The Awful Pinkness of Period Apps

The first-ever research into period-tracking apps suggests women want less gendered options.

Tulip fields blossom near Magdeburg, Germany (Carsten Koall / Getty)

For products ostensibly aimed at adult women, period-tracking apps look awfully like the girls’ aisle of a toy store. Hearts. Pink. Flowers. Pink flowers!

Is this really what women want?

At last, someone has bothered to even ask the question. Daniel Epstein and Nicole Lee were sitting in a cafe wondering what women wanted out of period-tracking apps when they realized that no one—at least no one in the academic field of human-computer interaction—had studied it.

“I actually half-jokingly bet Daniel that nobody had done research on the topic, because I’m just so used to women’s-health issues and such not being covered,” said Lee, who works in the tech industry. Epstein, a graduate student studying self-tracking tools at the University of Washington, didn’t believe it. “He was like, ‘No it’s such an obvious research topic… surely lots of people must have studied it.’” Of course, she was right.

Period-tracking apps in the iTunes store

So along with UW colleagues, they devised a study to analyze reviews of period-tracking apps—including Glow, Eve, Clue, P. Tracker, and Life—as well as survey and interview users. They’re presenting the results at a conference next week.

The verdict on pink flowers? Fewer please. Three times as many reviews they analyzed deemed the feminine designs negative compared to positive. Many of those reviews were actually for Clue, an app that distinguishes itself in being especially non-pink and gender neutral. People were embarrassed to look at their period apps in public. “If your app is really pink and you’re trying to track where you are in a public place, that can be really uncomfortable,” said Epstein.

Period-tracking apps in the Google Play store

It’s not just the color, I might add, but the whole design that tends toward girlishness. It’s one thing for an app to be tastefully pink. (Don’t you know Millenials love pink now?) It’s another for it to feel like you’ve put on a backpack and jumped into a field of cartoon flowers with Dora the Explorer.

Aside from being aesthetically offensive, the design reflects a certain thoughtlessness—as if slapping some pink flowers on an app is what you do to appeal to women. And indeed, with notable exceptions like Clue and Glow, the companies behind these apps pump out all sorts of apps, including mobile games. Adding a basic period-tracking app to the roster shouldn’t and seemingly didn’t take much effort.

Epstein and Lee found that users were also dissatisfied by the apps’ one-size-fits-all approach. For example, the apps’ predictions of upcoming menstrual cycles might not account for variations due to menopause or stress. And they tend to assume that users are heterosexual, fertile, and self-identified women. (Trans men can also menstruate.)

It’s not that women never find appeal in flowers or pink. One of the app reviews cited in the study said, “I love the way it includes necessary info in a fashionable girly way. :-).” Let a hundred flowers of whatever color bloom, a hundred period-tracking apps contend. But the outpouring of relief among user who found Clue to be non-pink and gender neutral suggests a pent-up demand for apps that are less girlish.

I’m reminded of a conversation I had with Aida Flick when I was writing about the Silicon Valley’s newfound interest in period technology. Flick doesn’t work in tech, but she used to run marketing for feminine care products at Kotex. And she was responsible for launching U by Kotex, a line of tampons and pads aimed at a younger audience whose marketing campaign burned itself into my teenage brain. Its ads poked fun of the period taboo. Its packaging—black boxes with neon wrappers peeking through—was a revelation amid the sea of pastel that is the feminine hygiene aisle.

Flick told me about their focus groups. “The first time we put colorful products in front of young girls, they immediately grabbed it. It wasn’t something you should hide and be ashamed of. It wasn’t something that should be boring.” The campaign was phenomenally successful.

Not boring, not something to be ashamed of. Sounds like a low bar, but few period products have surpassed it.