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The Innovation Economy Is Terrible At Designing For Women

Introducing Broad Thinking, a new column from 4B collective, on how to design for women.

The Innovation Economy Is Terrible At Designing For Women

[Photo: Carlo Amoruso/Getty Images]

Corporations invest billions of dollars into product development, making cars, fitness trackers, financial planning apps, and other products and digital services that people use every day.

Yet so many women wonder, "Was this really made for me?"

A large percentage of products and services across various industries are not satisfying women. Women are the primary decision makers for 85% of cars purchases, but 74% of women feel like they are misunderstood by the automotive industry. Women make 80% of household health decisions, but 66% of women feel misunderstood by health care marketers. Women over the age of 50 control more than half of all discretionary income in the United States, but 53% feel ignored by brands.

Why are the design and innovation industries failing?

[Photo: SolisImages/iStock]

I believe the answer can be attributed to a gender gap, or chasm, really—women buy or influence 85% of all consumer purchases, while 85% of product designers and engineers are men.

The heart of the challenge, is a lack of understanding of how gender impacts design. You don’t have to be a woman to know how to design for women (just like you don’t have to be a man to design for men). But you do have to understand them. And their gender matters. The easiest person to understand and design for is yourself. And when "yourself" is 85% male, that’s whom you tend to design for the best.

When it comes to creating a "for women" product, many companies resort to the "pink it and shrink it" strategy. We’ve seen this applied to pens, laptops, outdoor sports gear, toys, and myriad other goods. Often, the more male dominated the industry, the pinker the "for women" product becomes. I once worked on a toy design for a major label where all of the original 50 concept sketches (created by the all-male team) were pink, purple, or glittery.

Even for supposedly gender-neutral products, many companies ignore that women may have different needs altogether, and their products and services default to a design for men.

For example, cars are driven by both genders, but they are really designed for men’s bodies. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, a person is significantly more likely to experience a serious or fatal injury when sitting 10 inches or closer to the steering wheel. This is a serious issue for short people. Short is classified as 5'2" or under. More than a quarter (26%) of American women fit in the "short" category, compared to less than 1% (0.6%) of American men.

So, who is more likely to be sitting closer to the wheel? It turns out, 40% of short women driving medium to large cars and 27% of short women driving small cars are sitting closer than 10 inches from the steering wheel. And it makes me wonder, if fatal injury was a significant risk for 26% of male drivers, would this issue be addressed?

Design is a boys' club

For women like me who pursue a career in the design and engineering fields, we learn that design and innovation are a team sport, but it’s not quite co-ed. Design teams are often made up of four to seven men and one woman.

I’ve heard countless stories of design and innovation teams making decisions based on criteria that the lone woman disagrees with. Things like:

"Let’s put 80% of our time and budget on making this TV one millimeter thinner and ignore that it’s impossible to mount without leaving a mess of cords."

"Let’s make sure the handle of these scissors are reminiscent of '60s car design and ignore that it’s packaged in a blister pack that you can’t open unless you already have scissors."

"Let’s make sure that our wearable can track these 25 data points and ignore that no woman will want to wear it."

This stream of mismatched priorities leaves her as the odd man out and labeled as the troublemaker. That frustration can make women exit the field.

In fact, 40% of women who earn engineering degrees end up quitting the profession, or decide never to enter the field at all. Many female designers I've encountered over the years have quit for similar reasons.

Getting hired can be a tough experience. Most of the portfolios that I see from women tend to demonstrate a more diverse skill set than their male counterparts. In addition to product design, many of these women have experience in design research, branding, or engineering.

Multiple skill sets tend to confuse potential employers. If you don’t fit neatly into a preordained box and job title, you don’t get hired. So instead, I’ve seen women increasingly choose to switch to a field that actually appreciates their diverse skill sets—like fashion, design research, and academia.

[Photo: Pinkypills/iStock]

But in terms of creating products and services for women, having a diverse set of skills is a huge advantage. It allows designers to envision and create a more cohesive experience for and around the product, which is what many women want. Women judge the whole experience. When making a purchasing decision, they consider the message, the product, the packaging, the graphics, and the environment together. It’s a significant benefit when a designer can intelligently consider all of these components together—the way 85% of their users will.

Talking about gender makes people nervous. We’re going to do it anyway

Gender is complex, and talking about it can make people uncomfortable. Am I being sexist? What’s the difference between sex and gender? Am I using the right words? Is there really even a difference between genders? Is everyone going to be pissed off at me?

But just because gender is uncomfortable, doesn’t mean it’s not important. Gender can be and should be a part of any design project, just as ergonomics, function, or aesthetics are.

My path to understanding women has been long and full of unexpected discoveries. I began studying and designing for women eight years ago, when I was part of the Femme Den—an experimental team of female designers at Smart Design who were solely focused on designing for women.

But as my colleagues and I got older, our family lives broadened and our professional interests sharpened. Several of us had kids, and we needed to figure out how to do the work we loved, and care for our families. We wanted to create our own products and work with companies that produced great work, regardless of the size of their budget. So my colleagues and I decided to start 4B collective. As individuals, we wear multiple hats—as product designers, engineers, strategists, architects, and startup founders. As 4B collective, we join forces to create the products that should exist for women, all 4 billion of them.

Like anthropologists, we study women in their natural habitat. We’ve spent hundreds of hours observing and talking to them as they drive, shop, cook, clean, talk, and play. We’ve gotten to know their jobs, their homes, and their families. We study trendsetters and more mainstream women. We analyze how women interact with products and services at every stage. We listen carefully to what women say and, even more carefully, to what they don’t. We’ve learned many things not mentioned in design literature or discussed at design conferences.

Based on our many years of design and research, we developed strategies and tools to analyze women’s needs and to make products and services that they appreciate. We call our approach Broad Thinking.

Today we're beginning a new series of posts to share our insights and the design opportunities that we see for women across a variety of industries. We’ll be taking a close look at toys, electronics, cars, design for older women, and design for developing countries—starting with health care next month. Please join us for the conversation.

For more information, go to

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