Designing For Stigma: A Framework

How might we design products for populations in which stigma is part of their experience? A couple of weeks ago, I was fortunate enough to speak at Designers + Geeks and discuss a design mechanism I created to help us begin answering this question. Understanding how to address these types of problems will enable us to design solutions for some of the largest challenges humans face today — in Healthcare, AI, Finance, Government, etc.

The impetus of this research was the development of a mobile telemedicine app I co-founded in 2016, Level Therapy. Although our team knew the problems we were solving for intimately, we spent about a year thoughtfully conducting research, testing, and designing. As you may or may not know, stigma is the most popular reason — ~50 million — Americans do not access mental health treatment every year. I knew if we could design an experience that did not excite stigma and did not use dark UX tactics, we could create a differentiated product while providing quality treatment. What follows is two years of thinking synthesized into a mechanism to design solutions for stigmatized communities. These components do not need to be addressed in the order they appear.



When addressing stigmatized communities, it is important to remember that we are designing for access. We are trying to lower emotive barriers to address a pain point. An effective way of doing this is to use the framing effect to completely reframe the issue as something analogous to gain access.

An example of a company that does this very well is Clue — a period and ovulation tracker. The CEO and Co-Founder, Ida Tin, speaks about Clue as a product that allows people to know about what is happening inside their bodies, and to be empowered by that information. Take a listen.

This approach not only helps provide access to the desired community, but also comparable communities directly or indirectly affected by the problem/pain point. Below are some methods for you to use to conduct user research to help you think through your process.

Reframe Methods

Architecture Innovation

Architecture Innovation is innovation that is created by reassembling existing components of a system. In the spirit of reframing, Architecture Innovation is important to explore because the approach can lead to experiences/solutions that are similar to the status quo but different enough to be considered new, thus not stirring up stigma.

In June 2007, the first iPhone launched. I am not suggesting cell phone buyers are a stigmatized community — in relation to buying a cell phone — but the iPhone is probably the best representation of the power of Architecture Innovation.

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Below are some more methods for you to check out to conduct user research to help you think through your innovation process.

Architecture Innovation Methods

Architecture Innovation Methods


As designers and creators, we — should — all know the immense value of research. Unfortunately, I still see companies and teams either skip this part of the process or even worse, a half-ass the job as if research is a checkbox that needs to be checked. If you are working on a solution for a stigmatized community, the stakes are most likely too high for you not to invest a lot of time and thought into testing your assumptions and conducting user research — continuously.

When designing Level Therapy, there were some key assumptions that we made that by testing through different methods, we were able to make some key counterintuitive insights. An example…before we launched our company no offline or online solution focused on finding the right therapist for the right patient; they would simply display a directory and expect the individual to have the tools to make an educated guess. This, after going through tremendous emotional — and often physical — barriers to access treatment, was something people know nothing about. After learning this, we decided to connect people with a clinical team member as a first step to assess what they were experiencing, as well as if they had any preferences for the type of therapist they would like like to speak to — gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation, etc. These learnings helped us create a very high conversion funnel from sign up to initial booking.

Here are some more methods for you to check out to conduct user research to help you think through your process.

Research Methods

Research Methods


Lastly, I want to touch on experience — the verb. I recognize many designers practice empathy when designing I am suggesting that that is not enough — especially for stigmatized communities. For us to design solutions for these communities, we need to begin our research processes by either experiencing the problem or conducting research on the community we are designing for. This is not rocket science, and I do not believe this is anything you have not read before, but it is something I still see a lot of teams and companies discount.

Below is the final set of methods for you to conduct user research to help you connect better with the communities you are designing for.

Experience Methods

Experience Methods