4 Tips on Designing for Sensitive Topics

 Tips: Understand empathy gaps, Test to find the right price, Make the design approachable, Bring awareness to the issue

We’ve all encountered uncomfortable conversation topics—sex, mental health, personal finance, addiction. These are the topics we often avoid talking about, which is one reason they often get overlooked in the business world. But taboos can also be areas with lots of untapped potential where we can design products that solve real unmet needs. The key is learning how to unlock this potential.

Here are 4 tips on designing for sensitive topics from our conversation with Kerry O’Connor, a women’s health entrepreneur and an instructor of one of our most popular courses, Designing a Business. Listen to the full episode on the Creative Confidence Podcast to hear Kerry talk about finding business opportunities by addressing uncomfortable topics, building empathy with your audience, and bringing products that address social taboos to market through prototyping and branding.

Listen on Spotify or Apple Podcasts


1. Understand empathy gaps

“Creating value is understanding needs and figuring out the value proposition that you can offer.” — Kerry O’Connor 

In a biodesign course at Stanford University, Kerry learned that 90% of women tear the first time they deliver a child, and 1 in 18 women experience pelvic pain conditions like vaginismus. Motivated to address this, Kerry formed a team with a few classmates to create a medical device that would address these issues and eventually co-founded Materna Medical, an innovative OB-GYN platform that deals with the most common pelvic floor conditions women face.

As someone who hadn’t gone through the same difficulties as her users, however, Kerry felt an empathy gap. Kerry was able to build trust and better understand what these women needed by talking to them directly and learning about their experiences with pelvic pain, vaginal pain, and vaginal tearing. Many were having these conversations for the first time, and when Kerry shared other stories she’d heard, it helped them realize they weren’t alone with the condition and made them more open to sharing.

While we oftentimes don’t share the same experiences as the people we collaborate with, curiosity and openness can help to bridge empathy gaps. With some conditions, interviewing and finding people to talk to can be challenging, and there may be little data available. It can be helpful to look into communities where people are discussing the issues you’re hoping to address, and ask people you’ve already built trust with to connect you with others who would be good to talk to.


2. Test to find the right price

“Capturing value is about designing your revenue model and understanding the pricing.” — Kerry O’Connor 

When you’re creating something that hasn’t existed before, pricing can be elastic. As Kerry developed Materna’s product and conducted user research, Kerry did a flinch test with people: “What if this cost $300? What if it cost $200? What if it cost $100?” She started to see people’s reactions and understanding their mental math—if they were comparing Materna’s product to an electric toothbrush, or to the years and money they had spent on doctors and alternative products.

Once Materna set a price, there was a question of if they should lower the price to reach more people. They decided to prototype their pricing by offering a $50 rebate, which was the difference between the higher and lower prices. To get the rebate, customers needed to take a survey before they started using the product and then another one after three months. 

Kerry found that 80% of people were happy to pay the full price and not spend their time on the survey, which indicated that the original price was working. Additionally, people who did want the discount were able to get it, and as a bonus Materna was able to publish the results of the survey to show the medical community the efficacy of their device.

Learn more about business design in our online course Designing a Business.


3. Make the design approachable

“I deeply believe that you can design a business the way you would design a product or service.” — Kerry O’Connor 

When developing their product, Materna initially approached the issue from an engineering perspective. As a result, Kerry says the device looked like something that would be kept in the garage rather than in the bedroom, where most women would actually use it.

It was important to change the visual design of the device so that it wouldn’t feel intimidating and people would want it as part of their routine. They also found that many of the women they spoke to had dealt with sexual trauma, so they intentionally decided not to make the device look masculine in any way.

When going to market, the Materna team had to make sure that women saw themselves in the product and consider how it would fit into their lives. They found that their users didn’t think of themselves as patients, and this guided their branding and the way they talked about their products.


4. Bring awareness to the issue

“Delivering value is about how you bridge that gap between the wonderful thing you have to offer and where people are.” — Kerry O’Connor 

To get their product out to customers, Materna used multiple channels to spotlight common pelvic and vaginal pain conditions and how their device could help. They went to healthcare providers and physical therapists, who could then share information with women who experienced these conditions. Materna also advertised on the internet, which is an especially important medium when it comes to unspoken topics that feel taboo. Many women naturally searched for solutions and products to address their issues online.

Because topics like pelvic and vaginal pain are difficult to talk about, there can be emotions such as shame or embarrassment involved. But Kerry says that the human experience is only so big, which means that many people are likely experiencing the same thing. Shedding light on these kinds of issues can help create awareness in communities and make an impact on issues that are affecting people’s lives.


About The Speaker

Kerry O'Connor smiling with her arms crossed

Kerry O’Connor
Women’s Health Entrepreneur

At IDEO, Kerry worked on developing new and sustainable ways to monetize innovations. She co-founded Materna Medical, a medical device startup focused on maternal health, and lectures at the Stanford d.school. Kerry holds a B.A. in Anthropology from Boston University and an MBA from Stanford University.


Want to learn more about IDEO’s approach to business design? Check out our online course Designing a Business.

Starting Soon

Business Innovation - IDEO U Certificate
Human-Centered Strategy Certificate