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The lack of use of condoms is one of the most critical issues in global health today. However the problems with condoms have little to do with how effective they are when used. Instead the problems are mostly about people not using them due to a poor UX.

This problem has been highlighted recently by the Gates' condom challenge, which has already had at least one interesting entry with the origami condom.

Origami condom

So, what major UX factors are there for us to consider with condoms, and what can we do to improve the UX of condoms so that more people use them?

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The tag "physical" suddenly gets a new meaning... –  Dvir Adler May 6 '13 at 11:26
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And there is the related issue of whether the condom packaging can be opened easily by a distracted user. –  PhillipW May 6 '13 at 19:24
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@DA01 The Gates foundation has been clear that it's a UX issue, and I simply referring to one new approach as an example. –  JohnGB May 6 '13 at 21:45
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@JohnGB I read the article but don't see it pointing the finger at UX. Specifically, it says "lack of perceived incentive for consistent use" and then goes on to ask "Is it possible to develop a product without this stigma [of reduced sensitivity]?". Maybe they have found it to be a UX issue, but based on the referenced article, it sounds very much like a public relations issues. It's not that the condoms are hard to use, it's that they have an image problem. –  DA01 May 7 '13 at 0:56
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@DA01 I can say that my desire not to use condoms is definitely not a marketing issue and it's very much a user experience issue. User experiences happen everywhere in any interaction between a user and something being used. –  AbsoluteƵERØ May 7 '13 at 17:04

7 Answers 7

up vote 14 down vote accepted

I see three areas in which condoms experience can be improved:

  • Application - for some people it may be difficult to apply a condom, especially if it's a very first time they use it (so that they don't know how to apply it) or she has long nails, which may cause perforation. Improving this part of condom use experience could be quite important.

  • Sexual (physical) experience - The main thing about condoms is that they are considered rather as some distraction, not something that can actually improve the experience. However, they do address it somehow (and this regards boths sides) - there are condoms with lubricants or other substances extending the intercourse duration, special surfaces providing additional stimuli, etc. So, providing a shape that would lead to additional stimulation may be the trick. Changing the shape may also give some space for mounting some vibrating devides on the top of it.

  • Coolness (except the sexual experience above) - condoms are not 'cool' - let's just say it. They grant more safety, of course, and this is something that actually influences the peace of the couple. But this is not 'coolness'. The coolness can be, however, applied by adding some extra features or great design. Funny, colorful condoms, sentences on them etc. may make people use them more often, but I believe this will mainly depend on perference of the couple. For both sides it may be essential to make the penis look bigger, more wild etc. Adding a tattoo pattern on it may help achieving it, as long as using some skeuporphic technique to make it look like it belonged to someone who by popular belief has higher sexual skills (e.g. making it brown or "sinewy" - not sure about the word). Or maybe Star Wars condoms? Why not? But most users will not focus on the condom at all I believe.

  • Education - still, I believe the use of condoms ratio depends more on the awareness of what they provide and what is the cost of not using them. But this shifts the role even more towards creativity regarding packaging and promoting the use of them. It is possible to imbue the education with additional ideas ("Our condoms are eco." or "No animals were harmed..." disclaimer).

By the way, the topic is quite sensitive, so please forgive me being inappropriate anywhere.

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16  
If anyone ever makes a Star Wars condom, I hope it comes with the appropriate buzzy swooshing sound and glows in the dark. –  Rahul May 6 '13 at 14:33
    
@Rahul I believe I've seen glow-in-the-dark ones before... And I'm sure most people have phones that could play the swooshing sound –  Izkata May 6 '13 at 16:47
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"I'm not gonna be your father, Luke." –  Dominik Oslizlo May 6 '13 at 19:08
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@Rahul Although people on the receiving end would dare not purchase it for fear of "the force being with you." –  AbsoluteƵERØ May 7 '13 at 17:06

Simply differentiating between the top and bottom of the rolled-up condom would really improve the UX in my opinion.

It can be difficult, especially in the low light environment these products are commonly used, to see which side is the entrance (see image below). If the condom is the wrong way around it won't roll on. Condoms are often stored for some time in their flat packet and they are flattened further by being stored in a wallet. This compression exacerbates the problem in distinguishing the condom's orientation.

Something as simple as colour coding the top and bottom of the rolled-up condom might help.

Rolled up condom

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Very valid point. –  JohnGB May 9 '13 at 10:23

Think of it in terms of experience design. The use case is evident (for normal intended usage, that is).

Now, think of the user's cognitive faculties during the need of it. The base human needs trump the recently developed reasoning side of the brain. Imagine a frequent scenario, in the heat, due to reduced sound judgment, if the device (condom) does not function as intended on the first attempt, it increases frustration. It is acting as a barrier in that moment. Based on this we can outline some basic 'features' the condom should possess:

  • Affordances: The design should be such that the application should be self evident. Look at the origami version which John posted. The unfolding nature of the condom makes the inside and outside differentiation quite evident by design. Even the packaging should be though about carefully.

  • Pleasurable experience: In this case, the pleasure is quite literal. Even if the condom is designed flawlessly and works as intended. If the experience of coitus is not natural, it kills the purpose and motivation to use it again. This is the most important factor is retaining user-base. If the experience is good, people will have much less excuse of not using a condom. Coming up with a better material might be a key here.

  • Make it mainstream: Smoking started as a class act back in the day due to it's promotion by the media and movies. Now, the same media has successfully converted it into something which is frowned upon. Something along these lines, 5 Basic Facts of Life (Were Made Up by Marketing Campaigns). Look at how purchasing hearing aids was made into something trendy and socially accepted. We need a similar overhaul for the experience of buying not just condoms and emergency pills, but other health products which people feel uncomfortable doing in public locations. I agree with Dominik that education is the key here. But, I feel along with traditional sex education, we will receive much deeper impact if we have the mainstream media doing this. Currently, we do have many ad campaigns going advertising the importance and sexyness of condoms.

It is all about behavior design. Looking at BJ Fogg's behavior model: enter image description here

When the motivation is high but the ability (ease of use) is low we can improve the target behavior (using condom) by making the ability easier. Vice versa, with easy ability and some motivation (can be achieved by marketing) we can increase the behavior too.

The thing to keep in mind is, many times, during the use case, the user is already riding a emotional motivation wave. If you are breaking that wave with your poor experience, you are making it harder for the user to turn this behavior into a habit. It should be as easy as removing the clothes, so to speak, you do not think about it per se, you know it's a necessary condition (most of the time) and does not take much effort. It fit's in perfectly with the act.


[The asterisk mark] My views are coming from having experienced multiple cultures ranging from fully developed societies to developing societies.

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  • Application time: Condoms need to applicated while under high time pressure, since the erection may fall with every second, especially when performing a delicate and unsexy technical task as is applying a condom. As stated in other answers here, a flimsy packaging needs to be opened without damaging the contents, the correct orientation needs to be determined under possibly low lightning, the condom needs to be placed without encasing air and rolled down without slipping of again. I think faster application may greatly improve the usage ratio of condoms.
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Benchmark: Read a paragraph describing the use of your condom without losing your erection. –  rather not say May 9 '13 at 19:52
    
Some may say it's the most critical of all UX issues :) –  JohnGB May 9 '13 at 19:57
    
@rathernotsay Would you like to add your benchmark to the answer? :D –  rk. May 9 '13 at 20:30

Interesting case. I had never considered condoms from a UX perspective. I have no firm opinions on the issue, I only wonder what the user research looks like in this case...

That aside, I'd like to point you to the 'condomerie' in Amsterdam. It is a brick and mortar condom shop (with online presence) that has managed to turn the purchase experience of condoms upside down. The shop is a major tourist attraction, and not only for visitors of the red light district. They've taken condoms out of the realms of porn and illnesses, to firmly place it in the world of fun, with a twist of seriousness. From a UX perspective, I'd say they did a remarkable job that should offer a lesson or two. enter image description here

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I think that's a good example of improving the purchasing experience, though I'm not sure if it improved the overall user experience of the product itself. –  DA01 May 7 '13 at 1:13

I'll try a slightly different approach to the answer: I'm not sure there are UX problems with condoms. They seem to be a fairly elegant solution to a host of more complex problems. They appear to be fairly self-explanatory once opened. Installation is usually trouble-free.

Now, granted, I've never participated in user testing or focus groups pertaining to the use of a condoms, so obviously I'd need more data to have specific answers.

But to get to that point, I'd try and determine what are actual problems vs. perceived problems. The article that is linked in the question talks about perceived problems. So it's apparent that there are also marketing challenges involved in attempting to increase the use of condoms.

If data shows that there are true physical challenges with the product, then focus would be spent more on improving the UX of the product. If data shows that it's more about perception, then perhaps we'd bring in the marketing department to assist.

I think one aspect of the condom using experience that could be improved is in obtaining the product. Great strides have been made in making them as readily available to those that want them, yet they are still often not the most pleasant product to obtain--especially if you are young. In the US, lots of places put the condoms front-and-center behind locked cabinets. This forces a younger person to deal with potentially awkward interactions with store staff in public. Perhaps one solution is go make sure young people have easier access to condoms (at least in the US, this then becomes less of a UX challenge and more of a political challenge).

In other regions of the world, it appears a major hurdle is education. Wiping away misconceptions about the products. This is likely more of a marketing/PR or Education challenge than UX. I'd first start doing a lot of user research with focus groups and interviews. Based on the data collected, one could then start to formulate education and marketing programs to target the key users.

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Unfortunately, they are not self-explanatory for much of their intended audience: vitals.nbcnews.com/_news/2012/02/26/… –  Kimberley Dietemann May 14 '13 at 5:53

Two major issues no-one has mentioned yet:

Sensation: Condoms don't feel as good as unprotected sex. There is less stimulation. This can potentially be a good thing (you last longer) but is often considered a very bad thing, and in the worst case can result in the user being unable to climax.

The problem seems to be that the condom covers the most sensitive parts of the penis and does not fully convey the sensation. This is more of a mechanical problem than a UX one, but is extremely important.

Closeness Having a physical barrier between you and your partner is off-putting so some people. It means that a person wanting to use a condom seems to be saying they don't want intimate contact, when in fact it may just be a question of contraception. Part of the thinking is that if it were just for contraception there are other reliable methods.

It doesn't help that condom use is also associated with protection from diseases, again suggesting that the person wanting to use them is afraid that their partner is unclean.

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