the story of menstruation

and the complicated narrative of a thesis process

My very first period.

I was 11 when it happened and 20 when I lost it for a year.

Both moments played key roles in how I came to view my body and health. I was first exposed to menstrual health through an awkward puberty video shown at a school assembly. It approached the topic in an abstract way that was difficult to comprehend for a 10 year old. When I did get my period, I felt uncertain about whether it was even a period at all. More than anything, it was just incredibly awkward. In the end, I learned to associate periods as something to be swiftly and hygienically dealt with, only to poorly and quietly navigate what little I knew about periods on my own.

But at 20, I realized that my periods aren't an isolated monthly occurrence as I had thought. They are, actually, a continuous story and a significant indicator of my own health. And yet, I had so many unanswered questions, many of which I quietly struggled with despite attending an all women's college.

My hunch had always been that I wasn't alone in this experience. And as it turns out, I'm not.
If you could do anything, regardless of what anyone thought, what would it be? Now, go do it.
elaine spatz-rabinowitz, my former Thesis advisor and professor at Wellesley College
a seed of a thought

Liz once said that our thesis development began with our very first semester of graduate school. Looking back on my process, I finally understand what she meant.

During my first semester in Strategic Innovation, we were asked to pitch a business concept for our final. The concept could be a nonprofit or for-profit alike, but it absolutely had to be something we were passionate about. Interested in women's health, I began to research current issues, trends and opportunities related to that space. I came across horrifying statistics regarding the lack of access to sanitary napkins in developing countries and its dire consequences on the well-being of women and girls.

In reaction, I pitched a for-profit business that competes in the US consumer market through brand differentiation (because, really, who else is sick of all the pastel packaging and imagery of women prancing through flowery fields?). The profits would then be funneled into a credible humanitarian organization that could then provide free access to sanitary products as well as education surrounding female hygiene.

My pitch failed due to scaling issues, but I came away from it even more determined. And from then on, many of my projects moving forward grappled with health, menstruation, and the humanizing of a typically clinical experience.

February 4, 2012

...I think I'm having a serendipitous moment.

After pivoting and exploring and modeling and pivoting some more, and then making some key decisions, I'm starting to see my concept come together. And the funny thing is that I was hacking away at bits and pieces of it all along: My first period-based strategy project, my menstrual alarm clock exploration, and insights gleaned from Help Me Help You. Somehow, though I couldn't see it then, each project contributes to my thesis now.

a thesis proposal

Our thesis explorations officially began near the end of our first year, culminating in our submission of a thesis proposal draft. We'd have the rest of the summer to finalize our trajectories and the first semester of our second year to fully explore our chosen topics.

My initial thesis proposal began as a desire to continue a conversation I had had with a local nonprofit working on its own sanitary napkin initiative in Kenya. In response, Liz had some great questions for me to consider:

"What are you overlooking? Are you being too confident in your outlook and approach? Is Kenya and its audience convenient because of the connection... or is that the market/audience most in need for the shape you want the exploration to take?"

I went back to the drawing board to better synthesize my scattered thoughts.

A rough concept map of all of my thesis interests.

And made some conclusions early on before embarking on summer break:

And so it begins take two
April 24, 2011

In the process of sketching out a conceptual map, I came across a couple realizations:

Areas of Interest: For one, I'm also interested in conversations. More specifically, the frameworks involved in engaging in conversations. Last semester, I briefly explored this topic in Cybernetics as a way to better understand my interactions with the Korean language, which is fairly structured and subsequently navigable despite a limited vocabulary on my part. Is there a possibility of exploring both conversations or frameworks (as an interaction of interest) and the period (as an area of interest)?

Problem/Approach:Maybe I'm narrowing down in my topic too soon and it's worth tackling menstruation from a broader perspective to effectively identify the latent needs and problems. So for example, the for-profit business is one possibility, but so is overall women's health and body, the idea of misconceptions, or even community-related aspects to cycles and decision-making.

Research:Given my personal story related to this topic, rather than focusing on an audience in places like Kenya, I could start with a base that's much closer. Namely, start with myself by tracking personal menstrual data and deepening my knowledge in this area, and then move into focusing on fellow female peers through observations and interviews. After all, the primary target audience for my proposed business concept was comprised of females within the US consumer market. Better to start with something that's personally compelling and accessible.

By the time September rolled around, my focus on menstruation hadn't changed all that much. Evolved, maybe.

A quick sketch of the four categories I wanted to explore via my thesis.

I knew that I wanted my thesis to involve Data, making it more visible, understandable and meaningful. The focus would be on the Healthcare industry, as in preventative health and seeing health as a lifestyle. The target audience would be Women and their latent needs. And finally, my thesis would observe through the lens of Translating and Conversing.

Week 1: Peripheral Thinking
September 20, 2011

My summer kicked off with delusions of grandeur, thinking that I'd spend a large chunk of my time devoted to thesis. Thesis, instead, decided to remain on the peripheral. It spied from nearby while I was diving into a myriad of projects at IDEO, taking in observations and processes that might come in handy. And it hovered in my day to day when I became a data junkie, obsessively tracking my sleep cycles, periods, migraines and running.

Making a trip back home to California meant squeezing in several doctor appointments and noticing my own healthcare experience. Ironically, it didn't occur to me until this summer that I could rightfully ask for my health records. And even more surprising was how easy it was to do so.

(Well, the easy part was asking for the records. The hard part is understanding what any of it means.)

While I was still struggling with what I'd be making for my thesis, the problem that I wanted to address was the disparity in women's healthcare, particularly for young women ages 19-29. By "disparity", I meant the quality and accessibility of healthcare services. And the lens through which I wanted to approach my thesis was the stance that health is a lifestyle, heavily influenced by preventative habits that are built long before a health related problem develops.

initial explorations

With my problem space defined and an initial hypothesis declared, I spent the first seven weeks of our second year exploring conceptual possibilities.

Do a simple search on "menstrual cramps" or "missed period" and you'll find link after link of young women asking the same questions on forums and articles. Is this normal or healthy? What do I do? Please help.

My suspicion was that there's more to why these women cry for help on the internet and the opportunity in addressing women's healthcare lies in finding out what that need is. There's certainly an influx of health apps and personal data, but which data points are trackable and meaningful? And what does "meaningful" even mean anyway?

Week 3: Analogs and a mini-sketch
October 8, 2011

...But then, Frank and I started talking about how data has a way of looking at the past. As a result, a user can accept and expect future outcomes more readily. Which then made me think about weather reports. Weather reports tend to be based on past data as a way to forecast future data. What if I were to roughly prototype period data in the form of a simple weather app/tool?

With these thoughts in mind, I iterated on several quick sketches.

A typical pain chart used by hospitals.

One reimagined by

Weather apps have simple but easy to understand iconography, which means that finding the right fidelity is important.

Like weather apps, period cycles are usually predicted based on past cycles and symptoms/patterns. But the user end could be a simple interface.

But I quickly realized that my sketches were really just a simplified reinterpretation of period apps that already exist. Simply regurgitating data, as shown above, looks really clinical.

Week 4: Recent Inspirations
October 16, 2011

In hindsight, doing the mini-sketch the other week was really helpful. I realized that it helped me to start visualizing and prototyping whatever thoughts live in my brain. A period data tracking device was an obvious idea that I needed to just bring to existence in whatever form, only to kill rather quickly. It wasn't doing much for me and with good reason: It felt really clinical and lacked a human "touch" or story element. I'd say that's a pretty key design principle that I need to keep in mind as I move forward with my thesis.

So back to the drawing board.

My initial explorations informed a core design principle that stayed true for the remainder of the year: Whatever service or product I create must be human, not clinical.

Finding the adjacent possible

Following my initial explorations, analog examples outside of the menstrual health industry served as inspiration. Starting with a guest talk at IDEO, I started to craft the kind of intended experience I wanted my thesis to have.

Have you heard of "the adjacent possible"? It's a notion described by Steven Johnson in his book, Where Good Ideas Come From. He also summarized it for the Wall Street Journal in his essay The Genius of the Tinkerer:

The adjacent possible is a kind of shadow future, hovering on the edges of the present state of things, a map of all the ways in which the present can reinvent itself. The strange and beautiful truth about the adjacent possible is that its boundaries grow as you explore them. Each new combination opens up the possibility of other new combinations.

My Own Adjacent Possible
October 16, 2011

I think I made a breakthrough this past week. I've been really struggling with what form my thesis could take. But over the past week, I had my own "adjacent possible" moment.

A good friend and I somehow ended up exchanging first or memorable period stories. Mine was about how my mom didn't believe me when I first had my period. She simply thought it was a false alarm, especially because my description didn't seem to match. And not knowing what it really should look like, I just went with my mom's verdict.

My friend's story was about a period "club" that she had been a member of. Basically, the club would send her monthly packages of sanitary napkin products and other educational materials to help ease her into the experience. Then, as she got older, she naturally quit the club. There was something about being part of a special club that helped inform and associate her period with a community, while my own experience was somewhat isolating and uninformed.

Then it got me thinking. Given the habits and technologies that exist today, what would be today's equivalent of that club?

Dragons vs Robots
At IDEO, I sat in on a presentation by Jesse Soleil, CEO of Massiverse. Massiverse creates transmedia stories for children. Basically, they develop stories that have multiple points of entry. In Dragons vs Robots, kids can create their own online characters, read books about the battle between the Dragons and the Robots, and physically battle one another via their toy figurines only for that data to be transferred back to the digital world.

It's an entire ecosystem built around a story.

Players side with the dragon or robot team and create their own online profiles.

The physical to digital world transference is made possible through NFC-based technology. A prime example of this is Poken. By touching two Poken devices, users digitally exchange their information. When they sync their devices with their computers, the Poken will then transfer the information to their online profiles. Pretty seamless, right?

Information is exchanged by tapping together two Poken devices.

Then there's Suwappu, a toy created by Berg and Dentsu. Basically, toy figurines talk to one another through the phone. An iPhone app can recognize the figurines and overlays a digital environment and dialogue on these toys. The only thing they haven't developed yet is a storyline for these characters.

What if the storyline was about health? Would it be as successful? Is there something about having a social object to guide conversations?

Just hold the iPhone over the toy to see its digital world.

I Mirabilia
And finally, there's I Mirabilia ("The Wonders"), a family of three interactive dolls that enable hospitalized children to have better conversations with their doctors and other hospitalized children.

The characters encourage children to co-create a story.

If I were to take the nuggets from each of these concepts and products, what would that look like? How would that translate to a menstrual health education service for young girls?

A Refined Hypothesis

Renewed by the adjacent possibles, I dove back into my problem space. What resulted was a refined hypothesis.

Did you know that pads were a serendipitous discovery?

The first sanitary napkin was invented by a chemist at Kimberly-Clark Corporation, Ernest Mahler, to be used for wounded soldiers during World War I. The serendipitous part kicked in when Red Cross nurses started using this surgical cotton to absorb their own periods. Mahler's employer then went on to formally selling the cotton in the form of sanitary napkins. This product was called Kotex, a brand that still exists today.

What's interesting is that in 1946, Kotex and Walt Disney partnered to produce the first corporate-sponsored educational film called "The Story of Menstruation". It's now been seen by over 93 million American women and was circulated to public schools along with a booklet.

So I started to wonder, what's being circulated in public schools today regarding menstrual education? I really don't remember the material I was exposed to when I was in elementary school other than an awkward puberty video. And given that girls are getting their first periods at an increasingly younger age, what's the curriculum now? Does it account for the immense cultural and technological changes that have occurred since the 1940s? Or does it still tell the same irrelevant story?

What Would've Made It Easier
In my research, I also came across a study on ninth-grade postmenarcheal girls by Elissa Koff and Jill Rierdan. While it was published in 1995, it provides an in depth look into what advice and information these girls would give to younger girls about their first periods.

When asked what would make the first menstruation easier, two factors were identified: 1) Being in a calm, supportive and reassuring environment and 2) knowing what to do in terms of menstrual hygiene when the moment arrived.

A common theme was that they'd share aspects of the subjective experience of menstruation. Only a small subset mentioned things like duration, flow, or cycle characteristics. And very little mentioned the biology of menstruation let alone its link to reproduction.

Finally, when it came to learning about menstruation, girls relied most heavily on their mothers first, then their female friends, followed by health education classes and health providers.

A New Hypothesis
After having such a fruitful research, I needed to visualize and synthesize the thoughts stewing in my brain. In other words, concept mapping galore.

The main phases surrounding the menstrual life cycle for my target audience centered on the time before and immediately after menarche (a girl’s first period).

The 1st exposure to menstrual education varies depending on the girl. But more importantly, the overall exposure phase seems to have a significant influence on the experience of the 1st period.

Having identified the key moments, I have a set of questions to ask during my research. These are possible opportunity areas.

And finally, my refined hypothesis based on this life cycle diagram.

My new hunch was that a lack of preparation and relevant curriculum is generating the fear and confusion that surrounds menarche. Because the needs of these girls aren't being very well met, menstruation continues to be a mystery for these girls, which can have serious implications as they transition to other milestones in life.

Proposal Pitch
October 30, 2011

I'm making a service to be used by young women that educates and supports their menstrual health needs both contextually and continuously.

who this is for

My focus had narrowed to designing for young girls between the ages of 8 and 16 with the intention of providing a better curriculum early on at the most compelling point of intervention—the very beginning of their menstrual journey.

Most girls begin to menstruate at the age of 12 or 13, but menstruation can start as early as the age of 8. And regardless of when the menstruation actually starts, not knowing what changes to expect can provoke unfounded fears or anxiety. So it's important to start the education and support process before the onset of the first period.

And what about the gap between the first period at 12 or 13 and the first visit to the gynecologist at around 21? Or is it 15? 18? Somehow, at some point, these young women are supposed to transition from embracing their puberty to embracing an understanding of sexual health. That transition seems pretty undefined.

It's not surprising that these girls have more questions than answers and seek comfort from others who have been through a similar experience.

Week 8: A Little More Concrete
November 14, 2011

Chloe started us off by having us bring in an object that tells a story about ourselves and our thesis. I chose the Nike+ watch because it's been a key factor in finally running my first half marathon this past summer. The Nike+ system is something I've been a part of since 2007 and it's what got me into running in the first place, lowering the barrier to entry just enough for me to get started from literally no running experience whatsoever. To add to that, the Nike+ system has grown with me over time, producing more sophisticated products that are relevant to whatever technology and habits I encompass today.

I hope to develop a thesis project that has similar notes, given that menstruation is a life-long process. It's an analogous example, for sure, but it gives me some tangible characteristics to aspire for.

I started with just three personas, each covering a specific phase of the menstrual life cycle: a 9 year old girl who hasn't had her period yet but is forming her first impressions of menstruation, a 12 year old girl who has just experienced her first period, and a 37 year old mother who has had her period for awhile and happens to have a daughter who is soon going to have her first period as well.

Because menstruation can be super broad, I narrowed my lifecycle down to cover the 1st exposure and 1st period leading up to the 2nd period.

I then set up a "confession booth" in the studio. Starting with my peers (both guys and gals), I wanted to know the stories and impressions surrounding menstruation. What was their first period like? What's their experience now?

Inspired by Carrie and Kristin's "King of Two Wheels" confession booth idea, I set up my own set of posted questions and recording space.

I added a psychogram into the process to see how my female peers would emotionally map their menstrual cycles.

Just a handful of awesome studiomates who answered my questions.

From Her Perspective
Finally, I was able to interview an 11 year old. And I was blown away (and relieved by finally being able to talk to someone in my target age range).

Hannah said she was nervous and excited at the same time about her period. Nervous because the experience of having a period is completely foreign. Excited because it means she's officially growing up. There's a whole lot of waiting in the meantime.

Due to her conversations with her mom, Hannah generally knows what to do and the biological aspect of things (though maybe not why we have to bleed during our periods), but feels anxious about how she'll actually feel during the experience.

And finally, she has a lot of questions about puberty and the period. What will it be like? Will it be painful? How do you use certain items? There's a mixture of curiosity and anxiety around growing up. What else is going to happen or change? What will she look like at the end of puberty? Is she done growing in height? When do certain changes occur?

Many questions and concerns that have far more to do with the subjective experience of menstruation, more so than the biological.

hovering queen

Problem space narrowed and audience defined, it was now time to really nail my concept. Except, I waned back and forth for some time, completely insecure about my ability to come up with a good idea. I even went so far as to change my target audience to women between the ages of 18 and 30, scared that it might be tough to gain access to my ideal target audience.

My biggest challenge has always been in narrowing down my scope. I hate making decisions, but I've had to force myself to do so. I needed to keep in mind to first make decisions so that I can move forward knowing that I can always make changes or slight pivots later on.

Do Fruitful Diversions Exist?
January 29, 2012

A question that keeps coming to mind in the recent weeks is whether or not diversions are okay.

After spending the latter half of last semester focusing on women between the ages of 18-30, I'm now probably reverting back to my original target audience of girls ages 8-15. Yeah. It took me about 2 months of exploration and conversations to realize that my original hypothesis and audience group was spot on.

I can't help but wonder if those 2 months equates to time wasted. Actually, my fear is that I took a diversion that may end up costing me in the months ahead. Had I stuck with the original hypothesis and target audience, would I already have nailed a concept and been in prototyping mode?

I'm trying to tell myself that diversions are all part of the process. That it's okay to follow an assumption and turn around when it proves wrong. I guess the perfectionist in me just wishes that I had it right all throughout. But I guess it wouldn't be a thesis, nor a project worth pursuing to this capacity, if it were that easy to nail.

After some back and forth, I decided to focus in on young girls who are preparing for or have just gotten their very first period. Through my service, I wanted to reframe the way these girls receive support as they transition through such radical changes. While my long-term vision is that my service could be continuous through all of a woman's life transitions, and possibly applied to other aspects of health, I decided to focus in on the first year of a girl's menstrual experience.

My approach is three-fold: 1) Help these young girls prepare for and understand what to expect; 2) facilitate social support through peers and others who understand; and 3) engage with these girls in a timely, consistent, and continuous manner.

Final Concept
When I conducted the video interviews in the studio, a common complaint regardless of audience type was the burden in having to remember to carry around a pad. The interesting thing is that first period kits are provided to young girls to prepare them. But why do these kits stop at just the first period? And particularly when it's a burden to remember each month, why couldn't the kits arrive on a monthly basis when you actually need them?

There's potential for these kits in that the first kit could very much prepare the girls, but the subsequent kit could then congratulate and inform them about what to expect next, and so forth.

It could be something as simple and thoughtful as this:

It's a compilation of items curated for me by one of my closest friends, Heidi. It's her collection of graduate school survival items that she's packaged and mailed to me each year. But my most favorite part of the package is the tiny and thoughtful post-it that she attaches to each item. There's meaning to what she selects for me and a clear benefit, given my circumstances.

This is the kind of timely and emotional experience that I wanted to emulate in my service. A service that is there when I need it, knows me, surprises me, and makes my life easier.

Final Concept!
February 4, 2012

I don't have a name for my concept just yet, but I've solidified the idea. About time!

The Core Idea The heart of my service is an amalgamation of two core ideas: 1) "girls helping girls" and 2) "the right info by the right person at the right time".

In other words, I'm hoping to design a service that delivers real life answers to girls when they need them the most from those who matter the most—other girls.

Through prototyping, the core idea slighty shifted, as expected. My service, unlike a typical and singular period kit, would expand the first period kit into many period kits that mothers can personalize and pass on to their daughters. I decided to go with mothers first because as my research indicated, mothers are the primary source of information for young girls.

Delivered monthly during the first year of a girl's experience, the service would explore the different facets of this milestone, taking what's often seen as biological, embarrassing and singular, and celebrating it as a rite of passage.

Designing a service always feels fuzzy at first, but it will crystallize as you pull things together.
Phi-Hong D Ha
setting the stage

In moving forward with my concept, I identified some design principles that my service must adhere to. With that meant crafting the narrative of the overall experience.

Design Principles

My service will...

Intervene at a compelling point(s),
Educate about and provide access to clear and accurate information,
Facilitate support through social contexts,
Remain continuous over time,
And redesign the menstrual experience into one that's celebratory and even delightful.

Conflicts in a Narrative
In Narrative and Interactivity with David Womack, we created a Freytag plot triangle as a way to describe our thesis project. Freytag's Triangle is a method of analyzing story plots through the following elements: An introduction, a conflict(s), climax, and a resolution. In a way, our own thesis projects each have a narrative and should, if considered and crafted well, fall within this framework.

Here was my attempt at mapping my thesis narrative to the triangle, considering the story from both the user and service perspective.

Defining Service Moments
I spent some time defining service moments and touch points. It's an exercise that we learned to do in Phi's Service Design class and has been extremely helpful in substantiating seemingly unanchored ideas. What resulted was a rough blueprint of the service and user experience, the major touch points involved, and possible prototype ideas.

And finally, a rough sketch of what the user journey could be.

Lindsey is an 11 year old girl who hasn't started her period just yet. She's feeling excited about reaching the milestone, but nervous about what it's going to be like. She arrives home one day after school and sees a package on her desk.

Lindsey opens the package. There's a message inside. It's a gift from her mom.

Opening it, she finds a first period survival kit. "Here are items to make sure you're prepared, no matter where you are or when it happens" it says.

She sees a small card attached to each item. One reads "I won't lie, cramps can hurt for some of us girls. Just know that it's perfectly normal to experience some pain and there are ways to relieve it, like a heating pad."

She also finds a story written by another girl describing her first period. Lindsey can follow the girl's experience on the service.

Lindsey downloads the app and finds other stories and questions from this girl. Lindsey's relieved to discover that she's not alone with her feelings and questions.

Over the months, Lindsey continues to engage with the app, sharing concerns, stories, and questions of her own.

One day, she feels a weird sensation in her stomach. It's not like the normal stomachaches she's familiar with. And it keeps coming and going all day. Lindsey's heard about cramps being a symptom for a period.

Later that day, she asks others if this is normal. "Yeah", a lot of them respond, "be sure to take your kit with you to school, just in case!"

Sure enough, a few days later, Lindsey gets her very first period. Thankfully, she has her kit with her.

A few weeks later, another kit arrives. Inside, she finds goods and advice on what to expect and how to prepare for the second period.

And over time, the kits keep coming. Each kit is different and guides her through her transition.

2 years later and Lindsey is well adjusted to her period.

Lindsey's little sister, Sophie, is just about to turn 11. Lindsey decides to gift her with a kit as well, filled with her own experiences.

core framework

Before I could prototype, I needed to establish a strong framework to keep my various touch points connected. This framework would then guide my prototyping plan, making sure that I wouldn't get stuck in the weeds.

Because my service embodies a constant feedback loop from a physical kit to a digital app, I needed to ensure that both touch points have a common framework. This framework can be distilled down to the following components:

A personal story
A guiding anecdote
A charm

All three components needed to be addressed in both the physical and digital touch points. As a result, I identified how these touch points should connect and who will be providing them.

Then I determined the flows for each user involved. First, the "gifter" assembling the kit:

And a girl receiving the kit.

Once the girl accesses the digital app, she can do one of three main things. To start, she can browse the stories provided by the network of other girls. I'm using the term "story" in a very loose way–I need to be more specific about the length and tone of the story. As of now, my intended form for the story is more of a thoughtful note than a long form story. This is partly determined by the environment (typing a long story is cumbersome in an app), but also by my larger goal (I want the stories to be digestible, more easily generated on a daily basis, and encourage the kind of thoughtfulness that an unmoderated, infinite forum fails to do).

She can browse by the story or collection and leave a comment.

The girl can also submit a "story". She does this by linking it to an available collection (constrained by where she is on her timeline within the year long service). Taking the "I feel..." theme and story framework provided to the parent, she's also guided to submit her story in a similar manner. The only difference is that whereas the parent is constrained by the size of the paper, the girl is constrained by a certain number of characters. She also has the option to keep some stories to herself, rather than share it to the network. Finally, depending on the privacy settings controlled by the parent, the girl's post will be emailed to the parent for moderation—This also encourages the parent to have a pulse on what the girl is experiencing.

And of course, the charms.

The girl can see an overview of all the charms she has received (which will also be physically represented by the charms on her bracelet), along with a hint of how many more she has left to obtain. In a way, the charms almost function like badges—Metaphors for the mini-milestones that she's reaching along the way. She can also tap into each charm to view more details. My intention is that the stories and interactions across the kits and app are architected around each charm. As a result, each charm has a linked collection of stories across the network that's referenced by both the parents and the girls.

Connecting the "Something..." framework, the girl can also view a guided anecdote with each charm. However, these guided anecdotes are provided by the service instead. My intention is that guided anecdotes stay just that: Guided and provided by "experts" like parents and the service.

Finally, the girl can also view all the stories that she's provided for that charm. By stitching all the stories together in one place, she's able to see fuller and more holistic overview of the different facets of emotions and thoughts she's experienced surrounding that charm/theme.

learning by prototype

And on to prototyping! My main intention behind the prototypes was to find a strong framework for the kits and different touch points of my service.

There were three major aspects of my service that I wanted to prototype.

The web-based network that facilitates storytelling and sharing among these girls,
The physical kit that then gets sent to each girl,
The overall service that successfully converges the network and the kit.

What excited me was that I was somehow designing for the convergence of service, social and physical that Hugh Dubberly eloquently articulates.

Week 21: Prototyping Small
February 17, 2012

Initially, I had thought that I would have to prototype my entire service. But luckily, friends and thesis buddies quickly brought me back down to earth. No, silly me, I don't need to prototype my entire service all at once. Rather, I can prototype specific moments. Cooper said something really succinct the other day: "Prototype your riskiest hypothesis."

After identifying the three parts to my prototyping phase (service, web component, and physical kit), and then running through the life cycle exercise, I have a couple concrete prototyping ideas that I want to pursue. The prototypes are focused on either the physical kit or the content on the site (that then feeds back into the kit).

I started with a Pinterest prototype and gave participants four parameters: Create a board, give it a theme or name, give it an apt description, and for each pin, include a short anecdote about why it matters.

The "1st period survival (kit)" is a collection of the essential items that every girl needs, such as a sampler of pads and tampons, pain killers, and so on.

"My 'Friend' is Coming to Town" is about practical essentials with a charming touch.

"Red-y or Not, Here It Comes" was a period survival kit for all ages. A little bit of R&R mixed with a touch of empowerment.

Just 3 of many other Pinterest kits that were created, I noticed that while many of the kits had similar items or themes, each kit had delightful differences. For each woman, the items had different associations or origins.

I then created a real kit of my own in an effort to understand the framework that I was embedding into the kit. I imagined that I was assembling a kit for my future daughter and picked out 5 items that I thought were essential for different reasons (a huge thanks to tinabeans for inspiring the simple but effective framework—she's amazing at it).

My analog kit with anecdotes for each item and what I thought each item represented.

I gave the kit a title and my own personal story of my first period experience.

A formal framework.

Ready to go to be used in a participatory card sorting.

The framework that I was able to extract includes the following:

"I Feel...": A structure for naming the kit,
"Something" cards: A structure for knowing what items to include as well as a way for the user to personalize,
"My Story": An opportunity to share a personal story.

I then ran a participatory card sorting exercise using my framework. Each participant had three scenarios to build a kit for: The very first period and kit, 2 months into the journey around the different kinds of symptoms to expect, and near the end of the journey a year later.

Sophie working through the exercise.

I initially thought my framework and subsequent card sort would be too simple and short, but the sort actually took far longer than I had expected. And to my surprise, the participant didn't run out of things to include or say, despite having to create 3 different kits.

Is my framework clear and understandable?
If anything, the participants commented that they preferred the simplicity of the framework. It gave enough structure to help them know what to do, but kept things from becoming too complicated or overwhelming.

How much guidance vs openness do I need to balance with this framework?
I do think I'll have to include a guided and defined framework, but only at the beginning of the process. Perhaps, just as a way to acclimate the "gifters" into the service before they're ready to create on their own.

What have I missed? What's surprising?
One participant hadn't ever considered her period in the phases I provided (1st period, two months after starting, one year later), but commented that they make sense in retrospect. She just never knew to think about her period in this way while growing up. Once she made that realization, she had different intentions for each kit.

a design evolution

Finally, using the insights from the prototypes, I moved into fleshing out the remainder of my touch points. Branding played a key role in this phase and proved to be much harder than I expected.

On Branding
My initial explorations were immediately about something bright and vibrant with an attention to design that conveys "your experience matters", not "this is a clinical experience dipped in frilly pink".

But I found that the branding was still not quite there, not quite right. It still lacked a clear voice. And the logo was veering a little too close towards "cute".

I struggled with the naming of my service as well, considering "The Red Thread", "Ellipsis", and others. After awhile, I decided that I needed to just move forward and that the name could always be changed later down the road. So, I went with "ipsis", a play on the word "ellipsis", which was in turn a play on the word "period". As in, let's continue the conversation. A bit diluted, yes, but it had to suffice.

Dave and I decided to swap advice: I'd review his wireframes if he'd review my branding (or lack, thereof). It was incredibly helpful and I went from something like this...

To this!

Digital Touchpoints!
The digital component of my service included three touchpoints.

The first touch point is the splash page where people discover the service and the intended experience. Fairly straightforward and will feature a user journey video that shows the experience more so than the specifics of "how it works".

The second is the iPad app in which the mom constructs and personalizes the kits. A few example screens:

A visual view of what comprises the kit and what needs to be completed.

Choosing a charm for the kit.

And adding items to the kit with recommendations on what would be good for a particular month.

And finally, the iPod Touch app for the girl.

Native Prototyping
Next, I turned my wireframes into clickable prototypes within their native environments. I wanted to reach this stage as quickly as possible so that I could really understand the experience and what truly doesn't work or falls short. Subsequently, I ended up iterating on my wireframes two more times.

The iPad app for the mother. I'm trying to help her visualize the kit as much as possible using analog cues (i.e. the items are arranged and displayed as "boxes").

Entering a secret code gives the girl access to the app!

Her interactions are fairly simple (not simplistic). She can access her unlocked charms and send out and receive thoughts from girls within the network.

The girl can see what other girls have "pinged". The charms and subsequent themes serve as topics of conversation.

The Physical Kit
After getting my app prototypes to a fairly okay place, I decided to switch gears and concentrate on prototyping the kit.

I started with a quick and dirty version, just to get things rolling.

Four variations of how the boxes could display information.

Opening a supporting box would reveal an explanation card and the item.

Then bumped up the fidelity.

A peek of hot pink! The envelope on top is the letter/story from the mother.

nd the letter reveal! Hot pink, yup.

Making It Real
The physical kit took many iterations. Far more than I had accounted for in my thesis process. But I was finally able to wrap up all touch points.

The ipad app for the mother. The service educates a mother on what to talk about and how to talk about it. Mothers serve as the gateway for passing on lessons, advice and stories.

The iPad app prototype can be viewed here.

The physical kit.

The the daughter receives a series of personalized kits centered around topics and items selected by her mother.

These items transfer the knowledge, competence, and emotional confidence to guide her through her experience.

And finally, a charm provided with each kit symbolically marks each chapter of the girl's story. Charm bracelets are historically a way to record personal events.

As an opt-in, the charms initiate the daughter into a network of others who have been there, providing a further place to share and converse. The iPod Touch prototype can be viewed here.

And all together now.

Through the lens of personal stories and experiences, ipsis aims to deliver meaningful exchanges about female sexuality and womanhood.

The most important unit of time is our heartbeat... How can we be sure that our users spend their heartbeats wisely?
Paul Ford, SVA IN/VISION Festival Commencement Speech

In futurespect.

Thesis has been delivered. The seven minute pitch has been publically presented. And my grad school career is officially over.

So, what now?

I can see ipsis going a number of ways. One is that the curriculum behind the service, as is, is just a scaffolding. The outline of what it could be is there but the content now needs to be more thoroughly fleshed out. Second is getting the kits out into the hands of real users. Perhaps even running through an initial ipsis "beta" with a select group of families to see how else the service needs to morph. Third is building out the digital app for curating the kits and building a real and shared community around it. There was something really powerful in the nuances of the Pinterest prototype and I'd love to see how those could be further captured and encouraged.

Though thesis is coming to an end, I feel as though ipsis is just at the beginning. Many of the key pieces are there, enough to start a kickstarter, or find a like-minded cofounder, or take the concept into an incubator. In the start-up lifecycle, ipsis is right at the point where it'd go through a rebranding, renaming, and polishing of rough edges.

Personally, I'm at a crossroads. It seems such a waste to just close the door on ipsis and let it remain as a thesis project. But I'm not entirely sure how to proceed forward and whether or not I'm ready to move forward with it. I do know that the problem space behind ipsis is a real need. Schools just don't have the time or funding to invest in curriculums surrounding this topic. Sanitary napkin companies, for reasons that are semi understandable, will always be driven by revenue and the lowest risk. And the health industry is only now beginning to reshape itself. I can see ipsis being the alternative route for fulfilling the need for better conversations and experiences around menstrual health.