Sex and Electronics Part 1: Women and Smart Design

In the wake of CES, a pair of women designers offer some suggestions on how consumer electronics manufacturers could boost their market share by taking gender differences into account.

For me, the lingering memory of CES 2009 is not just a new appreciation for the vastness of the consumer electronics technology universe, but its crushing virility. I’ve never been in an environment that was so overwhelmingly male that didn’t involve the U.S. Military.


There were a few cool products that spoke to me this year: Sony’s eBook with the built-in nightlight, the handbag and travel-friendly Netbooks that were everywhere, a Prada Bluetooth cellphone/watch by LG that lets you monitor calls during a meeting without being rude and checking your mobile, and a mini TV (also from Sony) that – when the price comes down – will look pretty snazzy on my kitchen counter. But the vast array of offerings were so much sound, RAM and tech specs that I felt like I had landed on an alien planet. Guys, imagine yourself at a 2M square foot Sephora, and you’ll feel my pain.

Which brings us to today’s problem: why is it that manufacturers still can’t seem to crack the code on designing consumer electronics for women?

That was the topic that two designers from Smart Design‘s Femme Den, Erica Eden and Agnete Egna, tackled at a panel I moderated at CES. Smart Design is responsible for OXO Good Grip Kitchen Tools, Flip Mino handheld camcorders and HP’s 375 Photosmart portable printer. Titled “Design & Gender: Thinking about SEX and ELECTRONICS,”  the presentation spelled out just why companies should pay attention to the market.


Here’s one good reason: Women buy 57% of consumer electronics (to the tune of about $80B), but influence 90% of all CE purchases. Yes, fellas. If you really want that cool new 60 inch flat screen, you’ll have to get it by your house’s electronic major domo first.

But here’s a far more dispiriting number: the number of women who said they thought manufacturers had them in mind when developing products: 1%. That’s a number from 2004, but I’d be surprised if today it isn’t more than, say, 5%. And why is this a problem? Aren’t products designed for guys good for the ladies as well? I mean, you don’t need a Y chromosome to work a remote. Or do you?

According to the Femme Den Smarties, Larry Summers was right: women’s brains ARE different from guys’ and, frankly, figuring out how to hook up a router is harder for us. For example, a Yale study tested college students’ ability to set a VCR from written instructions. Some 68% of the men managed to do it on the first try.  Only 16% of the women succeeded.  This could explain why we’re hopeless when it comes to simple things, like installing a home theater.


Men, literally, have more gray matter in their brains. That makes them better at specialized and focused tasks. Women, on the other hand, have more white matter. That’s the tissue that wires processing centers together. That means we rock at multitasking,  and integrating functions, but figuring out the glitch with the WiFi can be a hurdle.

How can manufacturers use these differences to their advantage? The Smart Design women had a few pointers. Among them:

  1. Recognize that being female is not niche. We’re 51% of the population, people! And, when it comes to shopping, we control over 80 cents on the dollar. “The biggest mistake we have seen is treating women like a special interest group with only post-design considerations like color and finish. We call this the ‘shrink it and pink it’ approach. And, it’s offensive to most women.” says Enga.
  2. Design for an average user, not a power user. This doesn’t mean a dumbed-down product, but one that’s accessible to the largest number of people. While men have more patience than women with technological complexity than women (see above), they’re equally charmed by products that are easy to use. The iPod is, of course, the benchmark CE product for every manufacturer, but the easy-to-use Flip Mino camcorder, which last year sold 1.5M units, demonstrates the universal appeal of intuitive design. Focus on pleasing the ladies, and you’ll likely get the guys as well.
  3. Expand the focus to include warmer values.  Cold values focus on things like faster, bigger, slicker, with more features. Warm values include such things as a focus on how a product fits into a user’s lifestyle. How does it fit into the home or office aesthetically? Does it enable the buyer to do something she normally wants to do, only better or easier?
  4. Design with a recognition of a product’s broader impact. Women’s language around consumer electronics invariably includes other people. They worry about the effect of video games on their children, the ability of their parents to use a cellphone in an emergency, their husband’s obsession with his Blackberry. They are, therefore, intrigued with products that have positive social effects–like the Wii’s knack for enabling interactive fun for a range of users.
  5. Add features only if there’s a good reason to do so – not just to please the marketing department, or because the company’s engineers are enamored with their own technological wizardry. “A 50-page quick start  manual is not a good idea,” says Eden.

READ Part 2: Femme Den’s Favorite Gadgets of CES.


About the author

Linda Tischler writes about the intersection of design and business for Fast Company.


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