Sex toys: they get you off, and you're not supposed to discuss them in mixed company, or sometimes any company at all. Those are the main societal rules that dictate how we talk about adult sex gadgets and devices, which may be a major contributing factor as to why most of them are so incredibly bad.
We're not really supposed to enjoy sex here in the United States—if you're married, you get a pass—and we're certainly not supposed to enjoy it with an inanimate object. As such, when many of us do, we tend to simply accept a product's flaws as long as it gets the job done. "Hey, at least it worked," tends to be the general line of thinking until the next time we find ourselves cursing at the ceiling while blindly fumbling around with the buttons.
Just imagine if we only talked about smartphones in hushed whispers and behind closed doors. We'd all still be using BlackBerries. (Okay, I digress. We'd all be using BlackBerries or cans on strings.) Because of this culturally imposed taboo on discussing adult products, the sex toy user experience is weighted in favor of the terrible: With thousands upon thousands of products on the market, finding a toy with a decent user interface is like finding a needle in a haystack.
What do we mean when talking about user interface? Mostly the buttons, knobs, sliders, and other controls that are common on women's (and sometimes men's) adult products. Physical shape can have an effect as well—"sex toys that fit awkwardly into their intended orifices" is practically its own niche.
"It's astounding how many sex toys have badly-designed controls."
And indeed, they can be bad. Sex toy review site Hey Epiphora, something like the Ars Technica or Wirecutter of adult products, has an entire section tagged "did humans even test this?" that highlights some of the more bizarre sex toy UIs out there. One such example is a toy where controls are on the insertable part of the product: "[t]he buttons are even more difficult to push when they're IN MY VAGINA," Epiphora wrote. Another example is something called the Split Dildo, a squishy, silicone, two-pronged dildo meant to perform an act originally intended for three separate, physically capable adults. Just take a moment to imagine wrangling that thing on your own.
"It's astounding how many sex toys have badly-designed controls," Epiphora said via e-mail, adding that many design choices "annoy the shit" out of her. For example, "I'm not a big fan of one-button controls, because I don't appreciate having to cycle through all the settings to find the one I want, and never knowing where I am in the progression. And sometimes those toys won't even turn off when you hold the button down! On the other hand, an abundance of buttons quickly becomes confusing and wearisome."
Looking outside the box
But there are some companies out there trying to innovate and think critically about a product's UI. One such company is the Sweden-based LELO, which not only has a reputation for high-quality products. They look nice, too.
"As far as UI development goes, LELO has been improving on its control interfaces for more than a decade," LELO representative Cecilia Minges told me. The company's designers utilize a team of 20 dedicated customers to test and analyze prototypes before moving forward with a final design.
"We provide them with questionnaires in advance and also up to three variants on each product with minor design differences. They then come back with clear feedback on what worked and what didn't work as well as they would like," Minges said.
LELO takes into account a number of factors when designing the UI/UX of a new toy, like the seemingly obvious step of making sure the control interfaces are easy to press and responsive. But the company's elegant designs aren't an accident, either. For example, LELO's Soraya, which has a finger-sized hole through the center of its base, is meant to give the user a better grip on the device while using it in the shower or bathtub. "You will also note the plus button is at the bottom, rather than the top, which was a decision that makes most sense [because] Soraya is pointing toward you during use," Minges pointed out.
LELO's example is just the beginning. Minna Life, a San Francisco-based startup focused on high-quality sex toys, says they, too, make copious use of user testing and feedback when creating different iterations of a product, but try to think several steps ahead to places where the users haven't even thought of yet.
"I would say we usually have maybe 5-6 iterations of interaction with users, but not all of it is classical user testing," said Brian Krieger, Minna Life cofounder and product design engineer. He described a scenario where the design team might start with an idea based on other designs or a certain set of information, iterating on it with Play-Doh before committing to prototypes. From there, testers will take a look at (but not use) the prototypes to give their feedback, which could result in multiple changes to the design before Minna gives users a prototype to take home and actually, well, test.
And indeed, there's plenty to take into consideration. Men, for example, hold toys with a different hand position than women do, and usually at a different angle. Heterosexual couples use toys differently than homosexual couples. And people using them alone tend to hold and utilize toys differently than people using them with a partner.
Think Morse code, but for vibrations.
"Definitely there are changes we've made to designs that stem from usability issues," Krieger said.
One example stems from a squeezable user interface Minna developed for one of its products. Squeeze harder, the toy vibrates harder. Squeeze a little less and the toy backs off. "Most products, the UI is buttons, and if you want to change the intensity, you have to press the buttons multiple times. But if you want any variability, it's difficult. With a squeezable interface, it's really intuitive," Krieger said.
But Minna did run into some roadblocks when developing the interface. One of the squeezable interface's features is the ability to record a vibration pattern of your choosing—think Morse code, but for vibrations. "Any pattern of squeeze you can compose, it'll record it and play it back for you," Krieger explained. But when users went to press a separate button in order to lock in their chosen pattern, they ended up inadvertently squeezing the toy again while trying to exert force on the lock button. "It would introduce a little blip to the end of their pattern, so we moved the button so you could press it without squeezing the interface," he said.
There are times, too, when the product testers end up preferring something other than what the designer intended. A company out of Houston, Texas, named Aneros, started out as a medical device company to aid with the comfort problems that come with an enlarged prostate in men. The inventor of Aneros' first product, a now-78-year-old Japanese man named Mr. Jiro Takashima, was trying to find an alternative solution to surgery before he stumbled upon the adult side of the industry, discovering that his company's customers were using his prostate device for much longer lengths of time than he intended, and in very different ways.
"That's what sparked so many different versions of our products today, because users were using them for hours on end, so it's what motivated us to redesign our products," Aneros CEO CT Schenk told me. As such, "the things we've come out with in the last few years have this concept of a wearable product designed for long-term use."
And some of those designs have had to go against what Mr. Takashima wanted. "For example, he'd always been very adamant that the tab on the Helix Sin always needs to be hard and firm to work correctly," Schenk said, "but through user testing, we found it's more comfortable if we make it flexible."
Product testing by a dedicated user base was a common element across the companies I interviewed. Aneros is particularly unique, however, because of the sheer size and passion of its community. "People from the forums spend more time using these things than all our employees combined," Schenk said of Aneros' forum of around 50,000 members. "The forum has become the foundation of everything we do. We have a few guys who have been around for 10+ years who have volunteered to moderate and keep conversations going about the products. When we do product testing, we ask the questions that these guys will ask, and if they see a problem, they almost deliver a solution themselves."
Aneros' almost entirely male community is so dedicated to the company's main product—Aneros only recently launched its first female product—that they voluntarily become evangelists to try and draft more people into the Aneros cult. "A lot of our users claim our products give a life-changing experience because it changes the way they can have these kinds of sensations," Schenk said. "In some cases, they're pretty much the experts."
Can you go too far?
Innovation is the name of the game when it comes to creating a seamless user experience in the sex toy world. As Epiphora pointed out, UIs that tend to work with other gadgets (such as iPod-style touch buttons that don't give tactile feedback) don't usually work in the heat of the moment. Even some of the companies that are known for the usability of their products, such as LELO, stumble occasionally with difficult-to-understand buttons, so it's clear that designing appropriate controls isn't as simple as it seems from the outside.
In fact, too much innovation can sometimes be a problem, too; no one wants to use a toy that requires a master's degree to operate, no matter how high-quality it is.
"I actually think that, on the whole, cheaper toys tend to have better controls, because the companies aren't obsessed with being innovative," Epiphora said. "Turn dials tend to be the domain of lower-end toys, yet they make so much sense and can work very well. The great thing about those, other than ease-of-use, is how they result in slow, incremental changes in vibration strength, rather than arbitrary jumps from one strength setting to the next."
Sometimes, in the words of Steve Jobs, "simple can be harder than complex." This is a concept that companies like Minna take seriously, but getting users to talk about what works and what doesn't remains a core problem, partially because they're simply not used to thinking that way.
"Mentally, people aren't used to thinking about [sex toy UI]," Brian Krieger from Minna said. "Even if they're willing to, sometimes they're unwilling to be very introspective and articulate with what they want."
CT Schenk from Aneros agreed with that sentiment, despite the company's cult-like following. "It's even hard to hire people here, because there's a learning curve across the board in terms of thinking. That's probably one of the biggest obstacles behind the product, aside from the taboo itself," he said.
Indeed, the general public needs to become more comfortable thinking about what works for them in the bedroom in the same way we think about why we should buy a new cell phone or travel mug. After all, those kinds of products enjoy the luxury of being widely accepted—platform wars aside—which allows investors to feel comfortable pumping more money into design research. This, unfortunately, is not quite the case when it comes to companies looking for venture capital for sex toys.
"Sometimes there are morality clauses that restrict the types of investments a venture capitalist can make," Krieger said of his experiences working with VCs. "Some investors are just uncomfortable with the product space, so the idea of investing in an adult company—some are just not sold on the potential "
So when will we reach sex toy UI nirvana? Krieger likes to believe we're getting there, slowly but steadily. "I think it's inarguable that vibrators in particular are becoming less taboo in the United States," he said. "I don't see why you can't just buy a nice, classy vibrator at Victoria Secret one day."
One that has intuitive controls, we would hope.