What product designers don’t get about gender

Newsflash from the Obvious File: The New York Times tells us that apparently, women like smart phones! This simplistic understanding of gendered experiences with technology is what makes poor technology. The journalist cites a marketer from AT&T, a supposed “expert” on gender-based design:

David Christopher, the marketing chief of AT&T’s wireless division, said women were less likely to be wowed by fancy gadgets. Instead, as smartphones have become sleeker, smaller and cheaper, they have become more appealing to them.

“Now they are small enough to be in your purse or pocket,” Mr. Christopher said. “Design does matter.”

Thank goodness Mr. Christopher is involved in product design! What might happen if my smart phone did not fit in my purse? Why, I may have to choose between lipstick and my smart phone! Quel horreur! This kind of simplistic approach to gender continues with a representative from RIM:

“We picked a shade of pink that fit in all kinds of settings — not too flashy,” said Mark Guibert, vice president for corporate marketing at RIM. “It was the only color that was purely driven by the female audience. Years ago the market was much more focused solely on function. Now there is more focus on lifestyle.”

Well at least Mr. Guibert is standing on guard for my right to have the right shade of pink. Does anyone else see what’s wrong with this picture? No? Allow me to enumerate the ways.

  1. Gender-based features reinforce steretoypes: Product designers tend to reinforce systemic patterns when they create “women focused” features that speak only to the wife or mother role. Case in point is the notion that “juggling children’s schedules” is a women’s feature in smart phone design. It is more accurately known as a parent’s feature, but when it is only portrayed as one that suits mothers, we actually create a self-fulfilling prophecy. Women’s features become parent’s features.
  2. Gender-based design is about recognizing systemic patterns and alleviating the burden of them: Women may indeed be more responsible for “juggling children’s schedules.” But instead of foisting this “women’s feature” in smart phone design, instead make it possible to literally share “children’s schedules” among all smart phones. This would allow parents to better share the burden of child rearing, without painting it as a “women’s feature.”
  3. Not all women like pink: This seems pretty obvious, but it’s not. Some women do like pink, that is true. I personally don’t like my technology to look “girly” (or really anything else for that matter), nor do many of my female friends. To create a “women’s colour” of smart phone is to imply that that every other colour is a “men’s colour.” I can’t have red if I’m a woman? Is that what your product is telling me? How off-putting.
  4. Gender is fluid and constructed: Let us not forget what Simone de Beauvoir told us: “One is not born a woman but becomes one.” By this, she means that we are taught what it means to be feminine. Likewise, we are taught what it means to be a man, to be gay, to be Black, to be an immigrant. Product designers must remember that not all women will accept what they have been taught. Moreover, product designers must also recognize their role in constructing and reconstructing gender.

Product designers who take their cue from the tenor of the NY Times’ piece will design staid, gender-constricting products that alternatively confine women to status quo roles, or alienate women who openly reject them.

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13 responses to “What product designers don’t get about gender

  1. I wonder what product designers would do with me? Pink being my least favorite color, not having ever carried a “purse”, and being more concerned about how my SmartPhone will withstand accidental pitches out of a jeep on a rock outcrop than how small and cute they are.

  2. Great insights, Sam. There are plenty of women who don’t just automatically respond to pink (myself and many friends included). And, there are a lot of guys who appreciate the various features that may have been developed due to research with women. Designers, and the reporters that cover it in technology or other industries, get so excited about the women’s market that they rush to do this or that symbolic thing (like the perfect shade of pink phone) that makes it seem like they understand why and how women buy. I actually wrote a book called Don’t Think Pink, which published 4 years ago. The title is still a valid mantra. My latest research goes into what men think or how they respond to all these overt marketing to women ploys. Lots of brands are shooting themselves in the foot.

  3. I think you’re attacking the wrong group of people here: This should really be an article about the role marketing can play in the design process.

    1. Designers design, they don’t portray. It’s the role of the marketing department to decide how to present features for maximum sell. The closest relevant statistic I could find was 2006 custodial parents: 5 of 6 are women. So a typical marketing approach would be to say target the 80% with a parent feature and not the 20%.

    Now, why not keep it gender-neutral and hit all 100% with a “parent” feature? I don’t know, there are a lot of gender-biased marketers out there I guess.

    2. As for Pink: this again strikes me as a marketing decision not a design decision. Again it’s a bad one, and one that yes is probably driven solely by (erroneous) gender stereotyping.

    This of course isn’t to say that yes in some cases designers are probably complicit, but in my (albeit limited) experience elements that are so obviously stereotypical in their approach come from the marketing department, not the design department.

  4. Pink is a self-propagating phenomenon – it’s “hot” to a lot of people, and it sells. In a lot of cases, Pink tends to be the first color that’s considered to make a product in after black, silver (or white) because it sells.

    The more colors you make a product, the more SKU numbers, different packaging, production quantities, etc you’ll need – so it costs money to offer a variety of colors. In a lot of cases though, a Pink product isn’t any different – just Pink.

    In your second enumeration you disengender the feature you’re describing. What you say makes sense, but it no longer addresses the needs of a woman (specifically). To engender a product, you need to leverage a quality that is specific to that gender – like women’s greater penchant for empathy, emotion, or verbal communication, etc.

  5. You missed the point of the New York Times article and the point about the availability of a pink smart phone. I don’t think RIM created a pink Blackberry in order to attract women to smartphones. Rather, I suspect RIM merely recognizes that women are buying smart phones and therefore offered a choice of color that happens to appeal to women. The point is that there is enough women buying smart phones now that RIM can even afford to offer a pink version (ie. there are enough paying customers to justify creating the pink version and giving it shelf space). I think you have a chip on your shoulder over this issue. I agree that the connection between pink and women is a bit of a stereotype, but on the other hand it happens to reflect reality, so why fault RIM or AT&T for recognizing it. And it’s not like they are prohibiting men from buying it. It would be a far bigger sin for RIM or AT&T to avoid selling pink phones to women who want them out of concern for stereotyping or to spend their marketing dollars trying to sell pink phones to men. And if you think that the shrinking size of a smart phone (and the fact that they have become small enough to fit easier in purses) isn’t a factor in the purchasing decisions of women who carry purses, then I think you should do some market research. I asked five of my women friends and they all confirmed that size and fitting a phone in their purse would be a factor for them. And two of them said they would buy a pink phone and one said ‘maybe’ (I then asked those three if they would buy it if it was a “hot” pink instead of a more subtle shade of pink and all three said ‘no’, so shades matter). This obviously isn’t a statistically valid marketing study, but I suspect it is more likely than not to be representative of the market. The New York Times article wasn’t about design. It was about a trend. There are enough women who want a pink phone that it makes business sense to offer pink phones. That isn’t bad design. That is basic economics and marketing.

  6. Pat,
    I think you missed the point of my post.

    The point is not that “some women like pink (though apparently not hot pink)”. The point is that “appealing to women” is somehow a different category than the default “make an appealing product.”

    This is a classic case of making woman “the other.”

    Some women like pink. Some men do too. That is not the problem. The problem is designing a product for the mass market and only realizing after the fact that this product does conform to some imagined notion of what women are and want.

    There is no statistically valid problem with this; the problem is making the feminine gender a single, monolithic experience. This IS bad design because it does not serve actual users of the product.

    Product designers who think “designing for women” is somehow different than “designing for people” do bad design. Designing for people who need small sizes is not a “women’s design”.

  7. Sam,

    As a designer, I agree with your general thesis. The ideal in design is to create an overarching universality that appeals to us as humans. However, good design also must considers the needs and lifestyle of the product’s specific target audience. As with ergonomic design, for example, we often choose a (statistically significant) compromise knowing full well that it will fit a very small minority perfectly.

    For better or for worse, subdividing the world into narrow and presumptuous demographic slices, each with its own “monolithic experience,” is the nucleus of contemporary marketing theory. Broadening a product line in an attempt to hit the centers of statistical preference clusters does not inherently imply bad design.

    Yeah, the whole ‘pink for girls’ thing is cliche. No doubt. They may well be incorrect using these assumptions to tailor the design to better suit more potential buyers. Statistically, though, more women buy pink products than men. That’s a tough point to argue.

    • Sam,
      liked the article & the links. Thanks for voicing some of the frustrations!

      Ken,
      are you claiming that “designing for the female market” is equal to “subdividing the world into a narrow and demographic slice”?!

      For clarification:
      Females make up half of humanity in all kind of different roles and settings. Woman are not a small group, nor a homogeneous group of users. For most parts their requirements for products and applications are not distinct from “male” requirements (i.e. my husband’s requirement to juggle childcare schedules is pretty identical to my own, as is his desire to fit a cellphone in his pocket, though he doesn’t share my need for female hygiene products ;-).

      Thus rather than considering “woman features” as an exception of the norm, we should try to identify and accommodate requirements relevant to a significant part of the user base, such as “parents” (and dissuade marketing from concentrating on pink covers and rhinestones ;-).

  8. Waiting for a piece on “what product designers don’t get about ’emerging economies'” (or whatever current expression finds flavour for the poorer countries)!

  9. i’m doing a piece for my typography class on this exact subject, how designers/marketers decide how to target women and men through their choice of type and imagery and how it is stereotypical, subliminal and sometimes just downright rude. this article and all these comments really helped put words into my thoughts, do you happen to have any other sources or articles that point in this direction? I’d greaty appreciate it. either way, thank you.

  10. I don’t have anything on design and gender specifically Lindsay, but I do have some great sources on gender.

    Try reading “If men could menstruate” by Gloria Steinem. It holds up even after all these years. It shows how we can turn things on their heads when gender gets involved.

    Also I’d read the presentation of self in everyday life by Goffman. It shows how we “give off” the impression of gender. By that token, you may also try Gender Trouble by Judith Butler (warning! heady academic stuff!).

    These are all thought starters really. I prefer to read widely and then try thinking more narrowly only when specifically applying ideas.

  11. It’s all about recognizing that design reproduces certain patterns (behavioral and cultural), and that designing is a powerful tool for shaping attitudes, beliefs. Designing for gender often reproduces traditional stereotypes and ideas and I think you came with some really good examples (also, think the “volvo women” concept car – extra mirrors everywhere…). Instead, design could be part of EXTENDING the classic gender repertoires. Rather than restricting specific functionalities or lifestyle representations to gender, it should work with extending the repertoires for action, representation, and identity for both male and female users.

  12. Pingback: When “woman” means “short” « Design Research

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