Gender in Product & Service Design

Recent research reveals that women buy or influence 85% of all consumer purchases, yet 85% of product designers and engineers are men. And it shows. 

As Caroline Criado Perez has masterfully outlined in her book Invisible Women: Exposing Data Bias in World Designed for Men, women’s unique needs have been overlooked for decades when it comes to the design of many of the products and services we use and rely on every day.  Here are just a few examples she highlights: 

  • Smartphone design: The average smartphone is designed to be 5.5 inches long which is too big for most women’s hands, and often too big for our pockets as well. This affects how easy it is for us to use basic features and have a comfortable user experience.
  • Car safety: For decades crash-test dummies were modelled on a male physique, not taking into consideration women’s smaller frames. As a result, when a woman is in a car accident, she is 47% more likely to be seriously injured and 17% more likely to die. While female crash-test dummies are now used in many places, they were still not required in any of the EU regulatory crash tests according to research as recent as 2018.
  • Toilets: Building plumbing codes typically allocate the same number of cubicles between men and women, but women take up to 2.3 times longer to use the toilet. We make up the majority of the elderly and disabled, we are often accompanied by small children, and those of us of child-bearing age may also be dealing with our monthly cycle or frequent trips to the bathroom during pregnancy. This means we often find ourselves waiting in long queues while men can get in and out quickly!
  • Public transport: Public transport in many places has been designed based on the typical patterns of movement for men. While men often have a direct travel journey from home to work and back again, women’s travel patterns are not as predictable. As Criado Perez points out, ‘women do 75% of the world’s unpaid care work and this affects their travel needs’. They are often combining multiple small trips (called ‘trip chaining’) — dropping off children at childcare or school, doing the grocery shopping, picking up a prescription – as part of a larger journey. Understanding these more complex patterns of movement could help cities design public transport routes and pricing that more accurately meets the needs of all genders.  

These are just some of the ways our world has often been designed by and for men. However, applying a gender lens to products and services is not just about designing for women. For example, let’s look at parental leave. According to Australia’s Workplace Gender Equity Agency, ‘existing research finds that Australian men are less likely than women to have or to request access to parental leave, and they are more likely to be refused or penalised when they do.’ Having this data, can help governments and companies create clear policies that ensure that the opportunity to take time off to care for a newborn baby is just as accessible for men as it is for women. The same goes for people who identify as transgender. Are our maternity and parental leave policies taking into account their experience and needs and avoiding discriminating against someone who may identify as male but be the primary caregiver in a transgender relationship?

While designing with a gender lens may mean designing specifically to meet the unmet needs of one gender group, it is also about taking the needs of all gender identities into account so no one group of people are discriminated against. Rather than making assumptions about our customer base, we should aim to deeply understand the experience and needs of 100% of our users and create products and services that work for everyone. 

So how do you design with a gender lens?

We suggest starting with two simple targets: 

  1. Representation: Aim to have all genders represented on your team. Having a diversity of perspectives, experiences and insights in the design process will ensure no one is forgotten. When designing a new product or service, ask yourself if you have had both men and women on the design team or tested it with all genders.
  2. Data Collection: Start collecting gender disaggregated data wherever possible. Ensure that your design process is data driven and that the data you collect is separated by gender in order to reveal where there may be different patterns, needs, or experiences.  How does each gender experience your product differently? How do their pathways to your product differ? How do they express loyalty? 

It can also be helpful to think about these four factors when considering gender in product/service design (Adapted from Menstrual Health Hub):

  • Socio-cultural factors: What contextual beliefs, practices (political, religious, etc.) or experiences could impact how all genders use this product/service?
  • Biological factors: How does the product/service account for reproductive and physical functions of all genders?
  • Economic factors: How does the price point of the product/service compare to and impact the users overall earnings?
  • Environmental factors: What infrastructure is needed to improve each gender’s use or uptake of the product/service?

Understanding these factors will improve how well your products & services work for all your customers which will, in turn, affect your ability to reach product/market fit and ultimately improve your bottom line. It is also important to note that while we are talking specifically about gender inclusion here, the same core principles apply when looking at diversity and inclusion more broadly and are just as crucial to consider. 

As a mother who is in the midst of toilet-training a toddler, I was so pleased to walk into a public toilet last weekend and see that someone had taken my needs into consideration! Where I usually have to wrangle myself and my toddler into a small cubicle, there was not only a larger, pram-friendly toilet available but one with a child sized toilet for my son. The perfect example of designing with a gender lens. But we’ll know we’ve really made progress on gender equality when designers can acknowledge and encourage the active role fathers can play in their children’s lives by including a set up like this in the men’s toilets too! 

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