Gadgets makers can't shake the habit of thinking pink when they try to sell to women, but isn't it time they started concentrating on simply making things work?
In Spring 2009, PC maker Dell decided it needed to do more to sell its computers to women. The marketing team came up with what they thought was the answer: build a home for them in the shape of the Della website. It sold pastel-shaded notebook PCs alongside fashion and dieting tips. It quickly became a lightning rod for women's dissatisfaction with what has become a peculiar trend among gadget makers: to sell to women simply make a product smaller and paint it pink.
Dell shut the Della website within weeks after being lashed with waves of criticism and went away to have a long think about what women really want. In the background the answer emerged: it's not the kind of special treatment you expect. Despite surveys such as one carried out by the Consumer Electronics Association several years ago that found widespread dissatisfaction among women with gadget stores, adoption rates have increased.
The latest survey of a sample of the UK population by Ipsos MORI found that usage of the Internet by both sexes was comparable: appreciable differences in Internet access only showed in people aged over 55, where a 20 per cent gap opened up. Even then, three-quarters of all women and just over 80 per cent of men expected to use the Internet in the second quarter of 2011.
Even on games consoles, thought to be a male preserve, there was not a huge split. Females outnumbered males using the Wii by 4 per cent. There was just a 3 per cent and 5 per cent margin for the PS3 and Xbox 360, respectively, marking those consoles out as being more boys' toys than than for a girl.
Smartphone usage has changed dramatically in the past year alone. Women under 35 are now more likely to own a smartphone than men in the same age group, according to the Ipsos MORI research. The winner, however, was not the Apple iPhone, which in the US was the target of a 2009 Verizon ad campaign that pitched the Motorola Droid as 'a phone that trades hair-do for can-do'.
With a user interface geared for hyperactive executives, the BlackBerry has driven the growth in smartphone usage among younger women. More UK women are using BlackBerrys now than the iPhone. When it comes to tablets, the numbers are small but show more women than men choosing this form of computer.
'There has been a democratisation of technology,' explains Belinda Parmar founder of consultancy LadyGeek and LadyGeek TV, an online channel that promotes gadget use to women. 'What used to be the domain of the nerd has now come into everyday life. The technology is fantastic now: I can watch a film on my iPad in bed and do email on the beach. And the technology can help with running the home.
'Companies have made such leaps,' Parmar adds. 'It's very liberating for me and for very many other men and women.'
Despite the recent rise in adoption by women, technology companies decide to go in entirely the wrong direction when they chase after the female market.
During a speech at the IIT Design Research Conference last year, Erica Eden, senior industrial designer at Smart Design and one of the founders of its Femme Den unit, recalled a conversation with a colleague who worked on gaming systems: 'She said these gaming designers still think a pink gaming controller is a good idea. It only appeals to a certain number of women and it certainly doesn't appeal to men. It repels them. If that is the case and it only appeals to 10 to 15 per cent of women, when you shrink it and pink it, you are really missing the mark.'
But a similar strategy looked to be the answer for marketers at phone maker HTC faced with the problem of making Android a more attractive option for women.
Henk Koopmans, head of sales and marketing at design consultancy Plextek, says: 'It's already evident that men are drawn to the Android market where women are drawn to products such as the iPhone.'
As with Dell, HTC's changes with the Bliss only went skin deep: with a softer, green backshell, coupled with a call-indicator pendant that women were supposed to hang from their handbags. Online commenters wondered why a phone maker thought they want to buy a phone with a 'Barbie charm'.
'They fell into lazy marketing,' says Parmar, adding that HTC has responded by looking more at what women want rather than what a marketing team think they want.
Kristina Alexandra Halilovic, communications manager at Germany-based design-awards organiser Red Dot, says: 'Pink netbooks and cellphones with crystals embedded in them are missing the point. You have to take into account the anatomy of the woman, so that will influence the design. But in many cases, it's not the colour or shape, it's really about the usability and effectiveness of the design.'
The primary problem among manufacturers, says Parmar, is fear: 'They are like male teenagers at a dance. They don't know what to do.'
What's the point in an app?
There are key differences in the ways that men and women use computers and gadgets that point to changes manufacturers can make to improve their takeup among women. As an example, research conducted by LadyGeek and YouGov found that although many women have bought smartphones, far fewer have bothered to download a third-party app to run on it.
'Men were twice as likely as women to download an app,' said Parmar. The reason? 'Too much choice. An overwhelming choice. I want one app to do a specific thing. I want to know where my kids are, for example.
'iFart and iBeer: what's the point? I don't have time for that.'
Koopmans says: 'For a platform such as the smartphone, it's interesting to see how it's used. Men tinker. Women look at devices from a functional perspective. Women are drawn to new things but it's got to work.'
The evolution of product design in consumer electronics has quietly and largely unwittingly reflected a shift in the way engineering teams approach design.
In 1992, Professor Sonia Livingstone of the London School of Economics found men and women talked about technological products in different ways. Men would describe the products as purely functional, talking about their inherent features. 'They emphasised what connects with what, or what properties an object has, or how modern it is,' she wrote.
Women were more concerned about utility - what the products would do, 'often assessing their 'convenience' or whether they 'make things easier'. Their concern is how the object allows them to function in everyday life'.
Further research has helped demolish stereotypes about the willingness of men and women to program their devices, although there are clear differences in how they approach the problem that can make it seem that women are far more reticent about it.
Based on the prevalence of men in software engineering, it is easy to believe that men prefer to program more than women but early computer programmers were primarily women, largely because the male engineers of the time disliked working on software. It was not until the 1960s that programming became more attractive to men and became seen as a male preserve.
Is it programmed right?
In research on how users deal with programming devices in the home, such as ovens or video recorders, Jennifer Rode and colleagues at the University of Cambridge found that men thought programming the video recorder was easier; women found the oven timer easier. The authors determined: 'Given that these tasks have similar cognitive complexity and structure, and that the men's scores for VCRs were so similar to women's scores for ovens, perhaps it is social roles that drive who programs what, rather than any inherent cognitive differences between men and women.'
Livingstone's work indicated motivation rather than cognition provided the difference between the use of different products in the home. She wrote: 'In general, men talked more of technologies providing a substitute for social contact... or an alternative to social contact. For them, the key technologies which carry these social meanings are the radio, Walkman and television. In contrast, women technologies were often seen to facilitate social contact.'
Mobile status symbol
A 2004 report for Motorola's cellphone operation by philosopher Sadie Plant argued that the mobile phone had begun to break down these differences. The additional social features of the phone encourage men to be more social. However, four years earlier, John Lycett and Robin Dunbar of the University of Liverpool performed research that indicated that men would deliberately display their phones, using them as status and even sexual-display symbols.
That women might be using products that men associate with their lifestyle can make the males very emotional - and it can have a knock-on effect on the brand itself. As Eden points out, few men want to be seen with a pink gaming controller whereas women who don't particularly want one might tolerate it.
A 2008 paper by Jill Avery of Simmons College, Boston showed how men change their behaviour to compensate for being seen with products that no longer seem so 'manly'. As long as ten years ago, surveys showed that 30 per cent of Porsche Boxster drivers were female. But it was the Cayenne SUV that brought the reality home to drivers who considered Porsche a 'man's car'.
On the leading online Porsche forum user 'Bart' wrote of the Cayenne SUV: 'You guys forget that you have the wrong hormones flowing through your veins to understand why Porsche is putting out this SUV. My wife would snatch one up in a heartbeat, if she could. Someone mentioned the worst scenario would be soccer moms driving these. Well, get ready to meet your nightmare. It'll be sitting at a stop light near you.'
'No one wants to be seen driving a fruit, or is that a vegetable?' argued 'RobertG'.
Avery found that male drivers who confessed to owning a Cayenne on the forum were treated as outcasts. So, some of them took to boasting of extreme-sports activities and offroad driving in their SUV to reassert their masculinity.
Male self-confidence, or at least the willingness to project it, underlies another difference in the use of technological products. Men tend to have higher levels of self-efficacy - the belief that trying something out will yield a successful result - and are happier to tinker with products to try out different functions. Women are typically less willing to do that simply to find out whether a gadget can perform a job.
Show me the benefits
Because of their relative unwillingness to tinker, user interfaces that rely on providing 'surprises' when users try different things out may be ineffective with many female users. A user interface that spells out the benefits and functions and how to achieve may be more successful.
The research helps explain why men dominated the market for consumer electronics products for so long. It often took a long-winded process of setting up and tweaking to get many of them to work properly, something that favoured tinkering-oriented males. Parmar points to Android as a modern example: 'I give my grandma the iPad and she can use it. Android is just not as intuitive. With something like the Xoom you do need some Android knowledge before you can use the products.'
Eden says: 'Many men, whether they enjoyed setting up a digital camera or thought it was a chore, there was across the board a sense of accomplishment. They like to learn about the tricks it can perform. What were the possibilities? What could it do?
'Women found no pleasure whatsoever in understanding this camera's potential. She doesn't care about the ideas we may have. All this new potential, she doesn't care. She only cares about the real benefits to her life. She wants to know 'is it going to be a time suck, how can I use it and will it do its main job of capturing memories?' Eden adds.
For Eden, this greater scepticism over product features is useful. 'In the consumer electronics space, we often use women as filters to determine the meaningful functions to include,' she says. 'We are not always that different. We often want the same things but for slightly different reasons.'
In a study conducted by Lishan Xue and Ching Chiuan Yen at the National University of Singapore, women's ideas of aesthetics seemed to fit common stereotypes, choosing adjectives such as smooth, decorative and luxurious. Men picked words such as solid and minimalist although both sexes prized compactness. However, when asked about the outer design of representative products, such as cellphones and MP3 players, men and women tended to favour and reject the same designs. The biggest difference came in those products that had a link to gender, such as fragrance bottles.
Similarities in what men and women want from products have led Smart Design to adopt what Eden calls 'transparent design': 'It's inspired by women but appreciated by men. We see transparent design as the future. We feel that by appealing to women first helps us get there.'
Koopmans agrees: 'Having women in the design phase is critical for uncomplicated and practical design.'
Although design has improved and encouraged a much wider range of people to embrace smartphones, media players and other digital technology, Koopmans says the industry has a lot to do. There are many aspects of how men and women perceive user interfaces that remain largely unresearched.
'There is still a long way to go and real innovation to be done,' says Koopmans. 'People look at the iPhone and say that problem has been solved. iPhone has done very well with both men and women. But there is still a lot to be done.' *