Challenges in Developing User Interfaces
that are Intuitive for Both Men and Women
Maastricht, October, 2002

Vickie S. Van Ness
Chief Media Officer
Van Ness Group, Inc.


Much has been written about the differences between men and women. Biological and social forces have both been found to shape us differently from a very early age. It should come as no surprise, then, that these differences are showing up on the Web.

Conceived by men at the RAND Corporation, who were planning contingencies for the aftermath of a nuclear attack, the Internet was born in the fall of 1969 and christened ARPANET after its defense department sponsors. The intent was to promote sharing of super-computers among US researchers and to serve as a decentralized command-and-control network that would function even if only part of it survived a nuclear attack.

After only two years of operation, according to Bruce Sterling, author of Short History of the Internet, those men had “warped the computer-sharing network into a dedicated, high-speed, federally subsidized electronic post-office”. What’s more, these hard-headed researchers were using the US Department of Defense’s command-and-control contingency “to downright gossip and schmooze”. Men gossiping?

For over 30 years, people have been finding each other on the Internet and building community as they go. Up until two years ago, Internet use was dominated by men, but in 2000, women and girls began taking it over and became not only the majority of users in the US, but also the fastest growing segment of new users worldwide. The style of this new community began to change and by August of 2002, Jupiter1 Research proclaimed, “The on-line gender gap is essentially closed.”

While women truly value community2 (often more than men do) they have not embraced the male dominated communities on the Web. This is most likely due to the difference between the way women and men view community. In general, women tend to see themselves as an integral part of a community of equals, while men see their place in community from the point of view of a hierarchy. Many women lose interest in chat rooms and forums as soon as they encounter flamers (people who just won’t stop pushing their points).

Some Women-centered sites (such as iVillage.com, Oxygen.com and Women.com) have attempted to build communities but many of their founders have abandoned them to the tender mercies of big businesses, who are beginning to pump out the same shallow fluff you find in most women’s magazines and driving women seeking meaningful community elsewhere.

General portals, such as MSN and AOL along with news portals, such as CNN, have had more success than the women-centered sites at attracting women. I believe this if for two reasons.

  1. Women seek information and products for the entire family, not just themselves. They respond very positively to one-stop-shopping that can offer everything from stock quotes to health tips to good deals on soccer uniforms.

  2. Women are very time sensitive and well organized portals get women what they need quickly and efficiently.

Women have also embraced email both at work and with family and friends. Many women report that email enhances their ability to make their points more effectively in the workplace, partly because of the fact that gender is not as obvious in an email, thereby removing some of the bias.3

Because women do most of the shopping and make most purchasing decisions for the home, retailers have come to realize that they must build Web spaces that appeal to women. Now they’re asking themselves, “What do women want from the Internet?” Not surprisingly, the answer is somewhat different from what men want.

So what do women want from the Web? My experience bears out what Dr. Clarisse Behar Molad says in Women.Weaving.Webs, “When experts are asked, ‘What do women want from the Web?’ their answer invariably is ‘convenience, utility and more time.’” Unlike men, women don’t necessarily find the Web fun. Their primary goal in using the Web is to save time. This may be due to the fact that women’s lives are far busier than they used to be, with jobs, children and home responsibilities all eating away at an ever shrinking amount of leisure time. There may be more women than men on the Web but they spend less time and visit fewer sites.

By contrast, men seem to enjoy surfing the Web. It’s like a game or puzzle. They like hunting for things and love to play games. Most men are fascinated by exploration and value knowledge for the sake of knowledge alone. We’ve recently encountered a new cyber-term, “bunny trails”, which refers to the many unintended places men end up while surfing the Web. To many men, the Web offers an experience that, for them, has intrinsic value even if nothing specific is accomplished.

These, of course, are broad generalizations, but they do illustrate the challenge faced by Web developers today who increasingly need to build sites that appeal both to women and men.

Before the Web was invented, my very first job as an adult thrust me into the middle of a similar challenge. Having been given the task of creating an expense reporting procedure for a Silicon Valley, high-tech company in 1985, I ran into the classic battle between sales and accounting and noticed something interesting. The sales department was all male, while the accounting department was all female. This nearly universal gender gap, which persists today, seemed to enflame the friction even further. The deceptively simple task of creating standard accounting procedures turned out to be an exercise in mediation, demanding particular attention to the different ways men and women communicate.

From the early 1980s through the mid 1990s, most computers in businesses were used by women, but programmed by men. Throughout my career, I have gravitated toward projects that require me to explain the needs of mostly female users to mostly male programmers and to design an intuitive user interface along with some sort of training. In so doing, I discovered a great divide between the project development and learning styles of men and women, which I refer to as the “intuition gap”. It is not at all that women have intuition and men do not, as some would have you believe. Rather, women's intuition differs from men's intuition. Indeed, each of us has both masculine and feminine traits and those traits each have their own intuition associated with them.

To begin with, when women attempt to express the problem and describe their vision of a solution to men, they frequently run into resistance, and the men often resort to the old New England expression, “can’t get there from here.” However, once you make it linear for them by showing the men one possible path from problem to solution, they’re hooked. And when you begin to hear, “Yeah, you could do it like that, or you could do it like this …” you know you’ve got them and challenge alone is enough to inspire them to make it work.

Once the men had built a solution, I would often hear women, who were trying out the beta version, swearing at the computer (yup, women swear too). Between the curses I’d hear, “What do I do now? Where do I go from here? What does that mean? How do I find the @!#%*&?” The male architects of the system would be amazed that the answers to these seemingly absurd questions weren’t intuitively obvious to those dense users.

The problem is that left to their own devices, most men in those days would build a deep, treelike navigation system (this leads to that, which leads to something else – on and on down the tree, four or five levels deep) based on logical connections they saw among the data. Connections that seemed obvious to male programmers were often lost completely on the female users. This is primarily because the male programmers thought in terms of what the data represents. (To use an oversimplified accounting example: you have customers, orders, products and parts.) By contrast, the female users of the system were more inclined to think in terms of their tasks. (For example, invoicing, producing statements, posting payments and balancing.) To make matters worse, women don’t like to go hunting for things. “If this is what I need to do, why isn’t it right up front?”

One solution, then as now, is to design navigational systems that enable the user to get from any one place directly to any other. (That is, without having to go back up one branch of a tree and down another.) At the time, this was much harder than it sounds today, partly because the concept itself stood in stark contrast to the prevailing 1980’s business programming style, known as “top-down”.

Enter the Web and object-oriented programming, both of which changed all that. The intuition gap still exists, but two other forces are beginning to converge. Roughly as many women use the Web as men, and serious business applications are being written to be used over the Web. These applications will be used equally by women and men, and thus, must be intuitive to both, presenting a profound challenge to developers responsible for the user interface (UI for short). In addition, retail sites essentially compete for women, whose on-line purchasing has skyrocketed over the past few years.

Since 1998, I have been engaged in developing Web sites, some of which are geared toward women, but most of which are used equally by women and men. I have discovered that Web sites, which are successful at appealing both to men and women, have been developed using the following principles:

Building Web sites is a collaborative effort and in our experience, we have also noticed a difference between the way our male and female clients react to the project. When designing brochure style Web sites (Web sites that promote one’s business over the Web) we find that women are more likely to see the Web site as a personal reflection. They are more likely to be emotionally attached to their Web presence and very much want everyone to like it and feel at home. Our female clients generally want to exercise more design control over the project than do our male clients. Women tend to demand that all navigation and links be obvious, even to the most inexperienced user. They also want their labels and captions bigger and bolder and often complain when, for the sake of design, we allow them to recede a bit into the background.

By contrast, unless they are designers themselves, our male clients tend not to want to spend much money or time on the design and are often more concerned with getting the information across in a way that makes their case to the site visitor in a convincing manner. Men who participate most in the design process tend to prefer a busier, collage style with lots of special effects, over the simple, solid color designs preferred by our female clients.

But men tend not to worry as much about the links and the navigation being absolutely obvious. In fact, we find that they rather like being surprised to discover that moving the mouse over some image has an unanticipated effect. One of our clients even asked that his site appear to do certain things spontaneously and randomly, as he put it, “just to keep the user interested”.

When designing Web Applications, we noticed the same differences between men and women as we did for brochure sites, with one major addition. When budget constraints force a choice between flexibility and control, women tend to choose flexibility and men tend to choose control. This, of course, did not surprise us in the least.

Our understanding of what attracts women and men to the Web has grown significantly over the past few years. I predict that, as the Web evolves, we will see more sites that thrive on serving visitors of both sexes and we will learn more about ourselves in the process. Could it be that by using Web sites, which have been designed to be intuitive for both men and women, we will learn to integrate the masculine and feminine parts of ourselves into a more complete whole?

Notes:


1JupiterResearch, Market Forecast Report "Portrait of the Online Population Through 2007", August 2, 2002

2Molad, Dr., Clarisse. Women.Weaving.Webs. Houston, TX: CBM Press, 2000

3Simmons Graduate School of Management, "Businesswomen Say Online Communication Gives Them More Power," Boston, MA: May 2001 http://interestalert.com/brand/siteia.shtml?Story=st/wk/06080000aaa04a27.napr&Sys=techdivas&Fid=WOMNEWS&Type=Work&Src=nlh&Filter=Women