Ideo: How to Turn Social Taboos Into Innovative Products

They may not be accepted, but they do hold secrets to innovation.

This is the next piece in our PATTERNS series, written by IDEO. Read more from the series here.


Social taboos suppress discussion of many details about 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 also 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 are extremely rewarding if tapped in the right way.

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


TAKE ACTION: Designing for Guilty Secrets

1. Know the taboos
By listening carefully, you can be early to discover subjects that carry social stigma in your particular business domain. What topics are discussed only behind closed doors?

2. Respect embarrassment
Create brands that initiate discussion, build trust, and share information. Design activities, forums, or tools that engage the full emotional range.


3. Reframe social stigmas
Break with social convention and give people permission to engage taboo topics in new and invigorating ways. Supply them with new language to name their needs.

4. Allow for avoidance
Not everyone is yearning to be liberated from a taboo. Give people alternatives that accommodate the distance they’d like to maintain.

THE EVIDENCE: Stories from Around the Globe


Gut Feelings

People can fail to recognize that they’re living with a minor, but ongoing problem. Emma, for instance, considered herself healthy; she worked out regularly and made conscious food choices. She also suffered from chronic constipation, but considered it normal — until her mother found out and suggested she 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. 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. “Now,” says Jackie, “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 to address 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 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 toward 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, 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.


Be a Pattern Spotter

Now that you’ve been exposed to a few different examples, don’t be surprised if you start seeing Life’s Changes patterns all around. Keep your eyes open and let us know what you find, especially if it’s the next new pattern.

PATTERNS are a collection of shared thoughts, insights, and observations gathered by IDEO through their work and the world around them. Read more pieces from the series here.

Betsy Fields is a designer and project lead at IDEO. Her work has informed the design of a wide range of products, services, and experiences answering challenges ranging from smoking cessation to weight management to building a culture of innovation. She has led international human factors research for several of these programs, in locations including India, Korea, Japan, England, Germany, France, Italy, Switzerland, and Chile.

Rebecca Sinclair is a Senior Design Researcher at IDEO with a focus on high-tech consumer experiences, where she works with industry leaders such as Nokia, Acer, Visa, and Western Digital. Rebecca’s passion for human-centered design has also led her to move beyond digital design to fascinating tangible human design problems that require creative research methods from feminine care to housing construction.

Annie Valdes is senior human factors specialist and project leader at IDEO San Francisco. She believes in the power of human centered design to inspire novel and lasting innovation. Whether she’s empowering communities and social entrepreneurs in East Africa to create safe drinking water solutions, helping major retailers positively impact their customers’ wellness, or working with pharmaceutical companies to reinvent consumer health categories, she excels at using design thinking to transform the way people solve complex problems.