5 from South By: Shrink It and Pink It…Designing Experiences for Women

March 20, 2012

Blogger outreach

Under Armour designs for its customers, who happen to be women, instead of designing for women (Image credit: theskichannel.com).


5 from South By is a series of five blog posts covering some of the most interesting news and trends from South By Southwest Interactive conference in Austin, Texas, earlier this month.

Ok, I know what you’re thinking. Let’s get it out of the way right from the start. No, this was not a panel about a mediocre 80s sitcom. And no, Delta Burke was not one of the panelists. And no, I can’t make any more obscure references to Designing Women because honestly, I never watched one episode.  But it was on for eight years, so it must have been decent.

Anyway, back to the panel. Designing Experiences for Women was really a discussion by two user experience professionals about the best and worst ways to design and create products for women – a topic that should easily get any marketers’ attention once he/she realizes that women make or influence 80 percent of purchases and generate almost 60 percent of U.S. ecommerce. Not to mention that women use social media more than men do.

So what’s the right way to design for women? The panelists’ conclusion was that it’s really quite basic – research and understanding your consumer is how you avoid stereotypical and borderline insulting designs. And if you’re a visual learner like I am, the case studies that backed up this basic theory are what you would have found most compelling. So let’s dive into a few.

The Good

  • This Under Armour TV ad targeting women that ignores stereotypes and shows the female athlete how they see themselves – just as tough and rugged as any male athlete.  This ad passes the Buchanan Design Test for women: 1) Do you feature the woman outside the home, 2) Do you feature the woman in a role other than mother, 3) Is the women in your design NOT doing yoga. Funny because it’s true.
  • The Venus razor for women upholds one of the main principles of visible design…When you know you have one gender in mind, tout your product as solely for that specific gender. You don’t have to be all inclusive. Point out that no guy should ever try shaving his face with a Venus. That’s what Venus did and it worked because they took time to listen to the customer, who had been complaining about the lack of a female-specific razor and noting that men’s razors weren’t cutting it (pun intended) when it comes to shaving your legs.
  • Her Way dating website. Whether you are a fan of online dating or not, you can’t deny the genius in this idea. Ivins shared the issue with online dating sites from a woman’s POV. Women want to take their time and pick the right guy. But the guys just want to pick as many women as he can find and be as aggressive as possible. Her Way allows women and men to sign up. But only women can send notifications to men, not vice versa. And Her Way gives the guys tips to make their profiles more attractive to the women on the site. Now that’s studying the user experience and creating a solution to solve for it.

The Bad

  • Traditional healthcare scrubs were designed with a very low cut V-neck. No problem for the 6-foot-4 male doctors for whom they were designed. But for the women who made up 75 percent of healthcare, well, these uniforms showed a little more than intended.
  • The iMaxi case for the iPad. Only Apple could get away with this unscathed. This is a perfect example of stereotypical advertising without much common sense or understanding of the user. When the iPad first came out, some women made the maxi pad reference when talking about the device. But that didn’t mean they wanted to carry around the latest technology wrapped in a case that resembled a feminine hygiene product.
  • Dr. Pepper Ten was thrown in as another “over the top” marketing ploy even though it’s designed for men, not women. But this case is worth sharing too because of something Nunnally noted: “Dr. Pepper Ten may actually work for the 18-34 year old demographic. Until they try the soda, which sucks.” One guy’s opinion, but a bad product always defines the user experience. There is no marketing that can save it. Just as a good product like the iPad can overcome a silly design approach.

The Ugly

  • Pink beer. Not too much to say here. I know a lot of women who like beer. My wife is a big fan of craft beers. I have never once heard her ask for a pink beer. Yet it does exist, according to Ivans, who as a craft beer fan herself was insulted when she saw it: “When we design with gender in mind, we need to resolve real problems instead of designing for extremes.”

So back to that simple concept – research. We know it’s valuable, but I bet we also know there have been times when we’ve cut corners to save time by guessing what the customer wants instead of asking or listening. Nunnally even said that once he was prototyping a breast cancer patient community and didn’t have the budget to conduct primary research. So he went on sites like Caring Bridge and read comments and conversation through the eyes of his customer.

I share that example to highlight that there’s really no excuse to not study a brand’s customers and the design experience she expects. Not taking the time to do so is just lazy. And as both panelists noted: “Women have a low tolerance for bad design.”

Now bad Designing Women? That’s another story.

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