[This project is an entrant in our Innovation By Design Awards. Stay tuned for the announcement of winners on October 10.]
Ask the Internet, and there’s hardly a subject on which everybody seems to have an opinion—and an impassioned one, fighting words with online friends—than pregnancy. (It’s like the Apple "Designed in California" of health topics.) Or dieting.
Combine the two, eating during pregnancy, and well, women have come to know what to expect online when they’re expecting. Sushi is dangerous. Shame on the reckless mother-to-be who queries the risk (vs. benefits) ratio of having a cup of coffee, a glass of wine many months in, and so on.
"There’s so much contradictory information out there about what to eat and when to eat it," says Johnathyn Owens, a design student at the London Royal College of Art. Unfortunately, in the United Kingdom, poor diet is already a problem for half of the women of reproductive age. And for women who are pregnant, eating for two can be a nine-month reprieve from healthier habits. Excessive weight gain can lead to bigger babies and conditions like pre-eclampsia, diabetes, and high blood pressure.
To take the scare tactics out of an already potentially anxious time of life and make it easier to eat well during pregnancy, Owens created the Nü, a handheld device and interactive health system—that essentially connects the expectant mother with the nutritional needs of the baby-to-be. "We learned that in specific points during pregnancy there are developmental markers for the fetus, and once you close that moment you can’t go back," says Owens. "There are moments where a burst of nutrients is essential."
Because pregnant women are sick of being told what to do, he adds, the interface intentionally gives constructive, not controlling, feedback. If a recipe calls for carrots but the woman is a carrot-hater, there’s a viable substitute. If she wants potato chips, Nü is a realist (with some restraint, of course).
The Nü concept starts at the doctor’s office. Practitioners prescribe nutritional programs for pregnant women based on their BMI, dietary and general health history. A registration card then syncs to the Nü handheld to suggest weekly and monthly meal plans. Owens himself programmed a database of 15,000 food items, and RFID technology lets mothers-to-be scan items at the grocery store.
That kind of daily, data-tagged guidance is seen in wearables that help track fitness and diet, and longtime programs like WeightWatchers. But Nü makes a point of keeping pressure out of the picture: "The design isn’t there to push them too aggressively," Owens says, recognizing the difference in motivations between IronMan competitors and pregnant women. "The Nike FuelBand is so successful because humans are so naturally competitive. Pregnant women do have a network, but we steered around that because the last thing you want to do is create more anxiety in a pregnant woman’s life."
Nü also comes with quick recipes (accompanied by clean and simple infographics), and a set of cooking equipment with universal measuring sizes. And, perhaps as training for the real dependent on its way, Owens modeled the handheld device after Tomagachi digital dependents from the 1990s. "It’s organic feeling," he says, "small, soft, easy to use with one hand," prepping mothers for the ultimate user interface: a newborn.