Period Tracking Apps Often Disappoint, Stereotype Users

The target user for many apps? Straight, female, fertile, and 'regular' — oh, and must love pink.

Animation: Diana Quach
May 04, 2017 at 4:02 PM ET

Apps for tracking your period probably seem like a great idea to anyone who’s had to throw out a pair of pants after an unexpected mess, but new research shows in reality they’re often inaccurate and off-putting.

The study, conducted by researchers at the University of Washington, relied on over 2,000 reviews by users, a survey of 687 people, and 12 follow-up interviews. What it discovered was apps were the least accurate for those whose periods are not regular, and that many users were turned off by presumptions about their gender, sexuality, and fertility levels.

“Overall, we were fairly discouraged in terms of how well these apps do at serving people who use them,” said lead researcher Daniel Epstein. “It seems like in a lot of the cases the apps were designed without really asking people what their needs were, or how an app could best support them in tracking their menstrual cycle. We think that could have gone a long way.”

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Period tracking apps like Clue, Glow, Eve, Life, MyCycles, Period Diary, Tracker Lite and many others are meant to provide a variety of functions for users. They can be used to track PMS and menstrual symptoms, fertility window and ovulation periods, sexual encounters, and more. Some will give reminders as to when one can expect their period.

That these apps are inaccurate is hardly surprising, given that tracking is based on a “regular” menstrual cycle calendar. This serves exactly the opposite demographic of those most likely to use tracking apps: those with irregular cycles. One user with irregular periods noted their longer-than-average periods often led the app to presume their not having hit the “end period” option was an error, and automatically selected that option. This then skewed the user’s future data. Apps that could learn from users’ past data could help.

Users complained often about the flowery, pink, or otherwise “girly” design and graphics in many apps. “It makes me feel like you are trying to ‘dumb it down’ for me,” one user wrote. “Why can’t keeping track of my menstruation be a professional and organized task?”

Alluding to the stigma that surrounds menstruation, some survey respondents felt it was difficult to be discrete while using this app in public, which embarrassed them.

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Clue, a period-tracking app included within the study, defied this mold, with an intentional lack of gender-specific language that presumes all people who use the app — and, thus, menstruate — are women. Another survey respondent found it was difficult to “find a period tracker that didn’t misgender me.”

Some period-tracking apps also implied male-only sexual partners and presumed potential pregnancy was always a concern. “Sex options assume sex with a man, and reminder of ovulation cycle both remind me I am not a ‘normal’ woman whenever I use the app,” one user said.

Infertile app users were also dissatisfied with ovulation tracking features, which felt like a painful “reminder of [trying to conceive] or the tiny glimmer of hope that maybe by magic this will be the month when a miracle happens,” as one user put it.

“I don’t think we were expecting to see that, but when we did, we thought, ‘Wow, this is really having a big effect for a lot of people, and it would be really easy for an app developer to fix, just in terms of not showing that information,” Epstein said.