In nearly every category except games consoles and MP3 players, women buy as many or more gadgets than men. This includes PCs, DVD players and digital cameras.

Undoubtedly, what happens in the US is bound to come over here pretty soon, but how should designers act on this information and how much is this trend to do with the design of the gadgets themselves?

Products such as the iMac, the Canon Digital Ixus camera and the new Fashion Collection range of Nokia mobiles are, if not feminising technology, at least making it less exclusively and aggressively male.

These products are smoother and sleeker than their predecessors and come in bright limes, pinks, pearly-whites and reds.

Pat Jordan, of the Contemporary Trends Institute, feels female considerations have changed the market. “In all the research you will find that women do put aesthetics higher on average and are more commonly unhappy with function.

The Canon Ixus was one of the first digital cameras to be aimed at women. Traditionally cameras were designed by guys in labs for guys in labs but the Ixus has changed that.”

The old stereotype of women as technophobes is dying, thinks Jordan. “Men have been more comfort-able with technology in the past – it was a cultural and educational thing. But as technology becomes more prevalent that is changing.”

Martin Raymond, Futures Director at trends consultancy Futurelab, thinks there is something more fundamental going on. “This is less to do with the design of products and more to do with the changing roles of women in the workforce, the domestic sphere and society.

"There are more single women than men and more degree-carrying women than men. Women aged twenty-five to thirty-five are going through a big career trajectory. There are more women fighting in that space and they are using the same technological weapons.”

Despite this, or maybe even because of this the way men and women use technology is still different, thinks Raymond. “Men believe that if they have lots of extra features, that will make them more competent.

"Men are more likely to believe that technology will make them better men. Women believe that technology will make them better workers.’”

Gadgets may look as if they’re becoming more feminised, says Raymond, but in reality they’re just becoming more universally appealing and more accessible.

“The iMac looks like a female computer but really it’s about being creative and thinking laterally. We found that products that have character-istics that are seen as ‘feminine’ are more likely to be universal. Products designed to appeal to men are more exclusive.”

While the styling of products has certainly changed to reflect women’s changing interest in technology, the user interfaces have perhaps become more usable, but not changed radically.

That is set to change, according to Clive Goodwin, creative manager for the European design arm of mobile manufacturer Samsung.

“Previously, user interfaces have been about lists and text, which are very male-orientated, but research is going on into how the mind works and software is becoming more about picking the things you want and prioritising features.”

But designing specifically for gender can be a trap, thinks Goodwin. Companies like Samsung are used to having to design for an enormous number of different global markets.

What the phone manufacturers tend to do is add different features and styling to a core product to appeal to different markets. It’s not so much about designing for gender but designing for different cultural contexts.

This is why, thinks Goodwin, that products such as Nokia’s new smart and feminine Art Deco-inspired 7260, 7270 and 7280 mobiles, labelled as the Fashion Collection, may not have broad international appeal. “The problem with fashion is that it’s in one minute and out the next.

"It’s better to go with a premium product with expensive finishing – it will last longer. Markets such as the Far East aren’t going to go for Art Deco. They never had Art Deco!”

With all this talk of the feminising of products leading to a broader appeal, you would think the number of women designers employed by design studios would be on the rise.

That’s happening to a certain extent, says Raymond. “BMW and Nissan employ women and Philips and IDEO have also taken the importance of women designers on board.”

Goodwin paints a bleaker picture, however. “...haven’t seen a rise in women designers. I think this is because, traditionally, product design is seen as being about facts and figures and in the colleges it’s associated with industrial design and engineering.

"But in the big consultancies they’re crying out for female talent, even if just for styling. They need women designers to appeal to women buyers.” 

Reprinted with permission from British Design Council

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