Designing Products for the Most Important Decision Makers: Women

It’s becoming a well-known fact: women are the world’s most powerful consumers, controlling 85% of all purchases. Not only do they buy for themselves, but also for their children, parents, extended family, and friends. Even if they aren’t spending the money directly, they often still have influence or veto power over what enters the household. In 2013, women were responsible for $29 trillion of consumer spending worldwide, which is predicted to increase to $40 trillion by 2018 according to Boston Consulting Group.

Yet even though they purchase everything from cars to healthcare, She-conomy (“a guy’s guide to marketing to women”) found that 71% of women feel that they are only considered for beauty and cleaning products. This disconnect is rooted in history; industrial design originated from engineering and manufacturing, traditionally a male domain. Even today, women only make up 20% of the design industry, according to Femme Den. The consumer market may be female, but the design industry is male. For this reason, women’s values, needs, and desires are often neglected in the final product – or worse, misunderstood.

In 2009, Dell introduced the website “Della” to sell lightweight laptops specifically to women. The pastel-saturated website highlighted the notebook’s ability to track workouts, count calories, and store recipes, and received instant backlash by their target audience. In 2012, BIC introduced a line of ballpoint pens called “BIC for Her,” that were no different from their regular pens, but came in pink and purple colors. The product was openly mocked by many, including talk show host Ellen DeGeneres and other public figures.

Like many stereotypes, ones about women are dated and inaccurate. Being female doesn’t necessarily mean espousing femininity in every aspect of life. Sometimes women want to lift weights at the gym, power through a client call, or – shockingly – use a black pen. When we make such reductionist assumptions about gender, we miss valuable opportunities to style products on a spectrum, from feminine and masculine to gender neutral.

We know that gender is complex, and men and women are innately different. Our physical bodies, the way we process information, and the values we prioritize all affect our buying behaviors and product experiences, and some products do need to be specifically designed for women or men. However, most companies sell products that are used by both genders, and it’s easy to assume that if you want to appeal to both, you have to design for both – a potentially costly and complex endeavor. Or, you could change the base framework and start designing for women. Women’s behavioral instincts as gatherers lead them to buy not only for themselves, but also for their tribe. They process information differently, making them more in tune with the entire product message. Femme Den says this includes everything from the store environment, to the social causes the company supports, how it fits into the home, and what family members will use it. In short, women have a longer list of requirements that a product needs to tick.

This list often includes what men are looking for as well. As the hunter, men tend to focus on researching the specifics of a product and then going in for the kill. This type of product comparison can be completed by viewing the white cards in any electronics store; you look for the highest or lowest number to determine the superior product. Add in the price, and you can gauge the best value for your dollar. However, this doesn’t provide the manufacturer with much to differentiate themselves from the competition. You are either a leader in technology or you are not.

By starting with women’s needs and requirements, designers can build unique features into a product to set it apart from competitors. Not only do women want the highest quality products they can afford, but they need them to fit their values and lifestyle too – which can be an important differentiator among rows of seemingly identical products.

Products and services fall short when designers ignore women’s roles as decision makers.

But by prioritizing women’s purchase patterns – instead of treating them as an afterthought – and changing the design building blocks from male-centric to female-centric, designers can create an experience that works for everyone and ultimately addresses the values of both genders. Pink BIC pens not included.

the author

Stephanie Kaptein

Stephanie Kaptein is a senior foresight analyst at Idea Couture.