Product designers are typically well equipped to engage with end-users and other stakeholders to talk about things like requirements, desires, or issues they encounter. This works fine when you are discussing a new coffee machine, car, or website. It gets more difficult when end-users are not able or willing to talk about a particular topic, for instance because they are ashamed about it, or not used to talk about it. In ‘Designing for Taboos’ we address this challenge; how should designers cope with taboos? And could product design contribute to breaking taboos?

The project features a design case about Alopecia. Alopecia is a medical condition that causes partial or total hair loss. It affects people of all ages and has a major impact on the life of the person with Alopecia, but also their friends and family. Apart from the unpredictable nature of Alopecia and the mental impact of losing your hair, one of the most difficult aspects of Alopecia is to explain it to other people. Alopecia can be ‘camouflaged’ with wigs or hairpieces, but a lot of daily situations force people to expose their condition to the outside world, whether they want to or not; for example going for a swim, going cycling, or staying over for a night. The Dutch Alopecia association challenged us to come up with new product ideas that make the daily life of people with Alopecia a bit easier. 

Within the context of the ‘Designing for Taboos’ project, the case serves two purposes. 

  1. Firstly, we want to investigate how designers should approach end-users (people with Alopecia, but also their friends and family) and elicit their real requirements, expectations, and desires. Do regular interview and co-design techniques work, or do these ‘touchy’ topics require a specific approach? 
  2. Secondly, we want to investigate whether product design can contribute to making Alopecia (or hair loss in general) less of a taboo subject, for instance by redesigning wig accessories or by producing new ways of communicating about Alopecia. 

Collaboration for Impact
The project features an interesting collaboration between designers (the Industrial Design research group of Saxion University of Applied Sciences and design agency d’Andrea & Evers) and non-designers (the Alopecia association and the Ethics & Technology research group of Saxion University of Applied Sciences). 

As usual in multidisciplinary projects, it takes time and effort to understand each other's language: not only between design researchers and researchers from ethics & technology, but also between the researchers and end users. Especially when designing for taboos, we found that spending time and attention on getting to know and understand people and their taboo, is vital for creating impact. 

"Is it always desirable to break a taboo? And do you want to make designers responsible for breaking a taboo?"

In our project, close collaboration with the Alopecia association really helps with learning to speak the language of the end users. For instance, they informed us that people with Alopecia prefer not to be called 'patient' and use the word 'hair piece' instead of 'wig´. Details like this help researchers and designers approach the target group respectfully and effectively, and really understand how they experience a taboo. Similarly, we found that organizing small (I.e. with 3 or 4 participants) focus groups, works very well to have respectful, open, and informative talks with end users in this target group. Despite the sensitive subject people were very willing to talk to us and each other. 

The collaboration with a design agency allows us to compare how experienced product designers approach a taboo topic to how design students do this. Furthermore, it gives us insight into what tools, methods or techniques designers in practice need to properly address and cope with taboos. The collaboration with Ethics & Technology results in a critical reflection on why and how designers cope with taboos; is it always desirable to break a taboo? And do you want to make designers responsible for breaking a taboo? If so, how do you decide whether a taboo should be discussed? 

We found that the multidisciplinary approach results in a lot of new insights for both partners. In particular, the design agency appreciates that we take time to critically think about how to work with taboos, which is not possible in ‘regular’ design projects. For the ethics and technology researchers it is valuable to gain understanding about how designers work, think and make decisions, particularly in relation to taboo topics. 

What’s next?
The social impact of the project is initially limited to people with Alopecia. However, the ‘Designing for Taboos’ project aims to be a first step towards better understanding how to design for taboos in a broader context (e.g. also addressing social taboos such as poverty or low literacy) and how design can contribute to breaking these taboos. We hope that the project leads to innovative design tools and techniques that help designers and non-designers address touchy social challenges and produce innovative and effective solutions.