Women have a natural, and predictable, cycle which impacts how their strengths and weaknesses are manifest throughout the month. As such, they need tools to help them understand and work with their natural cycles so that they can tap into their greatest potential.
Although there are apps that aim to help women with their awareness of these changes, they are treated as an aspect of health, separate and distinct from other aspects of their lives. The fact is, the menstrual cycle affects far more than a woman’s health. However, it remains up to women to regularly track, identify, and compare monthly patterns in their mood, motivation, and productivity. Then, they have to determine if, and how, these patterns are impacting their daily lives.
While many apps track and account for common trends, there isn’t an app to account for how hormonal changes may impact the plans for each day. Other apps manage and organize time, create to-do lists and enhance productivity. Yet despite their best efforts, the implications of hormonal changes are simply not accounted for in productivity apps.
Essence provides a solution as it brings menstrual cycle awareness and daily planning together. The greatest challenge in this project was determining how to display scheduling information alongside relevant cycle data in a simple, digestible way without overwhelming users.
I began my research learning how people generally plan and what impact their cycle has on their daily lives.
I interviewed women between the ages of 25-40. I focused on how these women planned and organized their time. These interviews, due to Covid-19, were all conducted through video conferencing. I included mothers and working professionals in my research group to see how (and if) these women planned differently.
Creating affinity maps revealed 3 key things:
- Women need to have a calendar to schedule important things or things that are further into the future.
- Women need to be able to very quickly and (more importantly) easily write out the things they need to accomplish without the necessity of scheduling a time for it to be completed.
- Women need to be able to set reminders or alerts for things that they cannot and should not forget (but probably will forget despite the alarm).
I tucked my initial findings aside and began focusing my research on periods and menstrual cycles.
I conducted a 5-week diary study with family and friends. I began the diary study with a background survey that allowed me to gather information about opinions and mental models of participants regarding their menstrual cycle.
To maintain active participation and obtain digestible data, I created Google surveys for participants to complete. Every other day participants answered the same questions regarding their mood, motivation, and feelings. Weekly, they also indicated where they were in their cycle. That way, data from each woman’s cycle day 1 could be compared between participants despite the day of the diary study.
I found that all participants considered their period to be synonymous with their menstrual cycle. Only those who struggled with fertility or were using natural means of contraception also considered ovulation as a part of the menstrual cycle. No participants considered implications of their menstrual cycle beyond what corresponded with ovulation or bleeding.
Now that I had a perspective about how women plan and the impact of menstruation, I needed to further understand how to effectively consider menstruation while planning and working to enhance one’s life. I also needed to understand the products currently available to improve planning and menstruation. I looked at competitor’s apps to understand standards, and expectations of early adopters.
Claire Baker is a period coach who explains how tracking one’s period and being aware of the patterns from one cycle to the next is essential to becoming more effective and productive. She claims, “I believe that working with our natural rhythm (rather than working against it) is the missing key when it comes to women’s wellbeing.”
She also confirmed my finding that women consider the menstrual cycle to be their period. In her book 50 Things You Need to Know About Periods Baker observed, “You may be surprised to learn that, if you’re someone who menstruates, you are at this very moment in time (and at every minute of every day) experiencing one of the four phases of the menstrual cycle.” She recognizes that women often don’t consider each and every day a part of their menstrual cycle.
Baker teaches women to chart, or track, each day and phase of their cycle so that they can approach important aspects of their life differently. Charting includes considering how one is feeling in each of four categories: physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual.
Since menstrual cycles affect so many things in women’s daily lives, they need to be thinking about them more than once a month. They need to be aware of them more constantly. The problem is that for most women the term menstrual cycle often equates to nothing more than the period and ovulation.
As I compared various period tracking apps I was unable to find any app that integrated with a traditional calendar. The apps were either specifically dedicated to tracking data about periods or they were part of tracking other health information. I observed that period apps vary in their purposes. While some focus on symptoms others focus on ovulation. Yet others focus on cycle education and building community with other women. Despite these differences, they all have ways to track information, usually with a combination of icons and text. I implemented this in my design, opting for sliders and buttons with icons to represent information to be tracked.
Cycle Effects Survey
Determining what would be important in tracking a cycle was almost overwhelming because of the possibilities of data that could be tracked. I didn’t want users to feel overwhelmed when tracking their lives. I knew including period symptoms and emotions would be important, but I wasn’t sure what else other people cared about. I didn’t want to assume that users cared about the same things I did, so I conducted a Google survey.
I had a list of things I considered important based on personal experience and my secondary research from Claire Baker. I asked “When considering how your menstrual hormones affect other aspects of your life, what aspects do you find most important to understand?” My list included 12 options. I asked participants to select all aspects that were important to them. I also asked an open-ended question to allow participants to add or clarify their response.
From the Menstrual Cycle Effects survey, I found that energy level was just as important as mood as it related to hormone changes. In addition, over 30% of the women wanted to know how their stress, food cravings, motivation, and sex drive were impacted by their menstrual cycles. Less than 30% found other aspects, like food aversions and hours of sleep, impactful when related to their cycles. I included all aspects that more than 30% of women valued in my design.
In addition, I recognized that my survey group was disproportionately abstinent from sex. This, I concluded, would likely have decreased the percentage of participants who cared to track sex drive. For this reason I also included sex drive as an important aspect to track.
I considered how the aspects I included compared to the four categories Baker recommends charting. I realized there was one important aspect none of my data considered. According to Baker, women’s mental, emotional, and spiritual attributes determine whether they are feeling more or less social. Based on Baker’s findings, I chose to include sociability as another point of data for users to track.
Once I’d compiled this data I created several empathy maps. I discovered two groups of women I’d interviewed: those focused on their career and those focused on their family. Their thoughts and behaviors differed and became the basis for the empathy maps representing each group.
After reviewing the data from my diary study, I needed a way to express the changes in thoughts, words, feelings, and actions over the course of a menstrual cycle. Based on data I’d gathered through secondary research, I broke my empathy map into 4 phases, representing the 4 phases of the menstrual cycle. This demonstrated the differences between each phase of the menstrual cycle.
I found distinct changes in mood and behavior directly before and directly after the period. Directly before their period women were more unmotivated, irritable, and tired. Once they began their period there was a release of stress. Some women explained how starting their period helped them realize why they had been so stressed and irritable the previous few days. After their period ended women were more energetic. They felt more capable and glad to be done bleeding. About two weeks after their period began (during ovulation) the women felt less stress. Often, they felt most productive during this time. This would be the end of one cycle before they drop back into lack of motivation, irritability, and exhaustion.
Conclusion of Research
Although I began with the idea to create a better planner, I quickly transitioned into creating a product that wouldn’t just help women plan their tasks more effectively, but also help them to live more fully as they develop awareness of their menstrual cycle and how it influences their productivity.
To represent the data I’d gathered I separated the culmination of my data into three groups: young women between 12-18, women focused on careers between 19-40, and women focused on families between 19-40.
When considering the thoughts and focus of my users I recognized that, although girls as young as 11 may begin their period, they are not likely to be scheduling appointments and to-do tasks or using apps to manage their time. This likely wouldn’t start to happen for girls until the age of 16 when they begin to drive and have more responsibilities with work, school, friends and activities.
I also realized that women between 19-25 have more in common with their younger cohort than those near 40. These women are focused on their own development through education and experiences. Generally, it isn’t until around the age of 25 that women begin changing their focus toward careers or families.
Using these considerations and data I created personas. My personas represented 3 groups: 12-25 year olds exploring opportunities, 25-40 year olds focused on careers, and 25-40 year olds focused on families. The personas included the perspective each woman has regarding periods as well as the technology she typically uses to plan.
With my personas in place I was ready to move toward product development. Based on my research I knew there were three important things I needed to include: cycle information, a schedule, and a to-do list. The distinction between the to-do list and the schedule was important to allow for quick, easy-to-add tasks, enabling users to add tasks for the day without getting bogged down in what details may or may not be needed.
Unlike other apps, I wanted to help users understand patterns in productivity throughout their cycle, not merely during their period. This meant I needed to include information that was impacted throughout the cycle and represent a comparison of this data between cycles. This was challenging.
Although I considered having 3 separate dashboards for each element (schedule, tasks, and cycle details) I knew that users would need to see them together in order to see how they interconnect. If they were all on separate screens, then cycle details may be entirely neglected because so many women think of “period” as the only stage of their menstrual cycle. By adding all three aspects to the same screen women can begin connecting and relating these three aspects together, rather than thinking of them separately.
Visually, I wanted something simple and clean that was powerful, organic, and feminin. I chose a light green color as my primary color to represent nature, freshness, and growth as well as to be bright and calming. I chose to avoid the color red and the negative associations often tied to the blood of a period.
To add femininity and playfulness, I chose pink as my secondary color. As I designed, it became clear I needed an additional accent color to help differentiate some information. For this, I chose a pale yellow to add vibrancy and vitality.
I chose iconography that was visually simple without becoming animated or cartoon like.
Being able to add details to each of these categories was my next task in development.
Tasks and Schedules
Representing tasks and scheduled events was fairly simple: there is a fairly standard form on how to present this information. Most importantly, however, adding tasks needed to be simple. I knew it needed to take the place of writing a to-do list. That meant it needed to be as simple as inputting one task and moving to the next line to input the next task. Including alerts would be a benefit to using digital rather than analog to-do lists. I included this as an available option after tasks had been added to the task list.
Based on my competitive research, I implemented icons with text to track cycle information into my design. I opted for sliders for data that could often vary in severity. For data where more than one option may be selected I chose buttons with representative icons.
Testing and Iteration
Based on results from guerilla testing, I learned that users didn’t understand the scale that I’d created regarding various aspects of the cycle. They also reported that all the data from the cycle was overwhelming and made it hard to understand the other info on the screen. As a result, I decided to include the top 4 aspects (as determined by the survey) on the main screen and save the rest for another screen. I also confirmed that the clear indication of the days until their next period was an important/favorite element among users. Users were also happy to have a to-do list separate from their calendar.
Using InVision I created a prototype of my designs to use in user testing. As I completed my first round of user tests, I observed that it was difficult for users to understand the connection and purpose of the dashboard chart comparing their cycle day to the previous month. On other screens I had tips and text explaining what to expect in the coming days. Over half of the participants expressed how beneficial this text was. Based on these cues from users, I eliminated the difficult to differentiate chart and let the text speak for itself.
The most important aspect of my testing was determining whether users would be able to find the information that they were trying to record and track each day. It was easy to group period symptoms, food cravings, and emotions together. The other aspects, (energy, motivation, sociability, stress management, and sex drive) didn’t entirely fit in any particular group. For that reason, I began my design with these outliers on the main screen of cycle tracking. I knew these would be the aspects that were most regularly tracked so I wanted them to be readily accessible.
Before I did user testing I made a last minute decision to include the outliers all into one group. It seemed more uniform to have everything in groups. I named this group “Mental” and the other groups “Emotional,” “Physical,” and “Food Cravings.”
Upon completion of the user testing it became clear this was a bad decision. Users consistently struggled to find items located in the “Mental” category. I retested with the titles “Vital”, “Emotions”, “Period Symptoms,” and “Food Cravings.” This little change only served to make the problem more complicated.
Results from user test 1
Results from user test 2
I reverted back to my original design with the outlier elements on the main tracking screen. Immediately, users were able to find the information they were looking for. It was much more intuitive, and users were able to track their day more readily.
Users struggled to know how to return to the home page after expanding the dashboard. Adding a “home” button or creating a button from the logo at the top of the screen may solve this problem. Alternately, expanding screens may not be necessary if users could scroll within each section. A more advanced prototype may also demonstrate that the prototype was at fault, preventing users from returning home in this way. However, most users did not attempt to swipe down to return home, so another solution should be considered.
Recording daily information is still somewhat confusing to users. It seems those who quickly and correctly find this location usually do so through a process of elimination or out of familiarity with other cycle tracking apps. Changing the cycle tracking icon may help differentiate this, but an on-boarding process should be considered and created first.
After several user research activities (interviews, diary studies, and surveys) it was clear that three aspects would be integral to this product: cycle details, scheduling, and tasks. Through user testing I learned what data was most important to users and how to remove clutter to communicate the relevance of cycle information, regardless of where women were in their cycle.
When I shared my concept and design with colleagues and user testing participants, I was astonished at how many want this app now. One participant stated, “You took three apps I use regularly and combined them all into one.” This isn’t just a good idea, it’s one that people want.