5 Steps to Designing Better Digital Products for Women

Madeleine DiBiasi
Aug 11, 2020 · 7 min read

In the first part of this three part series, we looked at the science behind women’s likes and dislikes as well as the importance of context and perception. Here, in part two, we’ll look at a clear, five-step approach to designing products that better meet the needs of women. Used in combination, these steps could drastically improve the digital products we design for female audiences.

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Step 1: Diversify your design team

There are (sadly) a plethora of examples of gendered design choices out there that tell us a lack of representation in product design is problematic.

Take for example, the Apple Watch. Yes, I’m going to touch the sacred cow — Apple. The Apple Watch was released in April 2015. It took Apple a year or two to figure out that they needed to pivot away from their fashion accessory product positioning to health-oriented marketing. But it took them until September 2019 to integrate menstrual cycle tracking into their product.

Oh and FitBit, which launched in 2009 and was focused on health from the time of its release, didn’t integrate menstrual tracking until 2018. Yikes. The fact that it took these companies so long to integrate such a basic female-health feature (which, might I add, would appeal to roughly half their user base) feels like a glaring omission.

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Photo courtesy of Corinne Kutz.

How about AI products? Take Google Home for instance. On the surface, it feels like the design of Google Home is entirely gender-neutral — it’s just a white and grey speaker, isn’t it? But voice-recognition software is profoundly white-male-biased. Google’s speech recognition software is 13% more accurate for men than women — and Google’s voice assistant is the least bias of the voice recognition assistants on the market.

Perhaps the most costly manifestation of gender bias can be seen in Uber’s decisions concerning feature sets. Uber launched in 2010, however the company didn’t release a 911 call feature until 2018 and didn’t allow users to report “safety issues” (not requiring a 911 call) via the app until 2019. These features were released after a slew of bad press regarding Uber riders/drivers and sexual assaults.

In their own 2019 safety report, Uber acknowledged that sexual harassment and sexual assault reports are directly linked to a victim’s ability to report a crime: “We also know that reporting goes up when people know how to report and feel their reports will be taken seriously.”

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Photo courtesy of Humphrey Muleba.

Now, I do not know the gender make up of the team designing the Uber product from 2010–2018, but I can say that if you asked me, a woman, what features I would find important in a ride-sharing app that allowed a stranger to pick me up in their personal car and take me to my home, a safety feature like a direct link to a 911 call or option to contact Uber in the event of a sexual assault would have made my MVP.

The takeaway here is this: we need to have women’s perspectives when we’re designing products. Blind spots are called blind spots for a reason — if you’re a man designing for a woman, there will be things you can’t see. And having a diverse team will result in a product built for diverse audiences.

Step 2: Complicate your personas

It is very, I mean very, easy to leverage gender stereotypes in digital design. But intuitively, we all know that humans are more complicated than their associated stereotypes and we’ll create better designs if we have detailed personas for our target audiences (because, may I remind you, that “women” is not a detailed persona…it’s half the population).

In order to create the kinds of complicated personas you’d need to design an effective product, it’s important to look at persona markers that are not inherently gendered (i.e. leave out “mother” and “working woman” from your persona list). Why? Because relying on gender is lazy and it tells you very little about user motivators, behaviors, interests and aptitude. So, instead of using “Gen Z woman on the go” opt for “Digitally-savvy, entertainment enthusiast.”

Writing personas this way helps to create complicated views of the people we’re designing for and inherently pushes us away from stereotypes. This approach also helps designers avoid “spokesperson decision making” i.e. asking the women in your team to represent the desires and interests of their entire gender.

Step 3: Lead with context

It is well documented that women are less likely to use technology for technologies’ sake. Women need to understand the big picture of how a piece of technology will positively impact their life before investing the time to learn how to use it. Simply put, features alone are not going to “sell” to a female audience.

Design People, an agency specializing in product design inspired by women, recommends leading with value-based communication when trying to appeal to female audiences. This means effectively communicating how a product or service will tangibly and positively impact the lives of its users.

I’d argue this is a much better way to guarantee product adoption for both genders (win, win!) but for female audiences, leading with value is a must.

Step 4: Test more women

Obvious, right? Wrong.

In 2013, the FDA reduced the recommended dosage of Ambien for women to half its original dosage recommendation. Why? Because the drug had only been tested on men in clinical trials, leading to “excessive daytime sedation” and “impaired driving” for women. Oh and did I forget to mention: Ambien was released in 1992. That means it took over a decade to adjust a commonly prescribed sleep aid to the appropriate dosage for half the US population because it wasn’t tested on women in clinical trials.

But not everyone takes Ambien right? Maybe we do a better job of testing more commonly used products, like cars. Well, you’d be surprised. Women are 47% more likely than men to be seriously injured in a car accident because women do not sit in a “standard seating position,” which is entirely based on the height and weight of men. We’re also more likely to get common injuries like whiplash because car seats don’t have enough cushioning for women’s lighter frames.

If that wasn’t bad enough? Personal Protective Equipment has been designed specifically for white, male bodies. In 2017, 57% of the US female population who used PPE at work reported ill-fitting protective gear. In our current times, we know that ill-fitting PPE isn’t just uncomfortable — it’s deadly — and our approach (or lack thereof) to designing for women is putting female lives at risk.

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Photo courtesy of H. Shaw.

I use these examples to illustrate that while testing women may seem obvious — historically it hasn’t been, and in the worst cases, the choice not to test women has had grave consequences. Maybe our digital products carry less risk — but we still have a responsibility to test our products with women. And if we’re meant to be appealing specifically to female audiences, we can’t be successful unless we prioritize testing women.

Step 5: Signaling without stereotyping

We as product designers are in a precarious position when designing for women. Why? Let’s go back to science, context and perception.

Science, though seemingly the best foundation for making decisions about what women like, only gives us a slice of information about female preferences. It gives us generalities and debunks some myths, but it also doesn’t give us much information about what will distinguish a product as being built for a specific gender.

Context helps us balance what we know from science. While we can draw some conclusions about human aesthetic preferences, our likes and dislikes are flexible and context can shape how we judge a design.

Last and (in my opinion) most important is perception. People want to feel that a product has been designed with them in mind. And designs can exclude audiences if they rely on stereotypes OR if they somehow subliminally signal that they have not been designed for you.

Something we can do when designing for women is to employ a tactic I’m calling “signaling.” Signaling involves the representation of your intended target audience within your product or within your product marketing through imagery (illustrations, photography, or iconography).

The simplest example of signaling is bathroom signs. Without words, colors or stereotypes, we’ve all seemed to align on a language that signals women when a bathroom is “meant for them.” The beauty of signaling through imagery is that we can free ourselves from the stereotypes that have been used in the past to alert female audiences that a product has been designed with them in mind. We can simply create the best design possible and show a woman using that product to signal to our intended audience.

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In some ways, the steps above seem obvious. We know we should have diverse teams, we know we should test our target demos, we know we should take the time to create specific, detailed personas, and yet time and again, we let ourselves down. Whether it be a function of time, interest or money, we skip steps. We put products out into the world with our fingers crossed that women will want to use them. But why take the risk when we know what we need to do to meet the needs of our intended audience? If your design team or product company has the desire to appeal to women, you need to put in the work. Follow the steps. You’ll build better products.

Check out the third and final part of this series to learn how to navigate tricky conversations with your stakeholders about designing for women.

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