 20% of people had nipple injury and 60% had discomfort, the vast majority (over 80%) had a negative emotional experience. Unprompted, many women used exactly the same phrase: “it made me feel like a cow”. Others revealed much more upsetting feelings: they said they felt isolated, defeated, guilty, alone, incompetent, insufficient. Having been through post-partum and pumped myself, I felt like I could understand their mental space. I understood why they had these really, really visceral feelings towards this otherwise innocuous little plastic device.
I’m embarrassed to say that I wouldn’t have uncovered this problem if I didn’t have to experience it myself. I’m sure one of my mum-friends from before I had kids must have mentioned it, but I don’t think I listened very well, and I might not have known which questions to ask once I had, to really understand the depth and breadth of that problem.
As more women enter the professions of design and engineering and have the skills to make things, we will start to see more and more problems solved in areas that affect…you guessed it.. women.
Note: This bias is not just overlooking problems that affect women, it includes all sorts of people who are routinely under-designed for because they’re not represented in the professions that get to design things. I’m just focusing on women-centred design here!
We expect stuff to be affordable.
Who doesn’t want affordable, functional, safe, beautiful, ethically and environmentally conscious products? However, we aren’t typically willing to pay what it actually costs to make them. This is why there can be very little innovation in markets that require a deep understanding of the customer, and an extensive design process. It’s very hard to make something cheaply without producing it at scale i.e. making lots and lots of the same product in a repeatable process that keeps the costs down. It’s why we see so many eerily similar products but with slightly different branding (hint: they’re probably all from the same factory, just marketed differently).
We tend to rationalise out features if they’re unique.
Following on from mass production, there is a process that all designs go through as they move from prototype to manufacture. That process is called “value engineering”, where all the extra bells and whistles or beautiful design features that might make a difference to some people but not all, are removed or rationalised so that they’re easy, low risk and cheaper to manufacture. At this stage of the process, we’ll usually see companies preferring to manufacture a one-size-fits-all product, because it’s cheaper and makes more commercial sense. For breast pumps, this looks like a 24mm flange coming standard with all orders (rather than the size you might actually need), because it’s cheaper to make one size at scale.
So, why does women centred design matter?
While it’s definitely faster and more cost effective to bring products to market based on assumptions about the end user, we’re hardly making the world a better place (in our case, by acknowledging women’s pain and doing something to reduce it).
Without considering different groups in the design process, you end up with results like:
- Women are 17% more likely to die in car crashes.
- Women have lower success from medical care and drugs. Women tend to be smaller than men and have thinner skin, both of which can lower the level of toxins they can be safely exposed to, including prescription medications.
- Women being unprotected in dangerous situations e.g. body protection including respiratory masks. One study found that only 5% of women said that their PPE never hampered their work.
Read this article from The Guardian for more horrifying stats about all the ways a world designed for men is fatal for women.
These are all examples of where design has failed women, whether product design (e.g. medical devices), environment design (e.g. physical space) or policy design (e.g. education).
There is a way to solve this. It involves placing the woman (in all her diversity) truly at the centre of the design process from the start, and all the way through.
Here’s what we’re doing about it at Milkdrop
In principle, we involve the people who ultimately use our products all the way along the design process.
In practice, here are some examples of what this looks like:
- We try to spend time to understand the problem each person faces post-partum through qualitative surveys, quantitative surveys and interviews. We did a lot of this at the start, but we also do surveys quite regularly to dig down into problems or insights or ideas we’ve had as we build our product and business.
- We try to avoid generalising based on our own experience. I’m a woman who pumped breastmilk for my daughter, but I’m not representative of all people who have ever pumped. Therefore, my input is not the only input that matters in design, just because I happen to also be an engineer working on breast pumps.
- We offer a trial period where people can use our product and return it for a full refund, whatever the reason. When people come to us with issues, we try to understand what happened and try to uncover any issues or causes we hadn’t seen. Then we try to design a product to help them (see next point).
- We continually designing products for specific groups of people based on feedback. In our first product, we found that about 75% of people loved our design, but 25% collected less milk. We prototyped a new product for those 25% to try to improve the amount of stimulation they felt when using the pump. We manufactured it and sent it out to the original group to see if it worked better for them. Commercially, this probably wasn’t viable on its own or in the short run, but in the long run, it allowed us to build systems that would mean we could make changes to adapt our designs to suit people much better.
- We try to find clever ways to manufacture without having to create massive orders. A barrier to creating something bespoke to each person is cost and ‘manufacturability’. By choosing softer, more expensive, materials, we were able to fit more people with the same design because the material stretches to their shape. Rather than making the person squish their body into the product, it’s the other way around!
What you can do if you’re a product designer or founder
Start off with some inspiration and education on gender sensitive or women centred design. Here are some resources and examples of design that I find motivating. There’s a mix of business, projects, research groups and campaigns. They’re all worth a look:
- The Tampon Book Project: A project by The Female Company in Germany challenging the tampon tax and advocating for menstrual equity. Website: https://thetamponbook.com/
- Invisible Women by Caroline Criado Perez explores invisible bias in our everyday lives. Website: https://www.penguin.com.au/books/invisible-women-9781784706289
- XYX Lab: A research group at Monash University in Australia creating solutions and resources that address the gendered and intersectional dimensions of urban spaces and technologies. Pick any of their projects. Website: https://xyxlab.com/
- Verve Super: An Australian superannuation fund providing financial services and investment options that prioritize the needs and values of women. Website: https://vervesuper.com.au/
- Ovira: Drug-free wearable pain relief devices for menstrual cramps and endometriosis. Website: https://www.ovira.com/
- Madami: A purpose-driven advisory and innovation agency specializing in women's health and wellness. Website: https://madami.co/
- Unconform Studio: A design studio in India creating products and services that prioritize the needs of women and marginalized communities. Website: https://www.unconformstudio.com/
- Ceer Medical: A company creating medical devices and technologies that address the unique needs of women's health, such as the Nella NuSpec speculum. Website: https://ceekwomenshealth.com/
- Program Design with the Chroma Collective from ideo: https://www.ideo.org/perspective/a-playful-tool-to-design-more-gender-inclusive-programs