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.
- 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.
- 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.”
- 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.
- 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.