If you own a smartphone, then you’re probably familiar with emojis—you know, those cute little images that depict anything from a smiling face to a flamenco dancer. Emojis and their kin, emoticons, are used to simply convey emotions. They’re easy to use, often charming, and far more concise than a lengthy text message.
With hundreds of emojis in existence, you might assume that there’s one for every occasion. But one woman and her family noticed a major gap in what was available: There was nothing that pertained to diabetes. No existing emoji could properly symbolize a glucose tablet, an insulin pump, or a vial of insulin. Amy Ohmer, owner and creator of NaturallySweetSisters, decided to change this; thus, the DiabetesEmoticons app was born.
Recently, I corresponded with Amy and asked how the DiabetesEmoticons app came to be, and found out more about her connection to diabetes.
Could you tell us a bit about yourself? Where you’re from, what you do for a living?
Our family is from the Mitten state and we have lived here our entire lives. I graduated from Michigan State University (Go Green!) in ’95 and my career has focused on developing marketing materials for products and services within automotive and textile industries. I am also the owner and creator of naturallysweetsisters.com and spend much of my time as an advocate for children, especially teenagers that live with type 1 diabetes.
What is your connection to diabetes?
In 2006, my youngest daughter, Olivia, was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes. She had just turned three and even though she presented with classic symptoms, our pediatrician dismissed the warning signs and felt that she had only a common virus. Thanks to Google, I was able to discern just enough information to demand the pediatrician perform a blood sugar check. While I had no idea what 800 mg/dL meant, I had the feeling that we just saved her life. A few years later, our oldest daughter, at age eight, who’d grown up with enough diabetes lingo that she knew what ‘feeling low’ meant, asked to use her sister’s meter. We discovered that she was in the low 50’s, a sign of her body’s trouble regulating blood sugar. This was in 2009 and there was no data to share on early onset type1 diabetes. We became one of the first families to have a child who waited six months before she started receiving insulin. Thanks to the long delay, we were also to keep her out of the hospital and to start her on an insulin pump immediately. In contrast to our youngest daughter’s diagnosis, our oldest daughter gently and safely started her journey into the world of type 1 diabetes. While no one wants diabetes, we wish that we could help more families start off this way, so we try to share the symptoms as often as we can.
When did you first have the idea for a diabetes emoticon app? Who and what inspired you?
Like many of the best inventions in the world, the diabetes emoticon app was born from the need to solve a problem. The way that my husband and I allowed our children to have independence was by establishing a texting system in which both girls would text their parents (mostly mom) with the updates on tasks that needed to be completed for type 1. The tasks because redundant and after the millionth text about testing blood sugar, the girls were fairly fed up. We had been invited by Dr. Joyce Lee to attend a ‘Design Your Diabetes Device Solution’ session called ‘Society 2030’ under her HealthDesignBy.us. Both girls participated; our oldest went to one table and our youngest sat at another table with me. There had been some discussion about age and if my youngest was too little (she was ten years old) but as she likes to say—she has had type 1 diabetes the longest and thereby, knows more than many ‘big kids’ or even adults. The table discussions focused on the day-to-day tasks and as layers of frustration were removed, it because clear that was needed was a way to communicate that worked for kids and teens. My oldest daughter talked about emojis, how easy they were to use and how much she wished there was something like them for type 1 diabetes. In that way, her hope was to stop the annoying long drawn out text messages to me and instead, spend more time doing regular kid stuff with all of her peers. Dr. Lee loved the idea and began working with the girls to draw prototypes for the emoticons. They sent her several drawings of little images for things that commonly frequent our conversation – like ketone testing, cupcakes for carb counts, feeling shaky, drinking water, etc. They even made an emoticon for a little toilet because well, sometimes that is a big deal in our world, especially when a substitute teacher doesn’t fully understand the necessity. Dr. Lee then brought together students at the University of Michigan called the Michigan Hackers to begin the back programming. She contacted design students and asked them to take the drawings to an electronic level and from there, we created several focus groups through JDRF Teen Central to evaluate the designs or suggest new ones. The process took about two years, but I am proud to share that every second was donated by all who collaborated. It was a true humanitarian effort to help improve a very burdensome disease, especially for teens.
How can I get the app on my phone?
It is so easy! To get the free DiabetesEmoticons App, head over to the App Store and enter DiabetesEmoticons (all one word). Download and start using in all of your social media.
How do you envision people with diabetes using these emoticons?
A lot of parents and teens started using them immediately but what really surprised us are the number of adults that incorporated the emojis into their daily lives. It went from our vision of simplifying language for kids to opening communication for adults. One wife shared that she was very worried about her husband and had been afraid to say too much about his diabetes. Using this, she could send him and emoji and felt that it was a gentler, kinder approach to starting a conversation.
What was the most challenging aspect of designing the emoticons?
As all of our collaborators did this while also holding full time student, employment, parenting roles, our time-tables needed to be flexible. In a real-world setting, the app may have come to market sooner, but through our very shoe-string budget ways, we had to learn to be patient. I wouldn’t trade any of it though, whenever we came together to work, there was not one single grumpy face in the bunch.