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It’s a huge problem that most health apps are created by men — here’s how to fix that

Representation matters

Victoria Repa
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Victoria Repa

Victoria Repa is a Co-Founder and a CEO (show all) Victoria Repa is a Co-Founder and a CEO BetterMe — an eco-system of health and fitness apps. Became a CEO when she was 24. Released five apps with over 15 million installs before she turned 26. Aimed to turn her company into a unicorn before 30. Former P&G’s finance manager. A sports enthusiast, professional digital marketer, fitness tech expert, dedicated bookworm, Stanford Executive Program alumni. You can connect with Victoria on LinkedIn or on Twitter.

All shades of pink, flowery patterns, dolls, and miniature kitchens — if you’re a woman, you’ll most likely have had all these and more imposed upon you since early childhood. The stereotypes about women, which in most cases come from men, can be harmful in many ways, influencing everything from career choices to health and wellness. 

Speaking of the latter, as a woman and the founder of a healthtech company, I couldn’t help but notice that what wellness apps are offering today does not correspond with the actual needs of women.

Most of the founders and top product people at healthtech companies can’t really “eat their own dog food,” that is, they are limited in their ability to use their own apps and uncover issues in user experience. The reason is that the vast majority of these people are male, while most of their users are female

I can see a clear gender bias in app icons that come up when I search for “gym” (top) and “yoga”

The issue has been brought up repeatedly over the past couple of years; however, it’s hard to give actionable advice on how to change things. That’s why I decided to write this post, to dig deeper into the issue and deliver several practical recommendations. 

Stereotyping away

More often than not, health apps marketed for women end up being incredibly tone-deaf when it comes to the features that are most important for a female audience. Take pregnancy as an example: most ovulation tracking apps assume that all female users want to get pregnant. Well, guess what — we often track our cycle to avoid pregnancy, or just to be aware of what’s going on with our body. 

Cycle tracking itself is also far from perfect. It’s worth mentioning that it actually took Apple and Fitbit about a year to add period tracking capabilities to their software suites. I can’t imagine this happening if there were enough women making product decisions at these companies. 

As for the apps, for some reason it often seems like they think women enjoy their periods. This is not the case. Seriously, why would you put flowers and smiley faces all over an app that indicates that you are about to start bleeding and, in many cases, be in constant pain for hours if not days?

I also take issue with so many man-developed weight-loss apps, as the primary goal appears to be to make the woman sexy according to restrictive standards of beauty — rather than healthy or happy. A whole lot of emotional damage has been done by apps and services that are basically the product of an unequal society that objectifies women.

Speaking of weight loss, there’s an interesting imbalance here: the vast majority of the apps that want to help you shave off extra kilos are marketed for women — but, according to the data, 73 percent of men in the United States are overweight, compared to only 63 percent of women.

With all this and more happening, it’s obvious that a change has to occur in how we develop products — not just those for a female audience, but in general. Here are a few examples of things that are worth extra attention while planning and decision-making in teams.

Be the change

1. First and foremost, the best change you as a founder or team member of a (tech) company can initiate is to include women within the whole process of product development — no matter what that product is. 

2. Women can detect apps created for them even if they are not colored bright pink! There is nothing wrong with this color per se, but using it exclusively for female-targeted apps feels offensive. Don’t make your app look like a stick of bubble gum just because it’s for women.

3. Think about a broader range of user experience cases when creating products with sensitive features like period tracking, fertility advice, or smart scales. Keep in mind that women might start taking hormonal medication that could affect their cycle, weight, and mood, or go through an abortion or the menopause, or just have an irregular cycle. 

4. Think about different use cases of your app; better still, if you don’t identify as female, keep asking your female users how they interact with your product. Take the earlier example of ovulation tracking apps: while some of the users are waiting to hear when it’s a good time to conceive, many others would rather want to avoid pregnancy and highlight the least “dangerous” days. 

5. Please stop using patronizing wording and “hey girl” talk in the app. Don’t communicate with women in a way you wouldn’t communicate with a man.

What’s the message here?

6. Many women, while being employed full-time, still bear the burden of taking care of the household. This means they have very little time to take care of themselves, and you need to factor this into your user experience. Provide your busy users with accessible easy solutions that don’t require a lot of time. A simple 30-minute bodyweight workout is much more accessible than one that requires the user to go to the gym or buy extra equipment. 

7. Don’t just track your user’s menstrual cycle but tell her what to expect from her body because of hormone level changes. Don’t just tell her what to cook to be healthy — but provide her with visual step-by-step guidance and tips.  

8. Even though women tend to prefer toning and stretching exercises over strengthening, many still enjoy weight lifting. Avoid stereotypes in the cover images of your workout programs: it’s ok to show a guy doing yoga and a woman with 20-kilo dumbbells. 

9. Keep in mind that your audience does not only consist of people under 30 years old. Women of all ages use health and fitness apps; they also track their cycle and watch their weight. Keep that in mind and make sure their user experience — which could be very different — is thought through.

10. Always check the data you’re feeding to AI algorithms. We increasingly rely on AI in many aspects of our lives, and health and wellness are certainly among them. Make sure you don’t train your models on data that’s heavily skewed towards one gender, age, race, or any other particular demographic or attribute. 

These are the important focus points in product decision-making that I’ve come across over three years of being a founder of a healthtech company. Admittedly, most of them are common sense for a woman, and I hope that no one will need this sort of advice in the near future, when more women get involved in product teams in the tech industry. If working towards a gender balanced team is not yet one of the goals of your organization, now is a good time to change that. 

Published September 1, 2019 — 16:00 UTC