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Small Talk

Independent Project for Design Thinking for Women's Health & Well-Being
University of Illinois | Spring 2020


Develop a product or system solution to fill the educational gaps in sexual health education.

Secondary Research

To understand the barriers to accessing sexual health information were, I had to learn how sex-ed was being taught in schools. I utilized primary and secondary sources: articles from the US National Library of Medicine, news articles, and government reports. This helped me in brainstorming the different aspects of sexual health education. 

Key Findings

  • Only 30 out of 50 require public schools to teach sex education; of those states, 17 require information to be medically accurate; state definitions of “medically accurate" vary

  • Half of the United States require instruction to be age-appropriate

  • 20 states and DC require the provision of information on contraception while 39 states and DC require the provision of information on abstinence

  • Only 9 states currently require discussion of LGBTQ identities and relationships to be inclusive and affirming

  • Less than ⅕ of states require states to cover consent


To explore the various aspects of sexual health education further, I created an online survey. This survey was shared among my personal contacts and received over 40 responses.

Key Findings 

  • 43 out of 44 received sex education in school​

  • 39 answered that they had sex ed with their regular teacher, yet less than half of those teachers were health teachers

  • 50% responded that their parents talked to them about sex at home, but more than half were not comfortable asking their parents questions

  • The majority answered that they turned to the internet to educate themselves about sex


Next, I conducted nine remote interviews with adults aged 22-40. I asked them to recount their experiences learning sex education. Additionally, one interview was conducted with a UIUC campus nurse. These interviews were used as a starting point in order to decide what human-centered research tools should be employed next.

Key Findings

  • First-hand accounts were preferred over scholarly or clinical information; this includes unnamed people on the internet

  • Respondents noted parents waiting until children were in relationships or were asked directly about sex to start the conversation

  • There is a lot of missing information in sexual education, particularly about health, LGBT+, relationships, and pleasure

  • There's a disconnect between the topic of puberty and greater topic about sex in school and home

  • Information is only sought in (possibly dangerous) situations

Empathizing With The Students

As my interviews progressed, I employed various methods to organize my thoughts: affinity clustering, empathy mapping, 2x2, and behavioral segmentation to find themes between participants. These methods helped to frame the situation from their point of view. In turn, I used that point of view to think about the larger picture of how students learn sex education.

2x2 matrix of student learning styles when learning about sex

(left) A 2x2 matrix to plot motivations and type of information sought when learning about sex

(right) A behavioral segmentation chart was used to create  and understand behavioral personas.

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Exploring the Problem

Public schools in the United States have different limitations on what they can, could, and can’t teach students about sexual health. Additionally, there is too much information to cover in such a small amount of time, so many schools focus on taking a broad approach to sexual education and avoid many of the important nuances. I started thinking through ideas for students and worked on plotting my student-centered information.

According to research by the Guttmacher Institute, an organization committed to advancing sexual and reproductive health and rights, 40 out of 50 states require school districts to involve parents in sex education. In addition, the majority of states allow parents the option to remove sex ed instruction in class and half notify parents when sex ed will be provided in school. A partnership between parents, educators, children (and other professionals) may help to further successful sexual health education strategies.


parent’s journey with “the talk”

Final Insights & Recomendations


Parents' inability to talk about sex to their child directly impacts the way a child learns about sexual health. Children may gain a larger level of understanding if they’re able to ask questions and have parents fill in knowledge gaps at home, but that’s not the case for all. Most students learn some type of education through a combination of parents, school, friends, and the internet.

  • Parents reserve the conversation until the time is right, which could mean something happens with their child or they ask the parent a question directly

  • Even if wanting to start a conversation, many parents mask their conversations with code words and shyness

  • Parents avoid the topic altogether and hope that their child learns elsewhere

  • Possibility of parents not having the knowledge or confidence to address questions

Product Opportunities 


  • "Small Talk" is a tool to help parents talk to their children about sex. It not only provides medically accurate and inclusive education about sexual health and wellness, but it also creates a system for parents to approach sex in a not so intimidating way.

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