No, we didn’t attend the Adult Expo that runs next door to CES in Las Vegas every year. At a panel discussion at CES called “Thinking about Sex and Electronics,” a design firm called Smart Design aimed to help manufacturers understand why the vast majority of women feel alienated by many tech products on the market. After all, nobody wants to miss out on this vast opportunity: Women buy 57% of all consumer electronics and influence 90% of all tech purchases. “But, we called it ‘Thinking about Sex’ because we wanted to see if we could get some randy young geeks in the room,” quipped the moderator.
The two female designers on the panel held their audience in high esteem, since they started out by saying “We all know that designing for women is about more than just changing the product’s color.” Oh really? Then why did I see a multitude of pink at just about every booth at the show? After giving several examples about hormonal differences between the sexes (during stress, women release oxytocin, which promotes partnership, while men release adrenalin), the panelists went on to give examples of poorly-designed tech for women, as well good design, and design credos that guide them. Page through this slideshow to see the designers examples, as well as the myriad female-inspired products that caught my eye in Las Vegas. Some of them were real winners, while others we’re just not sure about.
The designers point to products like a pink Zune, Razr, and PS2 as female-oriented products that miss the boat. “The manufacturers think we’re all super girly, feminine, like-minded people who like happy things. That’s a gross oversimplification and doesn’t take advantage of the real market opportunity. These surface treatments just skim the surface. Aesthetics are not the only thing that women want. Women want simple and intuitive products. Smart design is based on universal design.” Companies like Home Depot get this “transparent approach.” That company redesigned its aisles and displays to make them easier to navigate because of feedback from women. Women liked the changes, but so did men—it didn’t exclude them. It was appreciated by everyone.
The designers stressed a “warmer” value system that takes into account how a product will fit into a person’s life, how it will affect the people in her life, and what purpose that product will serve. The product has to have personal meaning. Traditionally, tech is marketed with “cold values,” which include slick styling, performance, feature overload, and speed. Warmer values are associated with feeling, thinking, and day-to-day living. When a woman looks at a product, according to the designers, their vision expands to thoughts about lifestyle. A man might look at a product and see only himself using it. An example of a product that the designers thought embraced warm values? HP’s Photosmart printer series. “It is intuitive and portable. Women are the family archivists, but HP realized they wanted to print at the park, at the party, and in the kitchen, not just at the office.” Another obvious one: Women like the Wii because it is inclusive and encourages social interaction.
“A lot of technology seems to exist simply because it can, not because it is relevant.” Women are sensitive to the idea that less is more, which is why the Flip camcorder has been such a success, among when and women. “The product cuts out room for error since it only has a few features, but the designers who created it had to keep fighting the marketing team to keep it so simple.” Focus groups and consumer researchers told the company what people wanted.
In some sense, women want to “fall in love” with a product, say the designers. Color is a superficial value, but it takes a special element to make a product appeal to women. The designers use words like magic, fun, unexpected, and alive to explain what many women are looking for. Examples of this include Tivo’s “smart” suggestions, the UrbanSpoon iPhone application’s self-awareness and interactivity, and even the way all Apple notebooks have an indicator light that seems to “breathe” as if the computer were resting, when closed. The designers also pointed out that the “personality” of a Roomba robot can make women feel as if they are interacting with the product. “We want to see more emotional links between the products, so you cherish it and you want to keep it.” So, did any of the products on the show floor at CES meet the designers’ criteria?
This new product isn’t necessarily targeting women, but its design is so good that we think it will appeal to women (it appeals to me, anyway). The idea is this: Why should you have to charge your Bluetooth car speakerphone while you are driving? Instead, you could pop and swap out the battery, which is a much safer solution. From personal experience, I can tell you that driving with a USB cord dangling across from your sun visor to your cigarette lighter is not a good idea. Neither is leaving the headset on the seat next to you while it charges—you can’t use it that way. Kensington’s design removes that issue. It also offers an extremely easy way to program in three speed-dial numbers. Simply hold down a button while you’re talking to the person you want to put on that speed dial button and it saves it to memory. This design is intuitive, and universal. Now, if Kensington could just spice it up a bit.
Kensington has a competitor in Parrot, whose Minikit comes in two flavors: one solid black, and one with an attractive design. Will women go for the flowery one? I can’t be sure. Needless to say, the aesthetics of Parrot’s version beats Kensington. I know the designers said aesthetics aren’t as important as design, but I believe they do count for something. Kensington and Parrot could learn from each other.
This product doesn’t exist, but it meets nearly all of the Smart Design designer concepts to appeal to women. The laptop was inspired by Japanese origami—basically, the notebook can be configured in several modes just by folding it a bit. It would have to be made out of flexible plastic. In “Flat Sharing Mode,” the computer is laid flat with two screens so that two people can work together. Files and applications are shared between the two screens. Says Asus, “Simultaneous sharing draws people closer to each other.” In Airo mode, ergonomics and comfort play a big role. The notebook is configured in normal screen-keyboard setup, but when it is opened, the keyboard gets raised up at an angle to provide typing comfort. Also, vents open up to let out hot air. This design would theoretically improve performance and increase the computer’s lifespan.