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Planned Parenthood’s Digital Revolution Has 100-Year-Old Roots

Spot On is a free period and birth control tracking app. Its secret sauce? A wealth of institutional knowledge.

Planned Parenthood’s Digital Revolution Has 100-Year-Old Roots
[Image: courtesy Planned Parenthood]

In October 2016, Planned Parenthood started celebrating its centennial year of providing reproductive and sexual healthcare to women. A few months earlier, the organization launched its first digital product: a free period and birth control tracking app called Spot On, which has been downloaded over 1 million times to date. The app, the first to come out of the organization’s Digital Product Lab, signals how the organization is thinking about continuing their mission into the future. But the success of the app is due mostly to its past: The past few years have seen a slew of period trackers hit the market–but only one has a design informed by the accumulated data from the long history of Planned Parenthood Federation of America.

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[Image: Planned Parenthood]
“We’re the most trusted sexual reproductive healthcare provider in the country,” says Jenny Friedler, the senior director of the Digital Product Lab. “We really have heard every question in the book when it comes to periods and birth control and everything else that comes with them.” When Friedler and her team started building Spot On in April 2015, they saw a gap in what was at the time a growing market of period tracker apps. Most of them were designed for users who were trying to get pregnant, keeping track of menstrual cycles to moderate fertility. But this left out a large group of women–not to mention a large portion of Planned Parenthood patients–who use contraception. “The average woman will spend about 30 years of her life trying not to get pregnant,” says Friedler. Nine out of 10 women will use contraception at some point in their lives, according to Planned Parenthood. Where was the tracker app for them?

[Image: Planned Parenthood]
Spot On fills that gap by asking users about their period cycles as well as their birth control method (if applicable) and tracking both in conjunction. Having those two sets of personal data is important for giving users an accurate picture of their reproductive health: For example, some women take the birth control pill and skip the placebo week, thus skipping their period. This is fine and healthy, and plenty of women do it. But a tracker that doesn’t factor in birth control wouldn’t be useful to them. Likewise, period trackers that just track cycles by the date of a users’ last period will alert them when they are ovulating. But women who are using a birth control method–the pill, an IUD, a patch–aren’t going to ovulate at all.

[Image: Planned Parenthood]
Of course, this isn’t information exclusive to Planned Parenthood. But having clinics throughout the U.S.–which are visited by 2.4 million people annually–gives the organization a uniquely authoritative and holistic perspective. Friedler and her team at the Digital Product Lab wanted the app to reflect the health literacy women have about their own cycles, and offer them a user experience that could build on that, while also providing them with exactly what they need to know at any given time. That’s how they came up with the idea for the “Day View”–the first screen that greets users when they open the app. If you are on the pill and you come into the app, you’ll see when on this screen is “Did you take your pill today?” If you’re not using contraceptive, the opening screen will ask you “What’s happening today?” with circular options at the bottom for tracking changes in your mood, body, action, and period. “It might just tell you a cool fact, because that’s all you need to know that day,” says Friedler. (Sample cool fact: Menstrual synchrony is what it’s called when women sync up on their periods because they’ve been hanging out a lot.)

No matter what comes first, the app will always ask you to track how you are feeling, which is the data it uses to generate information about your health–i.e., when you will get your next period, or what to do if you accidentally miss a pill. All of the guidance that the app gives is informed by Planned Parenthood medical standards and guidelines, as well as the knowledge gained from years of working with women in clinics and classrooms. Friedler and her team designed the app to be playful and friendly, with a dinosaur avatar (Cycleosaurus) and custom emojis (extra creativity points for emojifying “spotting” and “tender breasts”). It was also important to them that the copy was nonjudgmental and supportive, echoing the reputation of their healthcare centers. “We wanted to make sure that the design had that feeling of: We are here for you,” says Friedler. “We’re not making assumptions; we’re not judging you. It’s like having a friend in your pocket, who happens to know a lot about periods and birth control and sexual health information.”

[Image: Planned Parenthood]
Importantly, the copy is also gender neutral, as is the design–no pink, no flowers. Planned Parenthood wanted the app to be useable for people regardless of their sexual orientation or gender identity. What they didn’t expect is that it would make it more useable for all. “What was surprising was that pushing toward that sort of gender neutrality both in terms of language and design would be appreciated by every user of the app,” says Friedler. “Regardless of how people identify, they just want to be treated as people who will make choices and whose choices are respected.”

[Image: Planned Parenthood]
Friedler says that at every step of the design process, they solicited feedback from Planned Parenthood patrons–and in the nearly year and a half since they app has been out, they have continued to gather user insight. One major thing they learned was that users liked tracking things with the emoji interface, and wanted to it more often, to garner more precise results. In early August, Spot On released its first major update, which allows users to customize things about their mood and body that they want to track–such as cramps and back aches.

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Friedler says that the sole piece of feedback that they get that is most impactful is, “I haven’t missed my pill once since I downloaded this app.” Aside from the century of institutional knowledge the app was built on, she also sees having the Planned Parenthood name attached to the app as beneficial because she feels people trust them. Could the inverse also be true, I ask? Planned Parenthood, after all, is more politicized than most app developers. “I honestly don’t think we see that,” Friedler says. “There can be whatever tumult that’s going on in Washington, but ultimately everyday–whether its in health centers or in classrooms or on your phone–we are making sure people have access to the reproductive and sexual health information they need. I think that’s what people care about.”

About the author

Meg Miller is an associate editor at Co.Design covering art, technology, and design.

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