Last year, I found an opportunity to design for social impact through The Wearables for Social Good (WSG) challenge, a contest organized by UNICEF and frog. It involved designing a wearable for the developing world based around a specific population and need. I decided to focus on pregnant women who have limited access to healthcare resources. Women and mothers are cornerstones to a healthy community, and yet across cultures they are underprivileged and overworked. This was the perfect opportunity for me to learn about and design for this underserved group.
Life as a pregnant woman involves many complexities. In a developing country, daily chores do not halt, resources are scarce or inaccessible, and lack of knowledge is a constant impediment to well-being. During my research process I found a trove of online information through OpenIDEO, a community of innovators that engage in design projects for a range of topics. I found OpenIDO innovators who documented their design process, including their own first-hand interviews with pregnant women and medical staff in Africa and India. I realized a few core facts that helped me structure my design challenge:
- Every pregnancy is different. Every woman is different, from her symptoms and her environment to when she will go into labor. There is no typical pregnancy. This variability means that information and resources have to be convenient.
- Time is valuable. An expecting mother has access to knowledge and some limited resources through her community, but what she lacks is time. She is likely overloaded with many responsibilities including a full day of work and home chores. This makes it too easy for her to de-prioritize self-care, even though the key to having a healthy baby is to focus on her own needs.
- Access and level of health resources are constrained. In Africa, the closest medical center may be an hour walk away. In this world, midwives are an incredibly important source of guidance and care. They travel to those in need of care, and also operate at their hospital home bases. They also work in very resource-constrained conditions that may not even have a consistent source of electricity. The World Health Organization states that, “investing in human capital such as midwives for childbirth is the wisest investment that we make, to ensure sustainability, ownership, fulfillment, and consistently high results.”
Given the aforementioned insights, I decided that my product should help women prioritize their own care during a pregnancy, and it should aid midwives in their resource-constrained duties. Two stories of need stuck with me most:
- Women and men do not adhere to PrEP medication for fear of stigma, even though HIV transmission is at stake. A 2014 study in South African communities found that even when pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP) HIV prevention medication is available, adherence remains low because of the social stigma associated with taking it. Women fear discrimination and social isolation from being (mistakenly or not) identified as HIV positive. They even fear being thrown out of the household if their husband finds the familiar looking PrEP pill bottles/gel and accuses them of bringing AIDS into the home.
My goal: How can I increase adherence to medication and eliminate the fear of social stigma?
- Midwives work in conditions of extremely scarce resources, even light. In an online article, famed midwife Esther Madudu tells the tale of greeting a woman in labor in the middle of the night. With no electricity, she had to deliver the baby, outside using the light of a streetside lamp.
My goal: How can I help empower midwives to make their jobs easier, and to reduce the pain points they experience?
Designing with a Purpose
In addition to understanding needs of users, I had to define the attributes of my wearable solution. This required assessing the strengths of wearable technology and accounting for its common pitfalls.
- The wearable should be convenient. It should not obstruct daily duties to a point where a pregnant mother forgets to use it.
- The wearable should allow for personalization. Every situation is different after all, and all mothers need access to the right information and social resources.
- The wearable should support the role of midwives. Empowering midwives will positively impact many pregnancies, and strengthen existing healthcare infrastructures.
- The wearable should be comfortable. It should provide a function that needs to be easily accessible at any time and all times.
- Whether intended or not, it should be considered that a wearable makes a statement about its wearer. An April 2015 study of UK users found that people formed judgments and preconceived notions of those who wore Apple watches. The judgments themselves varied based on individual experiences and preconceptions.
I came up with about 30 ideas before honing in on the one I thought was best. Even with all of my guiding criteria, the ideation process was messy and I was caught between several ideas for solutions. What helped me most was to revisit other successful designs on OpenIDEO and re-learn an important lesson: a small effort can go a long way. There are many active initiatives that help users women in developing countries, and their common strength is that they focus on improving simple aspects of a woman’s life. My last guiding principle was this:
Focusing on simplicity means focusing on solving single, unique problems. Introducing complexity will entail ambiguous, extraneous design.
As I evaluated my ideas against the original criteria I laid out above and the design principles of the contest, I found that one idea resonated best.