Men And Women Can Love The Same Design For Different Reasons

Transparent design aims to appeal to everyone, but understanding gender differences is still essential to developing a product that resonates with both men and women.

[This is the third post in a series by Smart Design. Click here to read the introduction, here to read the first post, and here to read the second. — Ed.]

Why not try to please all the people all the time? By and large, we should design for both men and women, and transparent design is the clear choice if a product is intended to be used by everyone. (As I discussed in my previous post, this differs from visible design, where physical differences or social needs suggest separate solutions.) But understanding gender differences may still be critical. Products and services fall short for women when designers presume that men and women share the same values. Magic happens when we blend everything we know about men and women to create an experience that works for everyone but that connects in relevant ways to each sex. In an industry that often struggles to find a female point of view, uncovering desires that are uniquely female helps us create that magical mix.

It's our job as designers to help define a product — from character and form to color and materials. But men and women can interpret these attributes in different ways. Women tend to be attracted to products that show a personality. Women tend to empathize; they react to the way a product makes them feel. Men tend to be more drawn to products that reflect a system, as the British psychologist Simon Baron-Cohen detailed in The Essential Difference (2004). One of the biggest design challenges is how to design products that appeal to both sexes without compromise.

Let's look at how this dynamic plays out in the car industry. Women tend to favor the Volkswagen Beetle because it is cute and playful. Many men dismiss it for the exact same reasons. The Mini Cooper is one of the few cars that genuinely appeal to both sexes. Men love the Mini Cooper for its stunt car roots, sports-car handling, and powerful engine. Women also love the Mini Cooper, because it is friendly and fun to drive, like a charismatic sidekick. Of course, there are always people who break this mold, but this example teaches us that we sometimes want the same things, though often for different reasons. The ability to evoke personality is a key method of transparent design, because it helps us satisfy the natural preferences of both genders.

Stay tuned for more info in my next post on how to deliver a transparent design. In the meantime, do you have any thoughts on products that appeal to both men and women in different ways?

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  • Rob Van Varick

    The Mini is an interesting example.  I went to a conference a few years back, "Return On Innovation".  One of the speakers was a woman who headed up the marketing campaign for the re-launch of the Mini.  She spoke about how the strategy was to market the car 100% to MEN.  The fear was that it would become a "chick" car like the Beetle, and that isn't what MINI wanted.  They knew women would like the car regardless for the reasons mentioned in the article.  It is fun.  But do you remember seeing the billboards?  They were always dark, moody, I think the tag-line was "small is the new big".  It was very interesting to hear about, and in the long run it looks like they got the results they were after.  Guys love the Mini...myself included.

    These articles are great!  Keep them coming!

  • Barry Quinn

    Am I the only person who noticed this car is not a Mini Cooper. It's the Mini Countryman.

    Men and woman are exactly alike and at the same time completely different. Some if it is likely biological, other bits are society induced. To be honest none of that matters to designers and marketers.

    Just make products that are sensitive to the needs of your audience. If you are honest and you have genuine insight into the way they live, the beliefs they have and the dreams they covet, you will likely be able to design a winner.

    Some products are very gender based and that's cool, assuming your audience wants that. Others have to be more universal, Apple comes to mind. A product/brand that crosses not only gender, but also age and income.

  • joren - studio ballenbak

    I wonder whether men really experience products differently than woman. I mean, they report they find several values important, however that is what they say. And their thoughts are heavily influenced by culture and stuff. What's your opinion on this?

  • Duane Pritchett

    Thank you for the article. People that refuse to recognize gender and gender differences will be trapped forever in the metro-sexual minority- Trapped in a minority of designers that cannot connect with the multitudes.

  • Renee

    But how much of a person's response is tailored by societal expectations? If you're made fun of for failing to live up to ones gender expectation then it would stand to reason you would support and express the things you're told to enjoy.

    Pink use to be a male color because it was part of red and red was considered a "strong" and masculine color.

    So I guess I'm having a hard time understanding the angle this is coming from. Are we talking about design that's suppose to drawn on timeless and fundamental differences between men and women (if any) or is this just working with the design language of the early 21st century?

  • Renee

    Ironically, I just noticed that the default avatar for Discus is male. Having a male representation as the default is a small but meaningful point.

    Part of a good design that makes women not feel ostracized would probably benefit in large by not having annoying and mildly sexist assumptions represented in it.

    Granted, it's not Fast Co fault but still, it's the little things like that.

  • Nicolas Lehotzky

    The Mini is indeed a good example for a brand that attracts both genders. However, I wonder how much of a role the brand's historical background and the way it is marketed weighs on that. Imagine that the Mini brand never existed, and that the car in the picture was wearing a Hyundai badge. Would people still be interested?

    I believe people are as attracted to the product itself as to the brand and its story.  

  • Stef Marcinkowski

    This makes a strong case for the runaway success of My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic. While some might suggest the show is targeted towards girls/women, many boys/men unironically enjoy the show just as much.

    Some of the best designs and ideas put humans first and genders second.