The Femme Den, a female focused offshoot of Smart Design, aims to change how products are sold to women by using a rarely deployed strategy: research.
For some strange reason, companies spend tens of thousands of dollars on market research, only to ignore the data in favor of their own long held assumptions about a market. No where is this more evident than in products marketed to women, where you often find that marketers tend to look at women and think pink, feminine, and silly. Sarah Haskins has made a career out of lampooning these ideas; the Femme Den, featured in Fast Company's Masters of Design issue, have dedicated their careers to stopping the madness. Consisting of members Whitney Hopkins, Agnete Enga, Erica Eden, and Yvonne Lin, the Den writes white papers, presents data, and points out where stereotypes superseded common sense:
Companies recognize the need, but most are clumsy — if not patronizing — in their attempts to address it. This often leads to what the Femme Den calls the "shrink it and pink it" reflex, the kind of mindless design that produces such works of genius as mini pink tool kits and Dell's pastel-saturated Della Web site, stocked with tips about "finding recipes" and "counting calories." (Dell dumped Della within two weeks of its launch.) What women really want, the Femme Den argues, is intuitive design. In a Yale University study, 68% of men asked to program a VCR using written instructions were successful, compared to just 16% of women. That doesn't mean women are less intelligent than men (please), but that they're less tolerant of complicated interfaces — more willing to skip new tech than to slog through manuals. "Men will walk into an electronics shop and look at the white cards that list the features. Women will pick up the cameras, flip them around, and look at the buttons," Lin says. "They want to know: Is it intuitive?"
In the sidebar, "Design in Action," the Femme Den demonstrates how these assumptions could literally become quite dangerous:
Unisex skis are a major misstep: Wider hips and looser ligaments make novice women skiers nine times more likely than men to tear their ACLs. K2'S LUV WOMEN SKIS are specifically tailored to the female physique, without being hot pink.
The shift in design from stereotypical marketing to informed marketing can make a major difference in the effectiveness of a product. And, often, shifting from the idea of a male default user may actually benefit a companies bottom line:
When Cardinal Health, the $12 billion health-care-supply company, wanted to rethink the design of hospital scrubs in 2007, balancing the needs of both sexes helped set its product apart. "Probably 70% of the health-care population wearing scrubs is female," says Carl Hall, Cardinal's director of marketing. "But scrubs are really designed for men. Smart Design identified the gender thing early on as an opportunity and helped us really evolve that." Endura scrubs, introduced in March, swapped out V-necks for stretch collars, and added straps and snaps to make the hem and rise adjustable, breathable mesh at the back and knees, as well as a kimono sleeve to increase range of motion.
And that unisex cut? "We used the female form for measurements, so the fabric doesn't strain across the bust and hips," Hopkins says. "Men don't even notice the extra room."
(Image: Christopher Sturman for Fast Company)