Designing the Future of Digital Women’s Health
Time: Wed 2019-12-18 14.00
Lecturer: Madeline Balaam, Media Technology and Interaction Design
Location: E2, Lindstedtsvägen 3
The World Health Organisation (WHO) has identified that ongoing gender discrimination has a significant negative impact globally on women’s health and wellbeing. Women’s health as a topic comprises of issues such as sexual and reproductive health, particular cancers (e.g. cervical and breast), maternal health, mental health, gender-based violence and non- communicable diseases (e.g. obesity, alcoholism, drug-abuse). Some of what differentiates ‘women’s health’ from ‘everyone’s health’ is its entanglement with ‘intimate care’1, which is care for the body which involves anatomical features of the body associated with sexuality and intimacy. It is these elements of women’s health which often render it culturally and socially taboo, which in turn creates tensions in access and delivery (in both developed and developing countries).
In 2016 we coined the term ‘Digital Women’s Health’1 within the field of human computer interaction to highlight and pay attention to the explicit role that interaction design, human computer interaction, and technology more widely can play in women’s health, and the intimate care of the body. And, around this, a collection of work is forming which illustrates that digital technology and human computer interaction can play a powerful and useful role in women’s health. Within this talk I want to reflect on a series of interaction design projects from the last six years, to show how digital technologies overcome taboo to create opportunities for developing greater personal knowledge about the body, through to supporting action on a social and political level to change the conditions which contribute negatively to women’s health.
We began our work in digital women’s health exploring how digital technologies can support individual and societal support for breastfeeding women. In 2014, we showed how the use of location-based technologies could be used to crowd-source textual data describing women’s experience of breastfeeding in public (an act of intimate care which is stigmatised in many countries in the developed and developing world)2. This design and technology works at the level of the individual, supporting a breastfeeding parent or supporter in finding places to have a good breastfeeding experience. And, crucially for women’s health, we can show that this act of reviewing places in accordance with how they support breastfeeding parents can work at a social and political level in both influencing breastfeeding policy (within businesses, institutions) and public health practice3. In 2016, we moved on to investigate how to design for the construction of intimate knowledge about the body through technology4. We designed a set of mobile interactions combined with a pair of underwear that together enable a wearer to examine their physical anatomy and develop embodied knowledge about their pelvic floor muscles, and how to care for them across the life course. Within this work we enquired on the ability for design and technology to help women construct critical knowledge and greater control over their bodies. Here, we showed how humour could be put to work to enable the placement and use of technology in a taboo body space (the crotch of the underwear), and that the concept of awkward learning can lead women to finally explore their body. In 2018, we examined how social media technology was being used by activists in Ireland to support advocacy for a legal change in access to abortion. Here, we evidenced how story telling can create societal empathy with women who need to seek an abortion, thus helping to transform neutral individuals into advocates themselves for legal change 5. I will conclude by highlighting a lack of innovation in interaction techniques and technologies as one critical obstacle to innovation in the design of digital women’s health, and offer up some examples that we are working on within the lab to remedy this.
1. Almeida, T., Comber, R. & Balaam, M. HCI and intimate care as an agenda for change in women’s health. in Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems - Proceedings (2016). doi:10.1145/2858036.2858187 2. Balaam, M., Comber, R., Jenkins, E., Sutton, S. & Garbett, A. FeedFinder : A Location-Mapping Mobile Application for Breastfeeding Women. in In Proc. CHI ’15 (ACM Press, 2015). 3. Simpson, E., Garbett, A., Comber, R. & Balaam, M. Factors important for women who breastfeed in public: a content analysis of review data from FeedFinder. BMJ Open 6, e011762 (2016). 4. Almeida, T., Comber, R., Wood, G., Saraf, D. & Balaam, M. On Looking at the Vagina through Labella. in In Proc. CHI ’16 (2016). 5. Michie, L., Balaam, M., McCarthy, J., Osadchiy, T. & Morrissey, K. From her story, to our story: Digital storytelling as public engagement around abortion rights advocacy in Ireland. in Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems - Proceedings 2018-April, (2018).