Thinking About Sex (And Electronics)
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.
Surface Treatments Are Not Enough
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.
Tech For a Reason
“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?
Kensington Hands-Free Visor Car Kit
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.
Parrot Minikit Slim Portable Bluetooth Car Kit
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.
Asus Fold/Unfold Concept Laptop
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.
Audio Technica Headphones Designed For Women
audio-technica.comThe designers argued that special products just for women wouldn’t work for consumer electronics. But in this case I believe they were wrong. Audio Technica’s new products take into account female physiology. And while some men might also fit well with these products, I think these products will likely appeal to more women than men. The company has included all the same audio drivers as in their standard high-end headphones, but created differently-shaped ear pieces for earbuds that the company says are designed for differences in female ears. Additionally, the company has created an ultra-light and extremely thin headband, that, frankly, won’t get tangled in longer hair. Yes, Audio Technica is ghettoizing women with these headphones, but they appeal to me anyhow.
Polaroid Pogo Instant Digital Camera
Like the designers’ choice of HP’s Photosmart printer, I think the Polaroid camera takes lifestyle into account. But better than an easy to carry printer, now you can have a printer built directly into your camera so it is always with you. It uses the Z-Ink inkless paper like the Pogo portable printer we’ve reviewed, so the next step is for Polaroid to license this to high-end camera makers like Canon and Nikon so that consumers can have both a well-designed camera and a built-in Printer. As great as Polaroid’s instant-gratification brand is, they don’t make the best camera’s on the market in terms of quality.
Golla Oy Bags
There were many well-designed and attractive laptop and phone cases at CES this year. But Golla brings an international perspective to gender and design. According to Lisa Westerlund, communications manager for the Finnish bag company, Golla doesn’t aim to segregate bags for men and women. In Finland, where the “metrosexual” trend is in full-swing, men don’t have a problem sporting a red bag with pink flowers on it. But in the U.S., it helps customers to break things out for men and women, she says, even though anybody could use any of these bags. Golla incorporates artistic patterns with unusual materials as well as unconventional design, including vertical laptop cases and cases with customizable interiors. And pink is hardly the most popular color for women, here.
FoneGear is a successful cell-phone case company that has until now sold a somewhat cheese lineup of case designs including Harley-Davidson and NFL branded cases. This year, the company tried something different at CES, showcasing a wall of products made from natural materials, with whimsical and neutral designs. Do these products have “For Women” written all over them? Not literally. But FoneGear has figured out a marketing tactic that has taken a surprisingly long time to catch on. Sustainable products with inventive designs appeal to lots of people who actually care (emotional connection) about the earth. The hand-made look is appealing as well, since it signifies a human touch.
FoneGear may have just launched the GreenGear line, but the FoneGirl line has been around for a while. The company says it performs well for them, so we can’t fault the company for selling it, but it probably only appeals to women under the age of 13. With red high-heel logos and kitty cats, the FoneGirl line points to a lack of design ingenuity and condescension.
Laptop couch-surfing is an unhealthy habit that most computer users can’t quit. Pyramat has a good idea: an attractive, ergonomic, cooling accessory that also happens to be made from 100% recycled materials. With their family’s health in mind, we think the lapdesk design would appeal to women for at least half a dozen reasons.
Barkan LCD Mounts
If women influence the majority of tech purchases, we bet that most of those purchases involve an HDTV. Women probably express concern about the mounting of such a large screen, and the way that screen will uglify the living room. We’re not sure Barkan’s product solves the entire problem, but it tries to alleviate the horrible rear-view associated with mounted flat-screens. These butterfly mounts look attractive, but they’re also flexible and allow for tilting and swiveling of the TV.
Mattel Barbie B-Nails
Do women want to use a computer screen to choose a nail design, then stick a hand inside a bubbly pink printer to have that design printed directly onto their nails? I don’t know. Images can also be uploaded to the machine for printing. I suppose if Mattel makes big bucks on this product, then the market has spoken and the design is good. I’m not sure what Smart Design’s female designers would say about this product, but if it is easy to use, it can’t be all bad.