Design Challenge: Makeup Kits for Female Astronauts

It’s always hard to design products that you are never going to use yourself.  One of the most interesting design challenges in history was the equipment for the first astronauts. And once the women went up in space,  the problem for the (mostly) male engineers only got worse. Take the example of the makeup kit.

As you can see in the above tweet, Sally Ride and other female astronauts were offended that makeup kits would even be considered on the shuttle. Dr. Ride didn’t even wear makeup on earth — she was a hardcore physicist.

If you look at the responses to the Tweet the story is clear. “What stupid engineers. Don’t they understand that these are scientists, not women?” There’s even a Quartz article titled NASA Engineers Thought Female Astronauts Needed A Full Face Of Makeup.

But that’s not the real reason that makeup kits were put onboard. Astronauts had always had a set of personal hygiene products onboard like shampoo, nail clippers,  toothbrushes, dental floss and lotion. While Ride didn’t care about the makeup kit, other astronauts did. Rhea Seddon, was the one that spoke up. She writes in her blog:

After a little of the usual small talk, they came to the point. Did we want to have makeup in flight?

Some of the women Astronauts never wore makeup anyway, so they said adamantly “NO!” Some of us did. Was this to be a majority rule decision?

I spoke up for the minority. If there would be pictures taken of me from space, I didn’t want to fade into the background so I requested some basic items. All agreed that a small kit with items of our choosing would be a “preference item,” that is, stowed only if requested.

(It was interesting to me that that I wasn’t the sole space traveler whose in-flight pictures showed a bit of lipstick and blush.)

As it turns out, when you ask an astronaut, “Do you need makeup to do your job?” The answer is of course, “No.” But remember that astronauts aren’t just scientists, they’re public figures. If you ask the question differently, “Do you want makeup when pictured on newscasts around the world?” the answer is quite different. It reminded me of the Amy Schumer parody You Don’t Need Makeup.

In summary, as a designer, you need to do your best. Ask the questions you need to ask, even if it makes you look silly. And make sure that you’re taking into account the needs of all your users, not just the most vocal ones.