Why aren't vibrators as good as other gadgets?

Engineering pleasure

Strip away the erotic associations, and vibrators are, fundamentally, just another gadget — and a rather simple one at that: just a motor, power supply, controls, and housing. Yet many of the products that make it to the market are badly designed and poorly executed; adding insult to injury is the fact that they’re often vastly more expensive than the parts and construction should warrant. So what gives? Why, at such a great time for tech, do vibrators lag behind?

It’s a question that’s plagued a number of mainstream product designers who’ve made the transition to pleasure devices. Janet Lieberman is an MIT-educated mechanical engineer whose credentials include stints at Makerbot, Quirky, and MindsInSync; these days, her engineering acumen is devoted to building sex toys at Dame Products (here's their not-safe-for-work website), the company she co-founded with Alexandra Fine. Before Dame, Lieberman had assumed that low-quality sex toys were merely the result of poor engineering and execution. But as she began to investigate the process of sex toy design, other issues — ones that had little to do with the principles of design — quickly became clear. There wasn’t adequate documentation of the human sexual anatomy; the toys were difficult to prototype and test; and what data she did receive from the tests was unreliable.

In the design world, human anatomy is important. For instance, if a designer is making something to be held by a hand, there are measurements for every dimension of the hand. And not just for one hand, the average hand, either — measurements exist for every dimension of the 5th and 95th percentiles of hand size as well. "But that’s just not available for designing sex toys," Lieberman says. There is no corresponding data for vulvas. There is no official classification for the many different types of vulvas, and no sense of how common each type might be. Nor does anyone know how any particular vulva will react to a particular product. Take, for instance, a two-pronged vibrator: for many women, they won’t hit both the clitoris and the g-spot as promised. Sex toy designers don’t actually know the ratio that’ll work for most people: at best they’re providing an educated guess based on a limited sample of vulvas.

That lack of information was especially vexing for Lieberman, whose debut product — Eva, a hands-free vibrator secured by the labia, primarily intended for use during intercourse — required a particularly nuanced understanding of anatomy. Making things more complicated is the fact that genitals aren’t a fixed shape: state of arousal, hormone levels, and a number of other factors can change their size, shape, and alignment. And when you’re designing a product that’s intended to be used during sex, you have to factor in how the body of your product user’s partner will alter the equation, too. The size, shape, and position of a partner’s body can all radically affect the vulva and labia, as well. And the physics of sex is something we know even less about — the first ultrasound of sexual intercourse wasn’t even recorded until seven years ago.

"There is actually a lot of risk in designing a vibrator in particular."Limited ergonomic information isn’t the only thing that makes vibrator design tricky. In 2009, Yves Béhar —founder of the award-winning industrial design and brand development firm Fuseproject — teamed up with sex toy company JimmyJane to create a line of vibrators. For Béhar, the fundamental challenge of vibrator design lies in the tricky business of testing. Sexual responses are complicated, and that can make getting a vibrator just right more difficult than with other products. Though the rise of 3D printing has offered more flexibility for prototyping, it’s still dangerously easy to get deep into the R&D process only to discover that your product just doesn’t work: a factor that might explain the higher price point of some of these products. "There is actually a lot of risk in designing a vibrator in particular," Béhar says. That’s because designers don’t know if the product will work until "it’s almost in full production, when you have a fully functional product."

There’s also the matter of testing itself: not surprisingly, getting data on the efficacy of a sex toy isn’t always easy. "If you’re designing a toy, you can put 10 kids in a room together and have them all play with that toy and get a bunch of data really quickly," says Lieberman. But with adult products, designers and engineers are rarely present for the actual product testing, and getting feedback can be challenging. With Eva, Lieberman found that women who tested it out struggled to describe why something did, or didn’t, work well for them. And the trials are time-consuming: a week’s worth of testing time for each pair of participants.

"You’ve got an unreliable narrator reporting back to you on a trial you didn’t see," Lieberman says. "It’s a very complicated situation for collecting clean data."

Complicated, but not insurmountable. For instance, as Dame’s fan base has increased, the company has had an easier time doing trials. Large trials help the company get qualitatively relevant numbers about the product’s overall efficacy; small ones let Dame home in on details — like why the product does (or doesn’t) work for specific individuals, and what effect design changes have on user experience.

"It's a very complicated situation for collecting data."Although the sex toy industry is increasingly populated by people who got their start elsewhere — whether as physics PhDs, engineers, or members of Apple’s marketing team — here are few sex toy professionals with the extensive mainstream design background of Lieberman and Béhar. Which could explain why Dame Products seems to be leading the way when it comes to rethinking vibrator design.

Beyond their campaign to increase the quantity, and improve the quality, of user feedback, Dame Products has also employed the services of a team of gynecological teaching associates — women trained to provide medical students with hands on guidance through the particulars of performing a GYN exam — for one-on-one product testing sessions. Though the GTAs don’t provide insight on how Eva works during intercourse, they do help the Dame Products team examine how well the vibrator is secured by a wide array of labia; and, with their training in anatomy, they’re able to offer the nuanced, thoughtful feedback that many earlier testers could not.

In addition to helping Dame Products improve their actual device, the GTAs are also playing an essential part in improving user education about Eva itself. Eva’s original user guide featured instructional line drawings that explained how to insert the product into one specific set of labia; users whose bodies looked a little different found themselves a little at sea when attempting their own insertion. Future versions of the user guide will have updated illustrations that are accessible to a wider range of women and body types.

Lieberman hopes that one day her company will be able to make a compendium of the many different sizes, shapes, and styles of vulvas; creating the exact sort of anatomy resource Lieberman longed for when she began her sex toy design work. Though it will take some time to create a truly extensive guide to the diverse array of vulvas, she sees the company’s work with GTAs as the early stages of that research. Given the state of funding for sex research, Dame’s investigations may be our best bet for acquiring a more nuanced understanding of the specifics of female sexual anatomy.

"The only difference I noticed [between designing mainstream and adult products] was the stigma… that was attached to designing a vibrator compared to another consumer electronic product," says Béhar. In the past decade, that stigma has begun to fall away. Hopefully the work of professionals like Béhar and Lieberman will help to erode it even further — and bring consumers many more well-designed, well-engineered pleasure products in the process.