Assumptions Embedded in Design(s) – Part 2: Identities

This is Part 2 of a series about assumptions embedded in design. This work was inspired by the recent Sketch Model workshop at Olin College and will be the basis for a future course at Swarthmore College. For additional context and the start of the series, check out Part 1.


Assumptions about identity encompass not only the body and its abilities, but adds additional elements of the social realm. For example, many toys are gendered “for boys” or “for girls” based on presumed interests of those groups, rather than specifically about the ability of those groups to use those toys. Like with bodies, many designers assume that only certain people will be interested in their products.

One example of unintentional exclusion based on identity is the assumptions embedded in period tracking apps. The app Glow, for example, has an onboarding screen with the following options:


Note how all the options fall into the “baby / no baby” binary – you’re either tracking to get pregnant or not to. What seems like a benign onboarding question actually demonstrates how the designers made assumptions about who tracks their period and why – it assumes that one is fertile, sexually active in a relationship that can get one pregnant, and that one is tracking for reasons specifically to do with pregnancy itself. The app isn’t designed with other users in mind.

Interventions regarding assumptions about identity include a focus on “human centered” or “user centered” design: rather than necessarily creating a tool that works for everyone like universal design (see the bodies section), human/user centered design focuses on understanding how identities, needs and preferences affect what users want from technology and how they interact with it. This enables designers to create better products accordingly.

An example of human/user centered design in the period tracking space is Planned Parenthood’s period tracker called Spot On. The app has some of the best onboarding I’ve ever seen, including options to specify from a myriad array of birth control methods (including none!). The app also automatically adjusts different aspects of your cycle depending on which (if any) birth control methods you are using, which most apps don’t do. Spot On won Fast Company’s Innovation by Design Award.

Assumptions Embedded in Design(s) – Part I: Bodies

This past June I had the privilege of attending the Sketch Model Workshop at Olin College. The workshop brought together practitioners across engineering, art, design, and the humanities to discuss our “dissatisfactions” with engineering education. We worked in groups and individually to brainstorm ideas to improve upon existing practice through, among other things, integration with the arts and humanities. My dissatisfaction, which I plan to channel into a course at Swarthmore College in Spring 2020, was that engineers design for the “default” in an uncritical, unintentional way. Assumptions about a user and society more broadly are embedded into the technology we build (and that we don’t). I grouped the assumptions into three major categories: those related to bodies, those related to identities, and those related to societal values. In the next few blog posts I will discuss exactly what I mean about each of these different categories, and talk about design interventions that challenge the status quo.


Assumptions about bodies refer to 1) physical traits of someone’s body (e.g. their calf circumference, weight, height, etc.)  and 2) that individual’s abilities (e.g. walking certain distances, lifting certain weights, seeing certain objects/distances). For example, if we consider a wrist watch, the different sizes of the watch band are driven by the expected size of individuals, and the designers assume that the user is capable of interpreting the watch face. Sometimes these design decisions are made intentionally (and that can be a good or bad thing), but often not. Many designers unintentionally design for a “default” user, and this lack of critical thinking can prevent certain people (often those with less privilege in some way) from using their products.

Universal Design has emerged as an intervention to move technology away from only working for “default” bodies. From the Centre for Excellence in Universal Design website:

An environment (or any building, product, or service in that environment) should be designed to meet the needs of all people who wish to use it. This is not a special requirement, for the benefit of only a minority of the population. It is a fundamental condition of good design.

Universal design situates the body and that body’s abilities as key considerations for good design. Everyone should be able to use a given technology or tool.

A classic example of universal design is the origin story of the company OXO. Sam Farber’s wife Betsey had arthritis and was having difficulty holding a vegetable peeler. The two then worked together to design kitchen tools that don’t hurt your hands. Since then, the vegetable peeler and other OXO kitchen tools have won numerous design awards. It turns out that not only did the new peeler improve access for those with arthritis; the peeler was better for everyone.