The Futurist: What Women Want In Gadgets (Hint: It's Not Just Pink Paint)

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For the most part, the attention gadget designers give to women doesn’t go much deeper than a thin coat of pink paint. Dip it in fuchsia, slap a label like “Rose” on it, and CE companies take it for granted that the fairer sex will claw at each other to grab their products off store shelves.

But what does it take to make a truly female-friendly product? Could it be that the needs of our double-X-chromosome neighbors go deeper than a coat of paint, and that companies have made a habit of neglecting them? To find out what it would take to make a product befitting a woman’s beauty, I spoke to a group of product designers that are trying to change the rules of women-aimed products, and to real, live female consumers to see what women want — in gadgets, at least. Because consumer electronics may be a man’s world, but it wouldn’t be nothing without a woman or a girl.

To find out what forward-thinking designers are doing to make products more female-friendly, I spoke to Yvonne Lin, a design engineer at the design firm Smart Design, who has worked on products for companies such as Hewlett-Packard. Ticked off at the male-centric aims of the design world, Lin and a few of her female coworkers started an in-house clique that they call “the Femme Den,” with the stated goal of making products that work better for the ladies.

“A lot of what’s out there is really designed for men,” Lin says. “A lot of what’s exaggerated are things designed for men. With consumer electronics, it’s a lot about features: newest, best, greatest. It really fits into the mentality of ‘I want the latest, best thing’ — which is what guys are shopping for. If you look at what women are looking for, it’s things that provide intangible benefits: fit into life, fit into the house, have utilitarian benefit.”

Building off this idea, Lin and her team developed five commandments for designing products for women. Or, as she puts it, “Five Rules To Please A Woman”:

1) Don’t assume gender roles
This applies most heavily to utilitarian objects like hand tools. “A lot of tools aimed at women are pink and blue and sparkly,” Lin says. “If you’ve actually used tools and know what you’re doing, you don’t want that.”

2) Consider the Woman’s Life Cycle
Which is obviously a bit more complex than a man’s. “Women have to deal with pregnancy, menopause, and really being one-handed for a significant portion of their lives,” Lin says, so taking into account the value of one-handed devices for a multitasking or nursing mother is huge. Another common mistake: car manufacturers design airbags close enough to the passenger to injure a pregnant woman.

3) Consider the Entire Experience
In other words: women notice, and remember, details. “When she goes shopping, a woman notices if a door is sticky, or a person was rude,” Lin says. “When designing a product, we have to include all these details so the person has an emotional connection.

4) Consider How a Woman Feels
Women are concerned with a lot of things that men aren’t. “This is especially true with personal security,” Lin says. When it came time to design hand tools for OXO, a company best known for their kitchen gadgets, they shrunk the handles down to a more female hand-friendly size and made a number of key changes that made the products feel safer. “Take the box cutter,” Lin says. “The blade is the most dangerous part. We designed the box cutter so the blades are easily presented to you and easy to take out without cutting yourself.”

5) Design Benefits, Don’t Design Features
It’s important to stress what a product actually does, Lin says, instead of just stuffing in lots of features. When guys buy products, it’s almost an arms race to get the latest greatest item with completely useless features. Women look for how a product will actually effect their lives. When she helped design a new Hewlett-Packard PhotoSmart printer, instead of littering the lid with hundreds of buttons, they stripped out all but the essentials and replaced them with an extra-big eye-friendly LCD screen that “shows exactly what you’re getting,” as she put it.

Now, for kicks, lets see what some real-life women have to say about their problems using gadgets, and their thoughts on the current state of woman-aimed products. This most unscientific of focus groups shows that, as with any group that consists of 51 percent of the population, there’s bound to be immense differences of opinion. Still, a couple common threads can be pulled. I’ve broken the (often-rambling) thoughts into the three general ideas that came up again and again.

COLORS:

Morgan from Chicago: “Why is girl gear in pastels? Why do people feel the need to take their manly gear and girl it up with charms and little animals and cutesy faces. Oh! And glow in the dark—that’s even worse.”

Celia from New York: “You know what I really hate? The pink RAZR phone. It’s the perfect example of a company slapping pink on something and expecting women to buy it—it’s insulting. They would NEVER come out with a blue phone and expect men to buy it, but they hold that expectation for women. It’s sexist and unfair. When I signed up for Verizon the pink phone was cheaper, but I paid extra for a silver one.”

Anonymous High-Ranking Female Public Relations Rep From a Large Electronics Company: “Personally, I can’t I can’t stand pink products. But the fashion magazines go crazy for them, They say :’If it’s pink, send it over and we’ll run it.’ So we send them and they run them. Its easy. But I don’t like them.”

Carol in New York: “I don’t mind things pink, but just make sure they’re at least as good as any non-pink things. And companies need to look into other possibilities: such as hearts and flowers and rhinestones.”

Jaclyn in Brooklyn: “Girl gadgets are market-durable. Take, for example, cute USB devices that function like the boring gray USB but make a statement… If my sweetie plans on purchasing any sort of memory device for me, he should do a broad search and come home with the cutest and best-working device.

SIMPLIFICATION:

Sue in Brooklyn: “I look for well-designed products that coincide with those which I already own. Sleek and simple. Google, not Yahoo. I like stuff that doest a lot, but it needs to be presented to me in a way that seems simplre or else I won’t properly learn to use the gadget.”

Maribeth in New York: “I don’t always care if something is super-cutting edge. I want it do what I need and I want to be able to understand it. I’m not going to get something that has a bunch of useless crap because it’s higher end or whatever.”

Molly in Brooklyn: “Excessive cords drive me crazy. And remotes drive me crazy. Do we really need 30 buttons when you only use five? They need to reorganize and streamline that crud.”

PRODUCT SIZE:

Morgan in Chicago: “Sometimes handles are too big for me. I have tiny hands.”

Carol in New York: “I don’t like those girlie products like the razors with big handles. They’re not easier to hold—they’re just lighter. And what for? Do my delicate hands and sensitive nature require my razor to be light in order to shave my legs? I need it heavier for better leverage! I prefer male razors.”

Seth Porges writes on future technology and its role in personal electronics for his column, The Futurist. It appears every Thursday and an archive of past columns is available here.

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