Our Outsiders on the Inside Mini Conference–the fifth and biggest event yet in our panel series–was a passion project from the beginning. In fact, for a while we weren’t sure what the level of engagement would be, having been told by a few different parties that it would be tough to “sustain” interest in three women’s health events in a day. The naysayers need not have worried: our community (and a ton of new faces) came through in a major way, and we are as grateful for that support as ever.
As a token of our appreciation, we’re recapping some of the core themes we took away from the discussions. (P.S. – It’s almost the one year anniversary of Outsiders on the Inside! Click here for a look at the year in review).
The most central theme from June’s Outsiders on the Inside Mini Conference was one that has come up before during our panel discussions: why is women’s health still not being taken seriously?? The space is drawing increased attention (and yes, funding) but a pervasive narrative persists: that women’s health is a narrow category focused on fertility and sex toys. In reality, women’s health is an expansive category representing menopause, pelvic health, menstruation, breast feeding, and yes, fertility and sex toys (plus so much more). Addressing the healthcare needs of 50% of the population is not a limited pursuit–especially when this 50% of the population is also responsible for 80% of decision-making in households. The data is clear: women’s health is not niche.
Take menopause for example. There will be 1.5 billion women in menopause by 2025 [Liz Gazda, CEO of Embr Labs]. Every day, another 6,000 people enter menopause. No matter how you define the market, it’s gigantic. [Tracy MacNeal, President and CEO of Materna Medical]. On the birth control side, the pill is the most common form of contraception [Amanda French, Founder and CEO of Emme] and 14% of women in the US between the ages of 15 and 49 are currently using it (CDC). The data make a compelling case for a marketing opportunity in pelvic health and breastfeeding as well: Roughly 24% of women in the US experience some sort of pelvic floor disorder in their lifetime (NIH), and 84% of infants in the US are breastfed for a period of time (CDC). Plus, with digital health and ambient monitoring (we <3 wearables, read more about our work with them here) making huge strides, we’re finally getting to see real growth in preventative care and personalized medicine–areas that largely appeal to women.
Aside from the data, there are cultural and societal shifts at play that are creating opportunities within the category too. After decades (centuries!) of unrealistic body standards dominating advertising, tampon taxes, and shaming around almost any female bodily function, women are pushing back. Enter: indie brands celebrating period flow, #masturbationmay, and the end of Victoria Secret’s angels. A new generation of women is ready to talk about their bodies in a way that is self-accepting, authentic, and driven by love, not lack. Women account for over half the global population (that’s almost 4 billion people with periods) (News 18) and they have a demonstrated appetite for products and solutions that: 1) Cater to their needs and 2) Make them feel good in and about their bodies. Our hot take? Women’s health is anything but niche–so let’s just call it “health.”
At Loft, we believe design has the power to improve people’s lives–we just need to leverage it properly. Turns out our panelists agreed. Good design allows for the creation of healthy holistic experiences, not just products. For example, take Emme: a birth control device that goes way beyond Rx to bring users a curated contraception experience. It’s not just about taking the pill once a day (or else!). It’s about acknowledging that sometimes we forget to bring them with us, take them, and refill them. This design-forward approach is echoed in Sam Rudolph’s Babyation. Yes, it’s a breast pump. But it’s also a device that gives women back their privacy and a sense of control and choice. It’s empowering.
At its most intentional, design can be the differentiator between patronization and shiny object syndrome (shiny object syndrome, or SOS noun: psychological concept where people focus on a shiny, new object...whatever is most current, trendy, or the latest concept, regardless of how valuable or helpful it may ultimately be). Design allows us to think deeply about the connections, what the product means, and how people are going to use it. While we’re still in the shiny object phase, progress is being made to develop products and experiences that truly do make a difference to the user [Margaux Boyaval, Teva Pharmaceuticals].
The road out of patronization and SOS relies on honest answers to some key questions:
In this process, the designer’s role is to first recognize the potential for inequalities, strive to create a balance, and build systems that make life as ‘good’ and ‘easier’ for as many people as possible. “There is a ton of opportunity in this space [digital health], but we just have to be able to think about it from the perspective of how do we make a better experience.” shares Megan Wimmer, a Senior Design Thinking Leader at GE Healthcare. For example, we often think that transitioning to digital tools, appointments, and ecosystems with less interaction makes things easier for everyone, but we’re starting to realize that this isn’t always the case. New touchpoints and digital elements may be creating more inequality in the system. As Clare Jessey notes, “We have the ability to collect a ton of data, but the question is going to be can we craft a meaningful story and make it proactive while providing data that you care about.” Ultimately, as we navigate these questions, we might come across unexpected answers. In fact, sometimes the most innovative solution is simply, less [Danielle Snyder, Associate VP-Design Strategy at Humana Healthcare].
There’s a common pitfall in the design and innovation space. Too often the industry gets caught up in ideating and creating products they think people need – not ones they actually do. We’ve been down this road a few times with digital health: apps and trackers that don’t actually add value to the user’s life, and therefore go unused and forgotten... or medical devices that are so complicated they leave both the tech and the patient frustrated. Caught up in the throes of shiny object syndrome and patronization, it’s not unheard of for designers to think they “get” the end user, making decisions based on gut rather than informed research and interviews. Danielle Snyder of Humana puts it perfectly: “As designers, framing the right problem and making sure you’re solving it at the right level is really important.”
Women’s health has been particularly susceptible to these issues. Think sex toys designed for the male gaze rather than female pleasure, breast pumps that are impossible to clean, carry, or use discreetly, pelvic floor devices that advertise a shapely buttocks instead of the actual health benefits of the product. The list goes on. For too long, women put up with shoddy options simply because they were the only options. Thankfully, this is starting to change. As new products flood into the women’s health space, women are calling B.S. on poor design, materials, and advertising practices. We’re demanding more, better options.
There is demand for products that solve real problems. If we learned anything from last month’s Mini Conference, it’s that if you want in on the women’s health gold rush, you better do your research and show up authentically, ready to ask questions, and truly understand the needs of the end user. These are nuanced conversations–one size does not fit all.
Melinda Gates said it best: “we like to think that venture capital is driven by the power of good ideas. But by the numbers, it’s men who have the keys”. Ideating and prototyping a new women’s health product is difficult enough. But then comes the truly hard part: raising money to back it. Convincing a male-dominated investment team to fund taboo women’s health products is a long and hard road. Most men, and frankly women too, are uncomfortable talking about vaginas, breasts, orgasms, and pelvic health – especially in a group setting. This makes pitching tough and securing capital even tougher. While each panelist has their own style of presenting to investors, all of them acknowledge that the easiest ways to tackle taboo topics are to:
Anna Lee, Founder and CEO of Lioness, a sex toy company, and Sam Rudolph, Founder and CEO of Babyation, a discreet breast pump solution, go all-in. They believe that if you are proud of your products and the impact they are going to have on people’s lives, there is no reason to hide what the product is–even if it means getting people out of their comfort zone. Or, in the case of Anna, having male investors refuse to touch your prototype. Tracy from Moderna takes a slightly different approach, “Our products are [technically] vaginal dilators and I never say that.” Instead, she favors leading with the investment opportunity and the potential of the market. A data-forward approach means leveraging astounding facts to demonstrate to investors the sheer size of the potential customer base “Menopause is an $8.5 billion dollar market in the US alone. It’s four times greater than the four leading male health issues” [Liz Gazda of Embr Labs]. Sounds like a pretty compelling stat to us.
Despite the hard days, the frustrating investor meetings, and the roadblocks, these leaders are committed to seeing their products to market. They know their “why” – their reason for getting out of bed and persevering each day. For many, what drives them is knowing how many women their products can help. Ti Chang, Co-founder and VP of design at Crave and a female Industrial Designer, points out that due to the lack of women in design, products are not tailored to the female experience and body. She adds that less than 20% of women can orgasm through penetration alone while most vibrators are still designed for that. She’s motivated to educate women on sexual wellness by creating products that are beautiful yet functional and pleasurable. She wants more products designed by women, period. And we couldn’t agree more.
This month we’re looking back on a year of our Outsiders on the Inside panel series. When we hosted our first Outsiders on the Inside panel we had no idea what the future held. We are so grateful for the 25+ panelists that took the time to be part of these events over the past year, and of course to all of you for your support. All of the recordings are available in full on YouTube, and you can watch all the highlights here.