Supporting Sex Workers: Prototyping Phase One

Prototyping Phase One – Leah DiVito + Brittany Sgaliardich



“Sometimes we arrive at good ideas before the law can support them.”

This notion, shared by an ac4d alumnus, stuck with our team as we developed concepts for future products and services that could promote the agency and safety of sex workers. 

While acknowledging the laws surrounding sex work, we also had to suspend disbelief in order to allow the richness of our ideas to rise to the surface.

This week, we began sharing our top-selected design concepts with potential users in order to vet the value and feasibility of ideas. In an opportunity space riddled by policing and stigma, the creativity and nuance of the feedback we received give our team forward momentum to challenge assumptions and further develop our design concepts.


Why it matters

Last week, we rapidly ideated 200 design ideas that were informed by our research insights. This week, we downselected to a top few ideas which we conceptualized through use of storyboards, lean canvases, and user interviews.

The process felt organic. And strangely specific, it felt like planting. We laid forth 200 seeds that allowed for a few budding plants to grow. By drawing, mapping, sharing, and challenging ideas, we began to breathe life into ideas that previously felt intangible.

This realization reinforces the idea that products and services, at any stage, are living and evolving. The design behind them is constantly examined, tested, and challenged. People are dynamic – so is the law. Products must be too.



What we did in FIVE steps:

  1. Strategically downselected our 200 design ideas by using a 2×2 framework where we compared the ideas’ Feasibility vs. its Potential Value
  2. Wrote ‘Madlibs’ style mission statements,  for our 10-12 most interesting ideas by grounding them in our insights. The formulaic verbal articulation of purpose, function and differentiation helped to intentionally continue to narrow our list.
  3. Built out ‘Lean Canvases’, or a visualized grounds-up tactical plans or blueprints, for our top four ideas to continue exploring the nuances that may affect follow-through of our ideas, and provide structure to the actualization of the idea.
  4. Storyboarded our top four ideas with multiple drafts and iterations as visual artifacts that articulate general functionality of the product or service.
  5. Finally, we interviewed five people – mostly contacts with which we already had established rapport and trust from previous interviews, with the addition of one person from a new craigslist ad – and asked questions. We presented our ideas and storyboards to vet their value with the real experts on the subject matter.


The ideas


  • Pink Matter – a one-stop digital information tool for women working in sex and sex-related industries

For sex workers who have little support and want to connect with other women working in the industry for informed guidance, our product encourages women to share stories and advice, and exchange medical, financial, and safety resources in order to create a trusted support network of sex professionals. Unlike existing services like Yelp, or forums like Reddit, our product aims to become a safe space specifically for connecting sex workers so they may 1) build industry knowledge, 2) share stories and support, and 3) exchange vital resources while maintaining anonymity as necessary.

  • Bridge – a “Hinge”-style dating tool grounded in matching similar expectations and preferences

For sex workers struggling to make safe connections online, our product provides a platform to anticipate service expectations and screen for client safety. Although this platform would operate as a space for people to meet verified safe customers, it would ultimately empower workers to create recurring clients and build greater trust with preferred clients. Unlike MeetMe, SeekingArrangement or other apps for sourcing and communicating with potential clients, our product suggests connections based on worker and client preferences and expectations – limiting the risks associated with misaligned service expectations.  

  • Money Diaries – a physical and digital tool for tracking finances, clients, goals and schedules in one connected platform 

For sex workers who struggle to feel in control of their finances and want to reach personal goals, our product serves as a money diary to document income and clients as well as visualize progress towards goals, both financial and personal. This platform encourages women to document their schedule and income as part of their daily routine while also providing encouragement by way of affirming notifications. Unlike other planning and calendar apps, our product has both physical and digital components that prioritize the unique needs of sex industry professionals while remaining highly customizable to each individual.

  • AirHaven – “Airbnb”-style service for helping women to escape domestic violence in moments of need

For women subject to domestic violence who are seeking safe shelter, our product creates a platform for other women to open their homes and offer temporary housing to women in need. Unlike shelters, our product has the potential to scale, allowing more women to find immediate relief and sleep somewhere outside of their dangerous home.


Main Takeaways

Highly personal. The ways in which our ideas manifest into products is contingent on individual needs, unique to different professions across the sex industry. There is no generalized ‘catch-all’ for sex work.

Insights are weighted. The way we translate our design ideas into prototypable concepts forces us to recognize the ‘value’ of an insight from a new perspective. Because many of our insights are so complex, based in the contradictions of the human experience, our product ideas often feel ill equipped to address the challenge. Design ideas therefore fail to feel as equally transformational.

Stigma and policing. Although we’ve acknowledged the reality of the law during research and synthesis, the concept development phase of design has perhaps felt the most legally confrontational. We continue to have conversations about designing around and with the law. It will ultimately be a serious consideration as to the final product we produce.

The creative value of suggestions from experts. It is apparent that the women we interviewed are the true experts of this work. We were presented with many ideas from our interviewees that we would have never come up with on our own. Their insights continue to offer impactful, nuanced adaptations to our design ideas.

Validation.  Ultimately, the feedback we received in user testing gave us a sense of validation. The positive reception and powerful conversation generated by our design ideas was an acknowledgment of the rigor of our research. While some ideas were misses, the ideas that landed were a source of promise. Positive reception felt rewarding and step forward in our journey to make something that might make lives better.



Next Steps

Next we will continue to narrow our focus and select our top two ideas for which we will build out ‘Definition Decks’ (similar to a sales deck) in order to eventually downselect the top idea that we will run with through the end of the project.



Timelapse – Downselection Process