Guilty Secrets Betsy Fields, Rebecca Sinclair

Reframing social taboos as design opportunities

Social taboos suppress discussion of many details of life: bodily functions, sexual problems, and other socially stigmatizing conditions. Discomfort with these topics compromises our health and short-circuits our quality of life by keeping important information in the dark.

Taboos create social isolation. When forced to navigate forbidden areas, people often find that they have little information and are reluctant to experiment or explore. From a business perspective, this may translate into untapped opportunities —  “ugly ducklings” that aren’t sexy on the outside, but extremely rewarding if tapped in the right way.

How might your business acknowledge taboos affecting your industry, and turn these constraints into opportunities?

The Evidence — Stories from around the globe

Gut feelings

Emma considered herself perfectly healthy; she worked out regularly and made conscious food choices. She also suffered from chronic constipation, but thought it completely normal — until her mother found out and encouraged her to seek help.

Although Henry suffers from chronic heartburn, it’s rarely the subject of his conversation.
He says this is partially out of embarrassment and partially because it never seemed relevant. He also hinted that it wasn’t very masculine to complain about minor ailments like heartburn. As a result, when Henry shopped for over-the-counter heartburn solutions, he habitually reached for antacids, which were only marginally effective, but were the only product he had heard of. He had no idea that entire classes of products existed one shelf away that could really help him.

How might we reach people who don’t even realize there’s a solution to their problem?

Befriending a new normal

When Jackie came across people she knew on, she treated it as a shared secret: “I didn’t discuss it.” The first time people asked her where she and her boyfriend met, there was an awkward pause. Eventually, she became more comfortable, and “now we are a story that other people tell.”

Jill, a researcher who studies behaviors around online dating, notes that women have an easier time with a site like JDate: “It is easier to admit that you simply want to find a Jewish man, rather than that you can’t find a man at all.” And’s slogan, “It’s okay to look,” sends a reassuring message that online dating falls into the realm of normal behavior.

In contrast, emphasizes “dating safety,” screening members against a US criminal database. The implication? To Jill, it says “This is not normal, and we have to screen for all the crazies we attract.” Not exactly reassuring.

What can be done to remove stigma and reassure people that an offering or activity is “normal”?

Dysfunctional vocabulary

Since its approval in 1998, Viagra has become a household name, but erectile dysfunction is still not something Peter talks to his friends about. Ever. Peter compares Viagra’s ‘Viva Viagra’ campaign to ads from competitive products: “Viagra comes across as a drug you would use for fun rather than a fix for an embarrassing problem. It features dancing and partying, not gray hair and messaging about ‘renewing your connection.’”

As with many taboos, a key part of the embarrassment is simply not having the right words to discuss it. These taboos pose a challenge worldwide. For Shefali Vasudev, editor of Marie Claire in India, “In public discourse, sexuality is either lewd jokes or giggling.” Even doctors do not always have the vocabulary for sexual issues. “Gynecologists would tell women after childbirth or surgeries, ‘Don’t have a relationship with your husband,’ instead of, ‘Don’t have intercourse.’”

How might design serve to reframe context and dialogue in tackling potentially embarrassing topics?

IKO Toilet: dignity for all

David Kuria knew that by addressing toilet sanitation, a taboo issue in Kenya, he would positively affect the physical, emotional, and social well being of people living in dehumanizing conditions. So he founded IKO Toilet, a socially and financially sustainable venture that equips informal communities with the tools and skills to manage their sanitation and retain their dignity. The sanitation blocks are managed by the community and serve as a hub for entrepreneurs and community-owned businesses.

Playing with sex

Masturbation has long been a contentious topic, but times are changing. LELO, Jimmyjane, and others have pioneered sleek, designer versions of toys once found only in seedy shops on the wrong side of town. Recognizing the potential of the female market, these companies have created new fun, friendly, and stylish forms quite different from the traditional sex toy. National chains like Good Vibrations and Toys in Babeland offer a safe, comfortable retail experience directed at women.

Fat acceptance

Positive portrayals of larger people are almost completely absent from mainstream media, which is why the Dove “Real Beauty” campaign, featuring non-skinny models, made such a splash. More to Love is a bachelor-style reality show with a twist: the stars are plus-size. Newsweek author Joshua Alston says, “Unlike The Biggest Loser and Dance Your Ass Off, Ruby, More to Love is a show about overweight people that doesn’t relentlessly focus on their efforts to lose the weight.”

Secretly normal

Menstrual management products are generally hidden, especially from men. Many recall that day at school when the boys were sent out to play kickball, while girls were given a lesson about feminine supplies. A series of video shorts by Tampax chronicles the adventures of Zack, a high school boy who wakes up one day and discovers he has “female parts” and a period. For the first time, boys are being openly invited to join the conversation in a way that’s playful and even cool.



July 5, 2010

I don’t want to know a lot about menstrual management. It’s girls work! I want a normal intimate life, to have relax after difficult work. It is my opinion.

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July 14, 2010

I think that though some taboos are artificial and worth being broken, most of them became taboos for a reason. Why should everybody talk about and listen to stuff that is irrelevant for them and in most cases disgusting? Imagine for a second now that a TV weather man would start his daily prognosis with “Folks, good news, tonight my hemmoroid doesn’t hurt as much as yesterday. As for the weather…” I’d certainly never watch that program again.

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Andrea Hildreth

July 24, 2010

So, I read this issue of IDEO with the thought that it had no application to my business.

Then, I realized that I have been very successful in not-seeing the obvious Taboos in my business.

Now, I “know the taboos” so I am re-shaping my business to “respect embarrassment” caused by the long list of “shoulds” my clients hold as truths.  I am re-working how I interact with my clients by “refram[ing] social stigmas” and I am “allow[ing] for avoidance” by assuring anonymity.

Therefore, my product is better, my clients will be more fully engaged with my business, and the future of the company is more likely to be long and fruitful.

Yikes, what other Patterns am I being very successful in not-seeing?

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August 24, 2010

Uhh, That is where principle number 4 comes in, I think.  You personally don’t need to have anything to do with it if you are uncomfortable with it.  Generally, however, it could be very beneficial for men and women to learn ways of communicating about it which increase communication, empathy, and intimacy.

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Bevin Hernandez

December 29, 2010

I would hazard a guess, Max, that they became disgusting because of the taboo, not the opposite. Disgust is most often a frame of mind and learned response rather than a natural response to a stimuli.

For instance, if your tv weatherman would have said “good news, tonight my cancer has gone into remission…” would you feel disgust? Probably not, right? Funny thing about it is that cancer is inherently a more “gross” thing, and the treatments are a heckavalot more intrusive than hemorrhoid treatments. It is our cultural upbringing that tells us that one is acceptable to talk about and the other not. Thus, even hemorrhoids are an artificial taboo.

What if we believed that the menstrual cycle in a woman was something to be revered (after all, it’s part of the whole life-giving thing) - that would totally reframe how we think about it. Right now, all of the products are designed to “deal” with it, and hide it away, not because it’s inherently disgusting, but we’ve been inculturated into believing that it is.

Reexamining the root of our taboos is actually really fascinating and eye-opening…most often they have a root cause not in anything inherently human, but rather in warfare, religious control, and xenophobia.

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