Study finds period tracking apps fail users

"The apps are most accurate if your cycles are really really regular, but the people who most need an app are the people whose cycles aren't regular," said Nikki Lee, co-author of the study.
By Amy Wallace  |  May 2, 2017 at 4:33 PM
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May 2 (UPI) -- Research has shown that smartphone apps that track menstrual cycles often are not accurate and emphasize form over function.

A study by the University of Washington collected information on 2,000 reviews of popular period tracking apps, focusing on nine different apps available for Android and iPhone and surveyed 687 women regarding how and why they use period tracking apps.

Almost half of the respondents reported using smartphone apps to track their periods for a number of reasons but primarily to inform their doctors about their last period, a standard question asked of women at check-ups, and to achieve or avoid pregnancy. However, many reported dissatisfaction in the period tracking apps they use.

"People didn't feel like the apps were very good at supporting their particular needs or preferences," Daniel Epstein, doctoral student at the University of Washington's Paul G. Allen School of Computer Science & Engineering, said in a press release. "People felt they were better than tracking their periods on paper, but still weren't great in a lot of basic ways."

The study focused on what characteristics users liked or disliked, as opposed to general opinions of the apps themselves.

One of women's biggest complaints about period tracking apps in a recent study was the use of pink, flowery iconography in lieu of more discrete and functional designs. Photo courtesy of the University of Washington

Some of the complaints from the participants were that modeling assumptions used in the apps weren't accurate or flexible enough to consistently predict period cycles, especially in women with irregular cycles. Many apps did not allow users to correct them if predictions were incorrect or to input explanations of why cycles might be thrown off.

"In some cases, you don't have a way to go in and say I missed my period because of x reason or because I was in the hospital -- both ordinary and exceptional circumstances can screw up the algorithms because they're not really robust," Nikki Lee, co-author of the study, said. "The apps are most accurate if your cycles are really really regular, but the people who most need an app are the people whose cycles aren't regular."

Other complaints researchers found were that the iconography used in the apps assumed that a women's sexual partner was a male and didn't account for those in same sex relationships, or assumed all users were women and didn't account for transgender users.

All users surveyed objected to the use of pink, flowering imagery instead of a more discreet display for information.

Researchers suggest app designers allow users to provide customized feedback to improve accuracy, eliminate the pink flowers and heteronormative stereotypes, and enable users to export their data to other health and fitness tools.

The study was presented at the 2017 CHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems.

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