The internet has no gender, and platforms, services and utilities that are changing our lives are designed with a generic user in mind, optimized with the goal of scaling rapidly and hitting the largest user base possible. When designers talk about how they create wireframes, they always refer to a desired user’s behavior, as well as how they want users to feel about the overall experience. Successful criteria for navigation tend to be the ones that made Apple so successful: simple, easy to use, delightful to experience.
These criteria are universal, and in the absence of specific content we can say that they are gender-neutral. However the notion of what constitutes a successful navigation experience varies by groups of people, and not everyone naturally responds to a solicited behavior in the same way as others do.
For example, when he first came out with the idea of the platform, Pinterest founder and designer Evan Sharp was aiming to create an experience of serendipitous discovery:
“I do look at a lot of apps and websites, but most of the precedence for what we’re doing is actually in physical spaces of discovery. A lot of them are museums, libraries or retail spaces, like a grocery store. If you think about how things are presented and laid out, you start to realize that the entire space is organized to allow you to discover all the things the store is selling.”
Now, as we all know Pinterest attracts more women than men. Some people tend to ascribe this to the specific content that is pinned, but in truth the content is curated by users themselves, so it is more consequence than cause. It’s actually the desired behavior of Pinterest users that creates a different response: “what Google did for organizing information, Pinterest does for curating inspiration”
And in fact browsing for inspiration is a behavior typical of women, it is what we’ve always done since the age of magazines (remember those?), and it is definitively what we do when shopping, as some retailers know very well.
So is it possible that content neutral platforms or sites would (unintentionally) segment their users through the design of the experience? After all men and women respond differently to nudged behavior, both for cultural and social reasons. Understanding and identifying behaviors that self select users can actually help businesses in creating digital solutions in line with their target needs.
I can think of at least 3 examples of gender specific behaviors that have led to different response by users:
1) Women socialize, men network: in fact women are the majority in social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter and in general they tend to be more active. Creating communities and keeping social ties can be considered a behavior more typical of women, like sharing experiences and talk about facts of life. On the contrary men’s approach to socializing tends to be in relation to a specific goal. In fact men are the majority on Linkedin and that’s possibly because the platform has the rational objective to network for career improvement.
2) Women respond to inclusive behaviors, men prefer exclusive experiences. For women there is no point in being on a social platform if all your friends cannot access it. Guys, instead, like to belong to a club, to get a badge for being the first in adopting a new product. This might explain why Google Plus had such a higher percentage of male users when it was first launched. Or the fact that Foursquare has more male users than female ones.
3) Women are more intuitive, men more analytical: when it comes to processes, women prefer intuitive experiences and tend to be put off by over-complication. However when experiences are designed by (male) engineers they focus on delivering the widest breadth of functionalities rather than the most straightforward result. As a consequence platforms with a high number of functionalities attract more men users (hello Android!).
These elements can have a big impact when developing a commerce model in digital. So far businesses like Farmville have stumbled upon these results and tried to make the most of it, but new platforms like Pinterest have the opportunity to plan and develop a new successful model out of the ‘browsing for inspiration’ behavior. I can see how Pinterest could potentially converge content, social and commerce under a single platform that would act as a layer for brands who want to develop business strategies targeting women.
Beyond this: acknowledging gender differences in behavior can help user designers working for brands who target women in making their platforms more successful. But it can also help platforms that skew towards a male audience in attracting new demographics. I’m sure Foursquare business model could benefit from re-balancing the gender gap, especially since a larger percentage of women could open up to a wider range of retailer clients. Finally, gender differences don’t just affect the use of digital platforms, but also the use of all personal media, from mobile phones to tablets. The convenience that mobile devices offer is extremely valuable for women.
User experience needs to be designed to deliver on this promise, cutting the non-essential and providing them with real utility and control.
What do you guys think?