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Designing universal products and services

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As Caroline Criado Perez points out in her book, Invisible Women, we live in a world with a serious design flaw – and that flaw is that a lot of products and services we use are designed for men by men.

If we take a few examples

And if we look at more serious design flaws

There are 3 key reasons for this

Gender data gap

There is a gender bias in how we collect data which has resulted in a gender data gap. We neglect to consider female needs so data on women is missing or women are seriously under-represented. Often, when we design products and services, we assume the male gender as standard and therefore we do not capture the needs of women during the design process. One of the main reasons given for this gender data gap is that women’s lives are seen as too complicated, and therefore more costly when collecting data or conducting research.

Lack of women designers and design leaders in the industry

Many products and services that are designed to solve the problems faced by both men and women, work better or even only for men. These solutions work less well for women because the teams designing them typically feature more men than women. One study found that women made up less than 20% of the design teams at leading engineering and design firms. Historical rates of participation are almost certainly lower. This imbalance infuses the work of design teams with a gender bias—conscious or unconscious—that renders the final product more useful for men than women.

In addition to this, there is a gender bias against the products that are designed by women. Research carried out Stanford University suggests that gender stereotyping significantly impacts the way we evaluate products. And in traditionally male-oriented markets, like beers, power tools, or automobile parts, goods made by women are assumed to be less good. The research suggests that customers do not value and are less inclined to buy traditionally male products if they think they’ve been manufactured by women. There’s an assumption that your woman-made craft beer, screwdriver, or roof rack just won’t be as good. It was only when these products were given external validation through an industry award that it was accepted that the product was of high quality.

Lack of universal or inclusive design

Most products and services are designed with men in mind. Even products designed to be gender-neutral are often designed for men. Take power tools and cars as an example. When a woman goes to use a power tool, the handle is often ergonomically incorrect, and the heft is too heavy. Re-designing the grip or making tools lighter ensures the tools are easily used by everyone. This will benefit all users and, in turn, benefits the company that makes it.

So, what can we do about this?

There are three key areas to focus on:

Address the gender data gap

We should tackle this gender data gap when we are designing new products and services and be conscious of any gender bias in our designs. Whether we are designing a survey or a product or service we need to make sure we address the gender data gap by demonstrating a deep empathy and understanding of women’s needs and the services they require.

As researchers and designers, we should not accept the view that women’s working lives are too complicated or that our bodies are too complicated. And instead, we should be engaging with that complexity and making sure we are collecting the right data, from the very beginning of every process.

“ … women buy or influence 85% of all consumer purchases, while 85% of product designers and engineers are men.”

Hire more women

Hire more women and promote them to leadership positions. Simply having more women in the team would help mitigate the gender bias. For example, Facebook only introduced priority parking for pregnant women after their COO Sheryl Sandberg become pregnant and complained about having to walk long distances from the carpark to the office.

Make sure your product-design teams are truly diverse. Diversity and empathy on a team leads to more creative ways of thinking — which leads to better products. Recognise that diversity is not simply a tick box to get past: It is the key to designing products that really work for everyone.

Adopt universal and inclusive design

When something is universally designed, it can be used easily by everyone. One of the most common examples of universal design, and one that you probably use every day, is the ramp on a kerb. A kerb ramp is essential for people using wheelchairs, but it also benefits kids riding bikes, the elderly using walking frames, parents with pushchairs, and delivery people pulling heavy trollies.

Customisation can also be a good solution to the problem of designing for everyone. If a company doesn’t want to spend the money to change the product, think about what can be done customise it and increase satisfaction for all users.

Adopting universal and inclusive design ensures that we do not design solely for men or women but that we design for everyone!