How I reimagined fertility through a living design experiment

Design Director
New York

Having a child as a single woman wasn’t my first choice of life plan. I never pictured doing it all by myself. Until recently, I didn’t even realize it was an option. But here I am. Single. Over 40. And actively making it happen through medical assistance.

I’m not alone. More women than ever are undergoing fertility treatment on their own. And while the fertility market is expanding fast – PitchBook has tallied more than $178 million flowing into fertility startups – there remains a staggering lack of products and services aimed at helping single women and non-traditional families access potential parenthood.

From the beginning, it’s been an overwhelming experience. I witnessed a large gap: in a time of advanced technology and social awareness, I became frustrated that there were no tools to help me more easily navigate this complex journey; whether they were decisions ranging from IUI vs. IVF, doctor selection, donor selection, insurance and financial implications – or explaining to people why I made this choice in the first place.

When you ‘go public’ with your decision to become an electively single parent, you are initially faced with confronting some well-meaning but rather hurtful mental roadblocks, unintentionally raised by your friends and family. From “Why don’t you try harder at dating?” to “Have you thought about getting a dog instead?” For the record, I’m not doing it for companionship (hence no dog), but because I want my life to be more than about me, and to hopefully bring something good into the world while I’m at it. It’s less about dating ‘harder’ and more about having a baby made ‘easier’.

Making the artificial natural

It’s not surprising that people have trouble wrapping their heads around the idea of someone actively seeking to become a ‘single mother’. The phrase carries historical baggage and stigma – a staggering 66% of Americans think more single motherhood is “bad for society” – while the fertility industry remains almost exclusively set up to help couples. Perhaps as a consequence, the industry has focused on the clinical side of conception, without factoring in the more emotional and human side of childbirth and fertility. While going through this process alone, I felt like I was ‘missing something’ – namely those moments of wonder and connection that are the hoped-for parts of a pregnancy journey.

Then there were the additional barriers such as buying sperm, or the overt couples bias I would face throughout. Many times, I felt out of my depth and like I didn’t belong; that I was doing something abnormal and undesirable by looking for other ways of starting a family. On one occasion, I had an IUI monitoring appointment with a doctor who asked if I could bring my partner with me on vacation and “try conceiving the old-fashioned way.” Pushing past this systemic invisibility is a large obstacle that a single woman faces going into this environment.

As I began to think about having a family on my own, my biggest question was “Why is the fertility process still like this?” There had to be a way to make the process more natural, and therefore normalized and inclusive for single women.

Project Junior

Applying my 20-year career in design and innovation, I started to document my entire experience, including all the trials, errors and triumphs, which became known as Project Junior.

Leveraging the unique insights gained through my first-hand experience, my goal was simple:

How might we re-envision the future of fertility to be more inclusive?

To craft a solution that could enable a more empathetic and holistic fertility experience for single women, a host of unmet needs and opportunities were captured in real time as I underwent my journey to pregnancy – using the experience as a living design experiment.

And since the time we launched this endeavor, I’ve been pleasantly surprised by the positive response – it’s reinforced that there is a major gap, and how demand is growing for adequate and meaningful services that truly match the unique needs of women in my situation.

It takes a village

Featured across a trilogy of articles in Fast Company, I introduce Jr. – a personalized digital service to help single women confidently and comfortably navigate through the typically fragmented fertility process. In the first piece, I outlined the importance of “Your Village” – a tool to seamlessly communicate with friends and family, clustered by the specific support role they are playing throughout the process, whether that is emotional, practical or help from those with a relevant lived experience. The feature helps avoid ill-timed questions, and keeps your network in-sync with where you are in your journey via an interactive journey map, as well as mood indicators that advise how you’re feeling and if you’re in the mood to talk. It also assists with the logistics of coordinating your villagers to join you at appointments, by enabling personal, tailored messages and invitations to those you prioritize.

Each village is unique, with a diverse set of roles - from friends who are experts with lived experiences to those who fill gaps such as in-person help, practical advice, or emotional support.

Banking on the right donor

In the second article, I share my ideas for injecting more humanity into the current, deeply impersonal process of bringing a life into the world. Instead of feeling like you’re buying a date, what if buying sperm felt personal, natural, and rewarding? That you received a carefully curated shortlist based on your genetic compatibility, and what you personally find most important in a donor? Throughout my journey, I couldn’t believe that a tool didn’t exist to help me more easily compare and contrast each donor, relative to the degree that they were a match for my preferences.

The most unexpected moment that led to my ultimate choice? Hearing the voices of my potential donors. In the existing selection process, that moment is lost amongst a deluge of documents including medical records, nurse’s impressions, and donor essays.

Jr. prioritizes audio interviews to help give a more complete impression of the donor and highlight the very ‘real’ decision taking place.

Collapsing the black hole of information

In the final installment in the series, I describe the information vortex that occurs in such a fragmented fertility process. In a period of just over seven months, I dealt with three fertility doctors, five nurses, two employees from the billing department, various insurance hotline operators, four front office assistants, two doctor’s assistants, a psychologist, a geneticist, and about three blood lab technicians. They didn’t all necessarily know or speak to one another, and they rarely had my history at hand. It was a full-time job just managing all the appointments, information and elements of my pursuit.

To establish a clearer, more confident pathway of navigating the fertility journey, Jr. looks to fill this gap by offering a simplified, guided service that joins all the dots and moving pieces for you – so you can focus on what’s most important, at each and every moment. While embarking on your fertility journey feels a bit like being shot into space, a personal dashboard aims to centralize all of your up-to-date information, eliminating avoidable mistakes like the purchase of wrong sperm (read on to see how that can and did happen!), and also recommend customized support based on the unique details you provide during your on-boarding and lifestyle assessment.

Conceiving a new normal

The fertility industry – not to mention society as a whole – would benefit greatly from embracing this growing community of single women that are electing to pursue parenthood. While it might not be a deliberate or conscious effort, each communication in the current fertility pathway centers primarily around a traditional, nuclear, heterosexual couple. The impact on people like me is that it contributes to the sense of alienation we experience in an already overwhelming situation. By creating Jr. I hoped we might broaden the conversation, empower and engage women more actively in these health and wellness contexts, and also help the next generation consider non-traditional family makeups as a viable option in the future, without the associated stigma and taboo.

Normalizing the fertility journey for single women shouldn’t take much of a shift – demographically we’re already here and growing in numbers. The industry has made great strides in the past decade – for example, with single sex couples being welcomed into the fold. Single women aren’t asking for much more than a little mindful inclusiveness – product design, technology and a strong support network can take care of the rest. My personal hope is that my own experience can be put to use improving and signposting this intense – but potentially intensely rewarding – journey for the women who come down this road after me. Ladies, we’ve got this.

Read on to uncover the full story and solution in Fast Company:

Part 1
  Motherhood is changing. Why isn’t the fertility process, too?

Part 2
  Why is the process of buying sperm so terrible?

Part 3 
 Understanding your fertility is a nightmare. Here’s a better way

 

Jr. was conceptualized by Stephanie Yung and her strategic design team: Crystal Ellis, Sarah Phares, Semi Lee, Steffany Tran and Haley Rasmussen. All images and design solutions remain proprietary to Smart Design.