Best Practices in Payload User Guides

In the aerospace industry, payload user guides, affectionately known as “PUGs”, are key customer facing documents that describe a company’s payload service offerings. An industry standard, these guides are often technical in nature and help customers consider their purchasing options.

Like any sort of ‘starter guide’, ‘user kit’, or early sales collateral, PUGs are a critical touchpoint in the customer journey: They contribute to a customer’s first impression of a service provider. A great PUG tells a story about the company, its offerings, and the customer experience. It’s an opportunity to:

  • Support an ongoing dialogue and foster a relationship with the customer
  • Empathize with the user’s needs, concerns and circumstances
  • Convey the company’s beliefs, values and core value proposition

After reviewing existing guides and speaking to industry leaders, I’ve identified some best practices for designing an effective PUG:

  1. State your purpose
  2. Don’t assume the user is technical
  3. Show rather than tell
  4. Describe the customer journey
  5. Let your brand shine
  6. Make it personable

Below, I describe these best practices further and include examples of PUGs that exemplify each practice.

1. State your purpose

This is a simple point of clarification that not only helps customers effectively use the PUG, but determines how the PUG should be designed in the first place. The PUG should answer: What is this document for? When? Why? For whom? What is this not for? Surprisingly, this isn’t always clear.

 Example: SpaceX

The Falcon launch vehicle user’s guide is a planning document provided for customers of SpaceX (Space Exploration Technologies Corp.). This document is applicable to the Falcon vehicle configurations with a 5.2 m (17-ft) diameter fairing and the related launch service (Section 2). This user’s guide is intended for pre-contract mission planning and for understanding SpaceX’s standard services. The user’s guide is not intended for detailed design use.

– “User’s Guide Purpose” from Falcon’s User Guide, January 2019, Page 1.

2. Don’t assume the user is technical

A common grievance I hear about in the payload sales process is the communication barrier between non-technical customers and highly technical service providers. Translating technical knowledge can, in part, be mitigated though the use of plain language, fewer acronyms, and visual design (see the next point).

Example: Virgin Galactic

While coasting, [SpaceShipTwo] will ‘feather’ its wings and tail booms—activating a unique and highly reliable mechanism first proven by SpaceShipOne—in order to achieve an extremely reliable re-entry. In SpaceShipTwo’s feathered configuration, the entire tail structure is rotated upwards about 60˚, creating high drag as the spaceship enters the atmosphere. This method of reentry allows for lower skin temperatures and smoother g-loads during reentry compared to most other space vehicles, such as sounding rockets.

SpaceShipTwo: An Introductory Guide for Payload Users, Web005, May 27, 2016, Page 9.

3. Show rather than tell

Visuals can speak louder than words. When designed with intention, visuals are powerful and memorable tools for conveying and simplifying complex concepts (i.e. technical systems, flight profiles, requirements). The importance of clean, readable, smart, and beautiful visual design cannot be overstated — it’s not just about making things “look pretty”.

Example: Vector

– “Sample Payload Configurations” from Vector-R PUG, VSS-2017-023-V2.0 Vector-R, Page 12

4. Describe the customer journey

The customer journey clarifies the service experience and sets the user’s expectations. In turn, this allows the customer to understand the level of engagement and relationship they can anticipate to build with the provider.

Example: Astrobotic

– “Payload Experience” from Astrobotic Peregrine Lunar Lander PUG, October 2018, Version 3.0, Page 8

5. Let your brand shine

It’s easy to dismiss the PUG as a technical document. Rather, it is an expression of a company’s personality, values, style, and tone and should be consistent with the company’s overall brand identity. From fonts to imagery, the PUG creates a first impression with the customer.

Example: Blue Origin

– “Introduction” from New Shepard PUG, July 2018, Page 9

6. Make it personable

The PUG is an extension of a sales conversation and in this spirit, has an opportunity to bring more of a human touch to the customer-provider relationship. This can be as simple as using inviting language like “welcome” or “meet ___” and introducing the people behind the company.

Example: Rocket Lab

– “The Rocket Lab Team” from Rocket Lab PUG, August 2018, Version 6.2, Page 47

There are also opportunities to make the PUG an even more effective and engaging touchpoint for the user. Here are a few ideas:

  • Create a quick reference guide – Customers who receive a PUG are exploring their purchasing options. Condensing key information from the PUG into a 1-2 page document or “quick reference guide” can help customers socialize the PUG and find critical and relevant information at a glance.
  • Make it interactive – PUGs often exist as standalone physical and digital documents. Using different types of media (audio, visual, etc.) can not only help convey complex technical content in more expressive and interactive formats, it can accommodate to the different learning styles of the user. For instance, using virtual reality to visualize the payload environment can help bring the PUG to life.
  • Case studies – Case studies can build credibility and confidence in the service provider. Highlighting the way a company is able to adapt and personalize their offering to a customer is a testament to their customer experience.

As a part of a greater system of touchpoints in the customer journey, the PUG serves as a strategic tool early on in the sales process. The best practices above can help ensure a PUG is designed well and with intent. What would you add to this list? Let me know your thoughts in the comments below!

Mapping the New Shepard Astronaut Experience

Space flight is quickly becoming a reality for the everyday citizen. And with time, it will be embraced as the norm for commercial travel. This is not only an exciting prospect for the advancement of space culture, but it personally excites me because I believe space is the next frontier for public health promotion and protection.

Blue Origin has an ambitious plan to use New Shepard to send tourists into outer space where they will experience weightlessness and view Earth from 100km above its surface. I decided to take a look at how users may experience this new service. I used information from, online research and stories, conversations with fellow space enthusiasts and my imagination to piece together a hypothetical ideal user (aka astronaut) experience.

This is mapped out in three parts:

  1. Astronaut-centered design – an approach for designing the experience
  2. Guiding principles – values to express and guide the experience
  3. Experience map – what the astronaut is thinking, feeling, and doing throughout the service journey

Of course, the concepts and ideas in this post are a working hypothesis. To be truly representative and relevant, it must be co-created, tested and iterated upon with actual astronauts.



Designing the ideal experience requires an astronaut-centered design approach. That is, creating extraordinary experiences in outer space requires us to work with and for the user to bring their perspective into all aspects of the service journey. Though Jeff Bezos has always maintained a relentless focus on the customer, the importance of the user cannot be overstated.

The approach involves:

  • Understanding and designing for the needs and ambitions of the astronaut
  • Telling the story of the astronaut experience, from their perspective
  • Engaging astronauts as co-creators of their own experience


The current New Shepard website has a primary focus on technology. One potential way to bring a stronger astronaut perspective to the site is to highlight the unique and visceral astronaut experience that Blue Origin offers (e.g., stunning views of Earth, weightlessness, etc.).

Left: New Shepard page, Aug 2018: Primary focus on tech. Right: New Shepard page, re-imagined: Primary focus on astronaut experience (e.g., Astronaut view of Earth)



Below are proposed guiding principles that represent the values that shape and deliberately differentiate Blue Origin’s astronaut experience. Included are examples of how these principles may be embodied and expressed by the user.

Space for all: Enable accessible space travel for all and unite people through the shared experience

“It’s my turn to go to space”

Transformation: Inspire new forms of space exploration and technologies that advance our relationship with space and outlook on humanity

“This experience will change my life”

Trust: Set the standard for safe, sustainable space systems and technologies

“Blue Origin is the best and safest way to travel to space”

Empower: Enable people greater control over the decisions and actions that allow them to achieve their full potential

“I can make informed decisions and shape my experience”

Impact: Promote innovation that advances space culture and the aeronautics industry

“I’m contributing to something greater than myself”



The purpose of the map (PDF) is to highlight what the astronaut is doing, thinking and feeling throughout the service journey. It imagines what an ideal experience may look like and proposes a set of service offerings. Key points about this experience map are highlighted below.

Simple yet sophisticated The journey is designed to be an accessible and straightforward experience, with processes that feel comparable to booking and flying with a commercial airliner. Though it’s easy to capitalize on the novelty of space travel (at least for now), the focus here is to create a high quality standard for everyone, and avoid elements that privilege some consumers over others or makes the experience feel luxurious or out of reach.

Empowering astronauts With only six astronauts on board and no flight crew, New Shepard is a highly intimate and empowering experience. It may be helpful to consider how to leverage onboarding and training as opportunities to build trust among astronauts in preparation for the flight. Creating a clear visual language, communications and procedures will also be critical to ensuring astronaut success.

Service ecosystem The Blue Origin Concierge manages logistics and activities on behalf of the astronaut, coordinating across various services (Lodge, Astronaut Centre, Media Services) to ensure a seamless user experience from booking to post-flight. As the central hub of the service system, the concierge is the astronaut’s host throughout their journey with Blue Origin.

Media management Throughout the journey, Blue Origin manages media capture and distribution before, during and after the flight. This enables astronauts to be present in the moment and focused on the experience of being in outer space. It also minimizes distraction and the safety risks associated with having astronauts manage their own multimedia. As a once-in-a-lifetime experience, it is important to develop a strategy to ensure high quality media is captured.

Health and wellness Astronaut health is assessed/monitored throughout the journey (booking, onboarding, in-flight, post-flight) to ensure their wellness and safety. A smart wristband is proposed as a form of security/ID and health monitoring for this purpose. Pre-flight, there may also be an opportunity to engage astronauts in wellness programming that prepares them for the flight, and helps them reach/maintain optimal health.



Conducting research with prospective and actual astronauts will generate data and insights that can shape a robust astronaut strategy, and enable the creation of additional tools that will help enhance the customer experience (customer profiles, service blueprints, etc.). This will bring this work to the next level. For now, I welcome your thoughts and feedback!

Rise of the 100% organic cotton tampon

Over the last few years there has been a growth in the number of menstrual care companies that focus on providing North American menstruators with 100% organic cotton tampons and pads.

The surge of interest and enthusiasm for organic cotton period products has been enabled by a growing public conversation about menstrual health and equity, and a demand for greater transparency and safety when it comes to period products. This movement has even united health advocacy efforts across the public and private sectors. For instance, companies and health advocates continue to protest the “tampon tax”, taxes that are applied to “feminine hygiene” products. These groups argue that menstrual products are basic necessities like food and medical supplies, and that taxes make these items less accessible and affordable. Canada saw major progress in this debate with the removal of government sales tax on feminine hygiene products in 2015.

More recently, leading Consumer Packaged Goods (CPG) companies have come under fire for failing to fully disclose the ingredients they use in the production of their menstrual products. While regulated in the US (by the Food and Drug Administration) and Canada (by Health Canada), tampon and pad manufacturers are not required to disclose their ingredients. Some health advocates have expressed concern that undisclosed and potentially unnecessary chemicals (e.g., toxins, dyes, synthetics) in these products may be putting menstruators’ bodies and health at risk. The current industry leaders in North America, Kimberly Clark (Brands: U by Kotex) and Procter & Gamble (Brands: Always, Tampax), were pressured to disclose their ingredients in 2015 after intense protests against the companies. Advocacy groups have since helped introduce new bills to congress in order to promote greater transparency around product ingredients.

With many consumers starting to question product safety and trust with traditional CPG companies, many startups saw an opportunity: Offer menstrual products that are chemical free, with nothing to hide.

Enter the organic cotton tampon and pad.

Mind you, we are not just talking about cotton, but certified organic cotton. According to Natracare, this means that the cotton is fairly traded, ethically made and grown without the toxic pesticides used in conventional farming. Organic cotton is also biodegradable and friendlier to the environment compared to its synthetic counterparts.

A wave of companies have entered the tampon/pad business: From newer startups to companies who are expanding their product lines in order to compete.

Who’s SELLING 100% organic cotton menstrual products?

Since 2014, there has been an emergence of female-led startups like Lola, Cora, This is L, Aunt Flow, Tampon Tribe, Kali box, Athena Club, Conscious Period (now defunct), Ellebox, and Easy that offer consumers 100% organic tampons and/or pads.

During this time, some health and wellness companies have expanded their offerings to include organic tampons and/or pads including, Sustain Natural, Thinx, The Honest Company and Brandless.

Maxim launched in 2008, Naturalena Brands which produces Veeda launched in 2012, and Corman SpA which produces Organyc launched in 2009 (Corman USA relaunched Organyc in 2016).

And finally, there are industry incumbents who launched decades earlier including, Seventh Generation (established 1988) and, a predominant leader in the space, Natracare (launched 1989).

What do ThESE companies have in common, and what helps them stand out?

Consumer centered

  • Subscription based, at your door delivery: Most companies have direct-to-consumer ecommerce models, offering subscription-based services that deliver menstrual products to your door. This way, a person will never run out of menstrual products, and can more discreetly purchase and receive them in the comfort of their own home. However, there are a handful of companies including Seventh Generation, Organyc and Natracare that are primarily sold by big-box retailers like Walmart and Target.
  • Customization and recommendations: Sustain, Cora, Tampon Tribe, and Lola let users create custom shipments of period products by type (e.g., liner, pad, tampon), quantity and absorbency. This means that a user can end up with an assortment of products in a single shipment. For instance, Lola and Tampon Tribe allow users to specify the precise number of regular, super and super+ tampons they receive in a single box. Sustain Natural and Cora use a brief questionnaire to help users identify products that best suit their period. Sustain users build a custom “Period Kit” based on length of period, product preference (pads, liner, tampons), quantity, and absorbency. Cora users receive product recommendations based on the length of period and absorbency.
  • Modern look and feel: Many companies, particularly startups, have stripped away the overly pink tones, neon colors and excessively “feminine” look and feel of traditional menstrual products, replacing them with branding that feels relatable, modern and, in some cases, more gender and age inclusive. In particular, Cora, Lola, and Sustain have strong, simple and memorable branding (see below).

  • Premium experiences: Cora stands out from its competition by offering a “free signature kit” with sleek, reusable packaging for holding/carrying tampons at home and on the go. Ellebox and Kali offer luxury items like chocolate or candles, designed to elevate the monthly period experience.

Cora kit: Taken from Cora.Life website

More than a business

  • Social responsibility: Many companies are on a mission to create social impact. They argue in favor of ingredient transparency to protect women’s health, citing safety concerns with traditional menstrual products. Many also feel compelled to fight for menstrual equity at home and abroad. For instance, This is L, Cora, Kali, Tampon Tribe, Aunt Flow, Easy and Lola engage in initiatives to provide tampons and pads to menstruators in need. As previously mentioned, some companies actively engage in health advocacy efforts. For instance, Sustain Natural, a B Corp, has been on the forefront of fighting the tampon tax.
  • Female leadership: Conventional menstrual product companies like P&G and Kimberly Clark have dominated the industry in North America for decades, and were founded by men. Compare this to the current generation of ‘for women, by women’ companies. This shift signals women taking greater ownership and leadership over the menstrual health industry. Several of these companies have received substantial funding: Lola ($11.2M), Cora ($6M) and Sustain ($2.5M).


  • Manufacturing partners: Many companies partner with menstrual product manufacturers in the US and overseas. Interestingly, several startups source from the same overseas manufacturer. This has implications on how these companies need to differentiate themselves when selling a similar product.
  • Prices vary: Organic tampons and pads are generally less accessible and affordable to the average consumer compared to their conventional counterparts. And across organic cotton products, the cost for tampons and pads varies. For instance, a quick scan reveals that the unit price for regular tampons with applicators can range anywhere from $0.30-$0.92 USD (calculated before S&H or taxes). Let’s say that I am located in Manhattan, NYC (Zip 10001) and I want to purchase a single box/package of regular tampons with applicators and have them shipped to my door:

Total cost (USD) of regular organic cotton tampons with applicators, ranked from lowest to highest

Brand No. tampons per box Price of box Tampon unit price S&H Total cost including S&H, tax
This is L 10 $4.95 $0.50 $2.00 $6.95
Athena Club 18 $5.00 $0.28 $2.50 $7.50
Maxim 16 $4.99 $0.31 $2.99 $7.98
Tampon Tribe 16 $8.00 $0.50 $0.00 $8.00
Brandless 10 $3.00 $0.30 $5.00 $8.00
Natracare* 16 $7.56 $0.47 $0.00 $8.23
Sustain Natural 12 $8.95 $0.75 $0.00 $8.95
Veeda 16 $9.97 $0.62 $0.00 $9.97
Lola 18 $10.00 $0.56 $0.00 $10.00
Organyc* 16 $4.79 $0.30 $5.99 $10.78
Ellebox 16 $10.99 $0.69 $0.00 $10.99
Thinx 8 $6.00 $0.75 $5.00 $11.00
Seventh Generation* 18 $5.99 $0.33 $5.99 $11.98
The Honest Company 16 $6.95 $0.43 $5.95 $12.90
Kali 32 $16.00 $0.50 $0.00 $16.00
Easy** 15 $6.98 $0.47 $9.31 $16.29
Cora*** 36 $33.00 $0.92 ? $33.00

*Price from, includes sales tax

**Price converted CDN to USD

***Cora price based on cost of a box of 36 mixed tampons shipped every 3 months, after payment for an introductory kit. Ongoing S&H costs not clear.

Note that for some companies, S&H may differ by state and is often free with bundled purchases for those who can meet a minimum spend. Credit card and Paypal are standard forms of payment. Also, most companies do not ship to Canada — if they do, prices will likely differ. Assuming the products are more or less equal in quality, you can start to see which companies offer the greatest value based on the quantity of tampons they offer.

Now let’s compare the price of organic cotton tampons to that of conventional tampons. From a quick scan below, conventional tampons sell anywhere between $0.11-$0.16 per tampon before tax and S&H. Using the same zip code, let’s say that I purchase a single box/package of regular tampons with applicators from a few different online retailers:

Total cost (USD) of conventional tampons with applicators, ranked from lowest to highest

Brand No. tampons per box Price of box Tampon unit price S&H Total cost including S&H, tax
Dollar General 36 $5.50 $0.15 $3.99 $9.49
CVSHealth 40 $4.89 $0.12 $5.49 $10.38
Equate* 40 $4.47 $0.11 $5.99 $10.46
Tampax* 40 $5.47 $0.14 $5.99 $11.46
U by Kotex* 34 $5.47 $0.16 $5.99 $11.46

*Price from

If we assume a menstruator using tampons requires 20 tampons per cycle and has about 12 cycles in one year, that totals 240 tampons per year. Using the low and high end unit prices for organic cotton and conventional tampons calculated above, we can estimate annual tampon cost:

Annual cost (USD) for tampons with applicators

Type of tampon Tampon unit price (low, high) Annual cost of 240 tampons (before S&H, tax)
 Conventional $0.11 $26.40
$0.16 $38.40
Organic cotton $0.30 $72.00
$0.92 $220.80

The difference in annual cost for having a period as a tampon user differs dramatically if a menstruator is using organic cotton vs. conventional tampons. Organic cotton may be prohibitively expensive and not an option for many menstruators, particularly if they are paying for products pay check to pay check.

How do menstrual product COMPANIES compete?

Menstrual products and technologies have experienced little innovation over the last few decades: the field is ripe for disruption. When it comes to innovation of tampons and pads, companies have been laser focused on creating patented technology and improving incremental features like shape, absorbency, flexibility, aesthetics and comfort. With shifting social attitudes, existing products like organic pads/tampons, menstrual cups and disks, and period underwear have gained widespread social acceptance and mainstream popularity.

Today’s organic cotton companies assume that custom features and technology of the tampon/pad are less important to their consumer. Instead the selling point primarily focuses on ingredient transparency. As a result, there is less differentiation around the product itself. It is no surprise then that several companies share the same manufacturing partner.

The popularity of organic cotton products speaks to a broader evolution in the way we think about women’s health and rights. While marketers have traditionally targeted young menstruators in order to build a lifetime of brand loyalty, today’s companies amplify health and safety concerns and women’s empowerment as a way to compel menstruators of all ages to switch to organic cotton. However, by assuming consumers are less brand loyal, companies will need to stand out in order to compete in a market with comparable and sometimes identical organic cotton offerings. With similar product, cost, and operations, customer experience, branding and marketing may be the differentiating and ultimately winning factor.

Making the Period Coloring Book


Last year I crowdfunded and published a Period Coloring Book. It’s exactly as it sounds: It’s a coloring book about periods.

Growing up as a sexual health educator, I’ve always had a keen interest in this space. I’ve heard a lot of period experiences and stories over the years from clients, strangers, friends, and family. Years ago, I started sketching out some ‘menstrual imagery’ in my spare time. As I sharing some of these images with friends, I was encouraged to pull them together into a coloring book.

The drawings started out as a personal art project. When I decided to bring this work into the public domain, it was important for me to consider the meaning and representation of these images to others. This forced me to think through the consequences of what I chose to include or not include in the finite pages of the book, and made me more critical about my decisions. I found a healthy balance between what I had initially started to create with illustrations, and how I wanted to see them come together as a book that could resonate with a diversity of experiences and people.

To bring it to life, I learned about what it takes to promote and publish a book. Having seen numerous successful indie projects fundraise through crowdfunding, I thought this would be a great way to cover the costs of publication. I started my crowdfunding campaign in November 2016 with a goal of $2,500 USD. After 30 days, I raised just over $5,000.

I often get asked what I learned from my experience creating this book. Below I offer my high level takeaways:

  • Strategic crowdfunding  >  As a crowdfunding novice, I did my research months before the campaign. After sifting through online advice and interviewing people who had run successful campaigns for similar products, I built my own crowdfunding strategy – from costing/sourcing services and materials to perks, fulfillment and shipping. My goal was to keep my promises simple and fulfill them. I planned for several scenarios where things would go well above, below, or just meet my expectations. It was important to be honest with myself in terms of what I could achieve given timelines, costs and workload. 
  • Opening up a conversation about menstruation  >  This project reminded me that there are many ways to start a meaningful conversation about menstruation, and a coloring book just happens to be one of them. I hope that the book adds to a larger conversation about periods, and that the more resources we have to do so, the better. I have met people who love the book, people who don’t care for it, and those who just don’t get it. Putting something out into the world, especially about menstruation, in such a public way was humbling, and left me open to praise, criticism, internet trolls, and everything in between. It was important for me to expect this range of responses and leverage them in the most productive way possible. And, I think I am better for it. Receiving such warm response for the book was validating, and the thoughtful feedback I gained has only pushed my thinking for the next thing I work on.
  • Getting the word out  >  Through my own background research and some amazing supporters and introductions, the Period Coloring Book gained traction with Teen Vogue, the Huffington Post, Metro, Bustle, Thinx, and Clue. It also caught the attention of some companies that I have admired for their work in sexual health like Lunapads and Natracare who very generously donated to the campaign. Publishing these articles at the launch of the campaign (and throughout) offered the work some credibility and exposed the campaign to those well outside of my social networks. 
  • People are amazing  >  I asked for a lot of help and advice throughout this journey. From feedback on the illustrations to the person who shared the campaign with a friend on Facebook to each and every campaign contributor, I was incredibly grateful for the support I received. It always amazes me how many people are actually willing to help if I simply ask. The generosity and support of those around me, particularly feminist activists and allies, made the book possible. I cannot emphasize this last point enough!

I’m also thrilled to see the book being used as a meaningful tool for dialogue and advocacy. Recently, the Calgary Sexual Health Center (where I worked as a sexual health peer educator growing up!) purchased books for use in their girls programming. Jennifer Weiss-Wolf, a vibrantly fierce and compassionate period activist who has been on the forefront of the menstrual equity movement, was an early and kind supporter of the Period Coloring Book and recently wrote about us in her 2017 release of Periods Gone Public: Taking a Stand for Menstrual Equity — essential reading for everyone interested in periods.

I’m excited to see where else the Period Coloring Book will go…

If you’re interested, you can order the book here:


A Survivor’s Journey: Recovering from Sexual Assault


And finally, to girls everywhere, I am with you. On nights when you feel alone, I am with you. When people doubt you or dismiss you, I am with you. I fought everyday for you. So never stop fighting, I believe you. As the author Anne Lamott once wrote, “Lighthouses don’t go running all over an island looking for boats to save; they just stand there shining.” Although I can’t save every boat, I hope that by speaking today, you absorbed a small amount of light, a small knowing that you can’t be silenced, a small satisfaction that justice was served, a small assurance that we are getting somewhere, and a big, big knowing that you are important, unquestionably, you are untouchable, you are beautiful, you are to be valued, respected, undeniably, every minute of every day, you are powerful and nobody can take that away from you. To girls everywhere, I am with you. Thank you.

– Stanford Victim

The stories we tell about sexual assault

The quote above is an excerpt from the statement made by the Stanford Victim, a young woman who was sexually assaulted on campus in 2015 by fellow student Brock Turner. Turner has since been found guilty of 3 counts of sexual assault and sentenced to a mere 6 months in county jail and probation.

The story was highly publicized and yet another disturbing case of sexual assault on a college campus in the US. Following the release of the victim’s statement, Vice President Joe Biden issued a powerful and empathic response – you can read it here.

Sexual assault is a crime that is devastating to all involved. It is also one where we immediately question who is accountable for the crime in the first place. The Stanford case serves as an excruciating reminder of how victims are shamed and blamed for inciting their own assault: Turner was framed as an ‘aspiring Olympian’, a young man whose ‘moment of misjudgment’ could cost him his entire personal and professional career. On the contrary, his victim was framed as a young woman who likely made poor decisions that put her at risk for violence. Like many victims, her behaviors came under deep scrutiny – from her sexual history to how much she drank to her attire on the evening of her assault.

rapeofmrsmithA counter story: Authorities interrogate a victim of a robbery using the same line of questioning they would use against a victim of sexual assault. Illustration inspired by The Rape of Mr. Smith

Unfortunately, this is a common narrative when it comes to sexual assault. While it is important to thoroughly investigate any criminal act, all too often there is gross discrimination against victims in these cases.

Sexual assault places the victim/survivor’s character, judgment and behaviors (before, during and after the assault) into question: Victims must work extra hard to prove that they were in fact victimized. In turn, it is no surprise that victims and survivors internalize a tremendous amount of self-doubt, isolation, shame and blame. It’s an unsettling reminder of how we automatically seek to discredit victims and devalue sexual violence.

As someone who has the privilege of working with victims, survivors and their allies, my job is to provide support, largely by listening to their stories. Sometimes the most important thing I can offer is validation:

“I believe you”

“It’s not your fault”

“You are not alone”

These words echo those of the Stanford victim. The simplicity of these messages always makes me think twice and what strikes me is the fact that we even need to say this to victims in the first place.


A Journey of recovery

Sexual assault can ignite a range of emotional, mental, and physical responses. And, the experience is unique to every victim/survivor – there is no single or “normal” way to experience or recover from it. Some people may be highly expressive with their emotions, others may not cry at all. During the assault, some people may try to fight the perpetrator, others may freeze out of fear. All of these responses are completely valid. What unites these experiences is lack of consent.

Because sexual assault is so deeply misunderstood and misconstrued, I wanted to bring some level of clarity to such a complex experience.

I created a journey of the sexual assault recovery experience using the Rape Trauma Syndrome as an underlying framework. I reviewed recovery/healing and RTS frameworks from sexual health organizations across the US and Canada. After making sense of the content, I landed on 5 stages for the journey: Life (before the assault), Sexual Assault, Disruption, Resurfacing, and Acceptance.

Key points about this journey:

A spectrum of experiences
The journey describes a range of possible thoughts, feelings and behaviors a survivor/victim may experience during recovery, as well as the potential supports that they may access along the way. Not all content will be relevant to any one person.

The journey of recovery is not linear
Although presented in a linear format, this is not meant to suggest that the journey of recovery is a linear or staged process. In fact, recovery is often iterative and highly complex with no definitive pace or timeline.

What people are “doing” is complex
What survivors are “doing” throughout the journey may be considered passive or active responses/experiences of trauma. For instance, “relives past trauma” (during sexual assault) describes more of an innate mental/emotional response rather than something that the victim actively chooses to do.

Supports throughout the journey
The journey aims to highlight where certain supports show up most prominently during recovery. Depending on one’s journey, some supports may be continuous across stages while others may not show up at all.

I’ve included a stats section using data from – this is to offer a greater, national context around assault. Notably absent are stats for the “Acceptance” stage – if someone can point me to data I could use here, I’d appreciate it!

I’ve shared this journey with colleagues working in sexual assault and hope that it can serve as a useful tool for advocacy and empathy building. I welcome your thoughts/feedback in the comments below.

Paid maternity leave: How the top 25 countries in the United Nations Human Development Index compare


According to the International Labour Organization:

…pregnancy and maternity are an especially vulnerable time for working women and their families. Expectant and nursing mothers require special protection to prevent harm to their or their infants’ health, and they need adequate time to give birth, to recover, and to nurse their children. At the same time, they also require protection to ensure that they will not lose their job simply because of pregnancy or maternity leave. Such protection not only ensures a woman’s equal access to employment, it also ensures the continuation of often vital income which is necessary for the well-being of her entire family. Safeguarding the health of expectant and nursing mothers and protecting them from job discrimination is a precondition for achieving genuine equality of opportunity and treatment for men and women at work and enabling workers to raise families in conditions of security.

Using information collected by UN Data on 2013 Maternity Leave Benefits, I plotted the number of days of paid maternity leave by the % of wages paid during leave for the top 25 countries listed in the 2013 UN Human Development Index. The provider of benefits varied by country and included social insurance, social assistance systems financed by the State, social security, and employers.

Maternity leave standards determined by the International Labour Organization (ILO) were used as a ‘gold standard’ for benefits. The Maternity Protection Convention, 2000 (No. 183) is the most up-to-date international labour standard on maternity protection, and according to the ILO (emphasis my own):

Convention No. 183 provides for 14 weeks of maternity benefit to women to whom the instrument applies. Women who are absent from work on maternity leave shall be entitled to a cash benefit which ensures that they can maintain themselves and their child in proper conditions of health and with a suitable standard of living and which shall be no less than two-thirds of her previous earnings or a comparable amount.

There has been a great deal of progress when it comes to maternity (and paternity) leave benefits, yet there is no consistent and lawful standard for paid leave in the United States. So while we may applaud a company like Netflix for their progressive policy on ‘unlimited parental leave’ in the first year after birth or adoption, most Americans are not afforded such a privilege…or what some might argue is a right. The average length of maternity leave in the United States is 84 days and the percentage of wages paid during this period is 0%. The US is the only country that does not meet at least one of the requirements of the ILO standard.

NuvaRing, A Case Study: Making medical instructions feel less medical


In brief: I discuss some of the major issues and decisions I faced in redesigning instructions for the birth control device, NuvaRing. My goal was to design the instructions to be more human centered and supportive of sex positive attitudes towards women’s sexual health. Images in this post are NSFW.

NuvaRing was launched in the early 2000s around the same time I started working as a sexual health educator. It is a flexible ring that is inserted into the vagina where it releases hormones into the body to prevent pregnancy. NuvaRing is worn consistently for 3 weeks and then removed for one week during which a woman menstruates.

I decided to redesign the instructional material for NuvaRing as a part of an information design study for a spring course I took at the School of Visual Arts. I chose the ring largely because of my familiarity and fondness for the product. As medical device instructions don’t have a great reputation for compelling information design, I also saw this as a good design challenge and an opportunity to use materials to improve the overall birth control experience.

Better instructions, better experiences

It is important for manufacturers to design clear, accurate and comprehensive instructional materials so that people can effectively use their birth control. Even better, when designed with the intended user in mind, materials can feel more engaging and supportive to people’s needs. With the potential to reach millions of consumers worldwide, the language and tone of these materials matter because, intentionally or not, they convey beliefs and attitudes about women’s bodies and sexual health. That is, their impact is felt well beyond the individual user.

Instructional materials surface at critical touchpoints in the birth control experience: They help foster a relationship with users, and become a familiar face in the birth control journey. Every time a woman receives her birth control, she receives materials.

And yet, the design of materials often feels like an afterthought. Despite the sensitive topics they cover, birth control instructions can look and feel no different than materials you receive with an everyday household appliance. They tend to be dense and crammed with fine print, spouting legal disclaimers and warnings about health risks. And while this is all essential information, the way it is communicated can be daunting and (slightly) terrifying, at least from my perspective. Typically I find device instructions to feel highly technical, losing sight of the person at the center of the experience. With female oriented products, it’s particularly important to consider how instructional material can promote sex positivity and challenge stereotypes and stigma around female sexuality.

How might we design better instructions?

The following questions guided me through the redesign:

  • How might we design clear, credible and effective instructions?
  • How might we design instructions that women from diverse cultural contexts can identify with?
  • How might we normalize the relationship between women and their sexual body parts?
  • How might we promote sex-positive attitudes about sexual health and behaviours?

Critiquing the manufacturer’s instructions

00A booklet is provided in the NuvaRing package (purchased in Canada)

01Insertion instructions begin on p16 (click to enlarge)

02Figure 2 shows proper handling of ring, Figure 3 shows insertion, Figure 4 shows removal (click to enlarge)

03Continuation of ring removal instruction and Q&A about use (click to enlarge)

Images from the manufacturer’s instructional material are above. My main observations:

  • The instructions on using the ring are explained over several pages of the booklet
  • Visual and text instruction are interspersed and the formatting of the text is inconsistent
  • Illustrations show detailed anatomical cross-sections of the female body, and depict internal organs; the vulva and vaginal opening are not explicitly shown
  • There is not a clear distinction between internal and external body parts; parts are not labeled
  • Internal and external body parts appear in varying flesh tones
  • The woman in the instructions appears to be completely nude; she is shown from her side profile and appears to be looking at her pelvic area

Strengths: The small booklet fits nicely into your hands and the NuvaRing package. Though not directly related to the instructions, the booklet includes reminder stickers for your calendar to insert/remove the ring, which seems thoughtful.

Opportunities for change: The dense text throughout the booklet made the content feel onerous. The instructions were also difficult to follow without clear sequential steps. Illustration-wise, the relationship between the ring, the woman, and her sexual organs (vulva, vagina) felt disjointed and lacked a clear flow, perhaps in part because the information was spread out over several pages. The illustrations themselves were also somewhat confusing and off putting: A completely nude woman (you don’t need to be naked to insert the ring!) and a cross section of a woman’s internal organs. The latter actually reminded me of viewing cadavers in my undergraduate biology courses. To me, these visuals depict a medicalized view of the female body from the perspective of a healthcare provider (HCP) interacting with a patient. You might call this the HCP’s “gaze” or point of view, a lens that comes from a place of great (and often undisputed) power and privilege. Ultimately, what is missing here is the woman’s perspective.

The redesign

I decided to create a quick reference guide — an at-a-glance guide to using the ring on a routine basis that accompanies a more comprehensive material with all the mandatory “fine print” (this pairing is quite common in the world of medical device materials). I identified and arranged key steps of the instruction and created a range of options for illustrations. Because the average user is not likely to read the instructions in their entirety, I was especially judicious about content design. I had to strike the right balance between the type and amount of information to provide to the user, and when to provide it.

1\3(Re)arranging content for the instructions and exploring illustration options: pink stickies are “stages” of use, dark yellow stickies are key instructions, and light yellow stickies are illustrations

As I was prototyping, I found myself grappling with several key issues related to content:

Point of view (POV): I experimented with several POVs for the illustrations. I found that a first person POV (that did not show the vulva) was true to the user experience yet unhelpful in conveying specific instructions, and that a ‘spectator’ POV (a person watching someone else use the ring) came across as somewhat intrusive. For the most part, I decided to use a modified first person POV from the perspective of a woman viewing her vulva in a mirror. I appreciate this POV because it comes from a sex positive place: Mirrors are a source of empowerment for women who want to learn more about their bodies. This vantage point implies that the user has greater control over her experience and that her body is ‘on display’ for her only, which may promote a sense of privacy/intimacy with use of the ring.

Positioning of hands: I felt it was important to show the user’s hands directly touching her genitals to normalize this interaction; this is otherwise often considered shameful or overtly sexual behavior for a woman. In doing research for this project, I sought out visual references of hands interacting with the vulva. I found most of these references from medical textbooks (view of vulva with a gloved hand touching it) or pornography (view of vulva with a woman touching herself). The intention behind displaying the genitals are quite different: The former is meant to display the female anatomy, often in a diseased state, in a sterile environment for educational purposes, while the latter is intended to showcase the genitals with the aim of stimulating sexual arousal. There is a complex history and interesting crossover between these representations of the female genitalia that Kapsalis thoughtfully discusses in her book, Public Privates. This was helpful food for thought when considering how to represent the vulva.

For the instructions, I envisioned showing one hand inserting the ring and the other spreading the labia to facilitate easier access to the vagina. However, in sifting through my visual references for the latter, the only consistent “methods” came from porn (e.g., using the index and middle fingers to create a “V” shape). I chose not to explicitly draw from any specific references and, rather, settled on a hand position that I felt was realistic and practical.

hand positions

Possible positioning of hand to spread the labia: hand position used for redesign (left) and “v” shaped finger spread (right)

Representations of the body: I took a multi-pronged approach to developing simple and inclusive illustrations and language that would resonate with a diverse user audience. (1) Avoiding the use of gender pronouns: I debated this because being a woman is likely a very powerful and important part of most users’ identity, however, I did not want to exclude users who may not identify as female. (2) Simplifying illustrations: I removed parts of the body that were not critical to the instruction to minimize distraction and confusion. This forced me to prioritize and determine to what extent to include body parts (e.g., do I show the anus? urethra?) and why (e.g., for reference? educational purposes?). For instance, when showing the vulva and vaginal opening, I decided to include the urethra and labia minora and majora as key visual references. (3) Strategic use of color: I selectively used color throughout the illustrations to emphasize certain instructions and neutralized skin tones to make them more inclusive. I also shaded the labia to suggest pubic hair. As a natural and normal feature of the body, I felt it was important to include so long as it did not interfere with the illustrations. The absence of pubic hair may otherwise suggest that a person is pre-pubescent or has intentionally removed their hair.

Here’s a summary of the major changes I made in the redesign:

  • Created a square QRG that would fit into the package alongside the ‘fine print’
  • Illustrations have minimal detail and most are drawn from the perspective of a woman viewing her body in a mirror
  • Instructional steps are numbered and organized into four major stages of use (prepare, insert, wear, remove)
  • Visuals and plain-language text are paired in a linear sequence
  • Body parts relevant to the instruction are labeled for educational purposes
  • Gender neutral figures shown explicitly touching their genitals demonstrate different positions for ring insertion
  • Skin tones are neutralized so they are more inclusive; shading applied to the vulva area is a reference to pubic hair
  • Color is used to highlight key actions (arrows)
  • Introduced a friendly logo and color palette, aligned with brand colors

Photos of the NuvaRing Quick Reference Guide

cover1Cover with a basic overview of use

inside1Opens into tips for insertion (click to enlarge)

spread1Continuous spread of instructions (click to enlarge)

back1Back cover with manufacturer contact information

There are already changes I could imagine making to this iteration of the guide (e.g., including info like Q&As and health warnings, etc.), but it is a starting point. The true test of this material would be in usability testing (if that were to ever happen). I welcome your critiques and comments!

An ode to depression


I came across this reddit thread, Write a suicide note in a Dr. Seuss like fashion. The most upvoted post is a dark yet touching poem written by user, allbunsglazing. Like many commentators, I was really moved when I read this…somehow it’s an incredibly honest account of depression.

I cannot take credit for any of the above text allbunsglazing so carefully crafted. I did however crop his original work and ended it on an earlier note, before it reached the detail about the suicide plan. Perhaps it’s me being optimistic, but I felt that in itself, it’s the words above that resonated with me the most.


We’re up all night to get lucky



I made the images above and below for the blog a few months ago. The posts can be viewed here and here.

Bedsider is an initiative of the National Campaign to Prevent Teen & Unplanned Pregnancy, a private non-profit organization whose goal is to help women find “birth control that’s right for them and learn how to use it consistently and effectively, and that’s it.

I support for a number of reasons: It’s an informative, light-hearted and non-judgmental resource, it is beautifully designed (courtesy of IDEO), and it also happens to offer fun birth control/appointment reminders that you can sign up for here.  I admire their work and had a great time brewing up ideas for their tumblr.


If Wes Anderson Created a Period Starter Kit

Hello Flo’s latest viral video, First Moon Party, made me appreciate the company’s refreshingly positive (and hilarious) take on menstruation. The ad shows a young girl so eager to get her first period that she fakes it, prompting mom to throw her an awkward and over the top ‘First Moon’ party as punishment for lying. What I love is that the messaging counters our common perceptions of first menstruation as dreadful, embarrassing, and what many have affectionately nicknamed “the curse” — the time of month when a woman is bloated, bleeding, and b**chy.  Periods are a natural part of being human and quite phenomenal when you consider how and why people menstruate in the first place. Just think: the body cyclically prepares itself for pregnancy so it may nurture, grow and birth new life…and we can actively manipulate these complex processes using contraception. In fact, it’s a good reminder of just how sophisticated our bodies are.

As a former sexual health educator, I think it’s important to embrace and normalize menstruation, even before that very first period. This means it is crucial to encourage girls and young women to learn about their bodies in a manner that is honest, open and accurate, and enables them to make informed decisions about their sexual and reproductive health. This also means calling things out as they are (that “va-jay-jay” is actually a vagina) and creating awareness around the full gamut of care options women have during menses so they can find a best fit for themselves.

I’ve seen a lot of “starter kits” for a first period — googling around gives you a sense of what these look like. Most contain what you might expect: jewellery, candy, painkillers, carrying bag, etc. I decided to quickly jot down some of my own ideas, with an intent to expand a woman’s options beyond those typical pads and tampons:

  1. Mirror: A mirror can serve as a very simple yet powerful educational tool for understanding parts of the body that cannot be easily seen on a day to day basis. It can also clarify where exactly to insert a tampon, sponge or cup.
  2. Extra underwear: Important backup for any spillage.
  3. Sweets: Sometimes a little sugar can help distract from those cramps.
  4. Diary: A personal health record for keeping track of the flow and the experience.
  5. Painkillers: To wrangle those potential aches and pains.
  6. Tampons: A good option for those comfortable with insertion.
  7. Pads: Can be reusable or non-reusable and serve as panty liners.
  8. Menstrual cup: An insertable, reusable yet less popular option.
  9. Sponge: Not to be confused with the contraceptive sponge (which always reminds me of Seinfeld), this is an option made of naturally occurring materials.

I personally think it’d be great to see all of these items in one kit as it offers more than what you would typically find in the “feminine hygiene” aisle of your local pharmacy. I think it’s also worth noting that we can talk about tools for menstruation as well as a mindset for menstruation…this list focuses on the former but directly informs the latter.

Because my mind just works this way, I decided to illustrate this list using a visual style inspired by Wes Anderson. See below. If you’re not familiar with the reference, SNL made a brilliant spoof of Wes Anderson films you can watch here. And in case you’re wondering, the spoon is how I visually think about the amount of menstrual fluid generated per period (2-4 tablespoons on average).

I’d be interested to hear what else would be helpful in such a “starter kit”? Maybe books, a carrying case…?