The key to FemTech success? Forget about the tech

From contraception to catheters, at CDP we’ve successfully pioneered women’s health innovation for over a decade.

Now that increasing numbers of our clients are entering the $19bn¹ FemTech market, we’re in a strong position to share some powerful lessons from our established approach to inclusive design.

Refocus your lens

Fertility entrepreneur, Ida Tin, coined the term ‘FemTech’ in 2016 in a frustrated bid to explain her work to male investors. The resulting discussion revealed the breath-taking extent to which the marketplace is short-changing women.

Despite decades of progress in gender equality, product development (until very recently) has operated through a male lens. It wasn’t, for example, until 1993 that the US National Institute of Health made it obligatory to include women in government-funded health research. This lack of data has resulted in a significant knowledge gap in women’s health, meaning that female patients have missed out on critical advances in medical technology.

And it wasn’t just men’s bodies that were the default; it was also the male viewpoint. Take the launch of Apple Health in 2014. The much-anticipated app promised to monitor “all of your metrics that you’re most interested in”. Yet it omitted a menstrual cycle tracking function². This is arguably something of great interest to 50% of its users. It wasn’t until a year and a lot of media pressure later that developers added it in.

Fight assumption with insight

The Apple Health oversight could have been avoided by one simple step – asking women what they thought.

At CDP, we believe the key to design inclusivity lies in a strong front-end innovation (FEI) capability. FEI is the identification and activation of opportunities, and the translation of insights into product and service solutions. This is the function that feeds insight into strategy, design, and specification. Importantly, it can guide decisions made later in the product development cycle.

To put a woman’s needs at the center of a brief, teams must take research beyond quantitative surveys. A mere tick box won’t capture the emotional and social circumstances in which a product is used.

For example, could the tone and volume of the beep that a basal fertility thermometer emits first thing in the morning (when it must be used) be so grating that it results in lower levels of compliance?

We recommend in-depth qualitative interviews to understand people as part of a contextual system, rather than groups of personas. Categorizing a user as a “32-year-old soccer mom from California” fails to capture the nuances of when, where, and how a product is used. As an aside, it also turns out that women take a dim view of being pigeonholed, as a former boss of UK retail chain Marks & Spencer discovered when (to female shoppers’ outrage) he described its typical customer as “Mrs M&S”³.

Where possible, we engage in immersive, ethnographic methodologies – seeing people in their cultural setting, often at home – to uncover user needs. This extends to international travel to understand the cultural contexts that inform decision making in different markets.

Futureproof for regulation

As a young sector, it’s no surprise that there are grey areas when it comes to the regulation of FemTech.

This is slowly changing as FemTech creeps into the realm of (regulated) medical devices. In 2018, Natural Cycles was the first digital birth control app to receive clearance from the FDA; fertility pioneer Clue was the second in March 2021.

Somewhat shockingly, regulation for sex toys doesn’t extend beyond the electrical compliance required for a Bluetooth speaker, escaping more stringent scrutiny through a “novelty use” labelling loophole.

Again, this is set to change, with the ISO making progress towards new standards⁴. Until this is finalized, the regulation of medical devices provides a good clue as to what action is needed to futureproof FemTech.

On a recent sex toy project, CDP ensured that all materials were biocompatible, although no regulations required it. Not only was this the right thing in terms of reducing risk for the user, but also protected our client against potential changes in regulation.

Forget about the tech

It may sound counterintuitive, but at CDP we feel the best way to succeed in FemTech is to forget the tech…at first, anyway. This is where we often see both big corporates and startups trip up.

We recommend a “solution agnostic” approach to design – that’s to say starting with a user need and looking for the best way to fulfil it. This might involve tech; it might not. Even then, the “tech” might not necessarily be digital, which is often what comes to mind when we think of FemTech. Instead, it might focus on the device itself, the manufacturing process, choice of material, or service. Whatever the solution, this method establishes early on if there is a market and business case for a product.

The alternative is “tech for tech’s sake”: just because it’s possible to measure the veracity of the female orgasm doesn’t mean that women want this data, as a startup that claimed to “spot women’s orgasms” found out when it was widely lampooned in the media⁵.

On this, it’s worth noting that we don’t see FemTech as limited to the fields of sex or fertility. The same contextual and experiential empathy that goes into designing for these areas must also be applied to other issues that disproportionally impact women. For example, we recently worked on a minimally invasive breast cancer biopsy device. Our goal was not only to design an accurate medical tool but to consider the experiential needs of the female patient – something that is often ignored.

Consider user acceptance

You’ve established a user need and a great tech-driven solution, but will female consumers feel comfortable using it?

It’s important to consider whether women are culturally ready to adopt a tech-led solution, particularly if it involves intimate wearables or sensitive data.

For example, current technology is capable of analyzing menstrual flow, but are women willing to accept intimate electronics? Let’s remember that in some parts of the world, tampon usage is still taboo.

Baking the female experience into the design process will answer these questions early on.

Ditch the defaults

We’ve discussed reframing design to include females; however, the same principles apply to other areas of inclusivity, such as race, sexuality, disability, gender identity, and economics.

In FemTech, this means considering, for example, the male experience – a heterosexual couple trying for a baby may want the capability for the male to log into a fertility app as part of the shared experience.

Likewise, it means considering the affordability of a design for various socio-economic groups. An expensive pelvic floor trainer may be financially out of reach for many women, so is it possible to reduce costs with smarter manufacturing or a new business model?

Good design considers all perspectives. It’s time to ditch the defaults.


1 – The Global Femtech Market was valued at $19bn in 2019 and is expected to reach $60bn Billion by 2027, according to Emergen Research.
https://www.emergenresearch.com/industry-report/femtech-market
2 – https://techcrunch.com/2015/06/09/apple-stops-ignoring-womens-health-with-ios-9-healthkit-update-now-featuring-period-tracking/
3 – https://www.cityam.com/mrs-ms-steve-rowes-first-blunder/
4 – https://www.iso.org/committee/7647858/x/catalogue/p/0/u/1/w/0/d/0
5 – https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/technology-53024123


Find the authors on LinkedIn:

Jessica Platt

Associate Insights Researcher

Martha Hodgson

Senior Insight & Strategy Consultant

Ben Strutt

Partner

Nicki Sutton

Partner & Consultant Innovation Specialist