A few weeks ago, my colleague Damon Brown argued that an HTC smartphone for women was a bad idea. "There are two faulty assumptions here: That women need special apps and that women need a special phone," he wrote. And he's right -- when the product has a stereotyped design, often driven by the assumptions of male engineers, marketers, and designers.
But don't don a pair of gender blinders quite yet. Some publishers found that female readers often favor the Nook Color e-reader from Barnes & Noble (BKS) over the Apple (AAPL) iPad. There's plenty of room for considering gender in consumer electronics, just as long as you do it intelligently.
Brand is more than stereotype
Women's magazine publishers as Meredith and Rodale found that their audiences responded as strongly to electronic versions of their titles on the Nook Color as on the iPad, and sometimes more so:
"We didn't really know what to expect," said Liz Schimel, executive vice president for digital media for Meredith, publisher of Family Circle, Better Homes and Gardens and other women's magazines. "We regarded it as sort of a test. Would the Nook magazine experience resonate with consumers? We were extremely pleasantly surprised. I think Barnes & Noble has been very smart about creating a whole brand and a campaign that's really targeted at their core mass audience which overlaps nicely with our audience."The last sentence hits on two key factors that differentiate B&N's effort from that of HTC. As Brown noted, HTC was dismissive of women in the way it approached designing a phone, including pre-installing calorie-counting and comparison shopping apps, choosing a green color that was supposed to appeal to women, and a "charm indicator" that lights up for a message or missed call. This was design by stereotype.
However, there are differences in how men and women approach consumer electronics and what they want. A few years ago, I spoke with product design consulting firm Design Continuum, which had worked with Cambridge Soundworks on a revamp of the latter's product lines. One issue that turned up during research was the "wife acceptance factor." When a married couple bought a stereo system, the husband and wife had different expectations and requirements. As principal Michael Arney told me, "The guy is looking for power and maybe even a trophy and the wife is looking for something that will fit in to the parlor or living room environment."
Different expectations mean different design
Maybe it sounds sexist, but realizing that men and women might want different things in a product is simply accepting millennia of conditioning. These differences exist, whether you want them to or not. Look at some e-reader and tablet research:
According to data from Forrester Research, 56 percent of tablet owners are male, while 55 percent of e-reader owners are female. Women also buy more books than men do -- by a ratio of about 3 to 1, according to a survey last year by Bowker, a research firm for publishers -- and are therefore more likely to buy devices that are made primarily for reading books.Over at our sister site ZDNet, Rachel King offered some suggestions on why the Nook Color might have appeal for women, including the following:
- B&N advertisements often show a Nook Color displaying women's magazines on the screen. (The company shows women that it recognizes them and their interests.)
- B&N's e-book store has more women's titles available than iTunes. (Content drives consumer electronics purchases; providing the right content is a signal to the customers.)
- Because women buy more e-readers, chances are that they'll buy more content to work on e-readers than on tablets. (Statistics rule. Pay attention to what people show that they want more than what they say they want.)
- The smaller 7-inch screen size of the Color Nook fits more easily into a purse than an iPad. (Consider the context of the consumer's life.)
- Don't bother with superficial traits that are supposed to appeal to women or men. Do the research to find out where their interests differ and then develop product lines that address what they want.
- Get the right design teams. If you want to target a product to women, don't have an all-male team, and visa versa. Cross fertilization of ideas and direct experience of the consumer's world is what you really need.
- Branding is a promise of how a company will interact with a customer. Great brands keep the promise. If you want to create a gender-specific brand, be sure that you follow through.
- Respect whatever market you approach. Thoughtless stereotypes, whether gender, ethnic, or cultural, can reduce the effectiveness of your efforts.
- Realize that the differences in what genders want is a trend, not an on/off switch. You can't develop a product that will draw all women any more than you can create one for all people who live in the Midwest.