Why we need more women in product development teams
By Ashwini Deshpande
I was rewarded with an HMT Suchitra 40 years ago, back when parents gifted wristwatches to their children on securing good marks in the 10th grade. However, a pang of disappointment coursed through me when I realised that it didn’t have a focus on function — the date and day displays were missing — but on form instead. Although not particularly focussed on gender equality at that time (I was 14), it did occur to me that dates were regarded as ‘unimportant’ to a girl’s life. But then I came across a list of ‘25 Best Wristwatch Brands for Women’ recently, and precisely four of those had a date indicator, while one single watch incorporated a display for the day.
User at the centre
Watches have seen an evolution, where they’re now regarded as functional objects/ crucial lifestyle accessories, as opposed to simply being status symbols. But the needle of parity as far as functionality is concerned has barely moved. Assuming that some research goes into the process of watchmaking, is it true that women value sleekness/ aesthetics/ minimalistic body work over technical, functional aspects? A few years ago, I came across an advertisement for refrigerators proudly announcing that their products were designed with inputs from women in the team. This eliminated unnecessary bending and back pains that are prevalent otherwise. Did this mean that for years they were being designed without considering the primary users’ convenience?
Let us talk about something more intimate: the bra. Here are some revelations for those who don’t wear one: In 2014, Rudy Ribbon, a new-age US-based intimate wear brand talked to over 3,000 women to understand their attitudes towards bras. A staggering 92% of the respondents said they just want support and comfort; 21% rated their bra “an enemy I wish I had never met”; and nearly half said, “a business partner I put up with”. When asked to describe their bra in one word, the most popular term was ‘uncomfortable’.
Now, Rudy Ribbon utilised this data (in addition to other surveys) to completely eliminate wire-based bras from their range of products, to develop a bra replacement — the camisole. They sold over 500,000 units of this by 2018 alone.
What women want
After having worked in the field of user-centred design for over 30 years, I can safely conclude that gender has an impact on decision making processes. I believe there are four key dimensions that cement women’s relationships with products.
Functionality: if the object has to perform certain function/s, how well is it doing that? Is it increasing efficiency? Does it work for me? Then comes aesthetics: does it align with my aesthetic preferences of colour, texture, shape and scale? Do I like the way it looks and feels?
Then there’s interaction: is it easy to use/ instal/ operate/ interact with/ maintain? And finally, communication: does it seem like the brand understands my pain points/ needs/desires, and does it provide a solution? Is the tone of the brand voice resonating with me?
The bottom line is that all of these considerations are integral when it comes to understanding women, their decisions and the value systems that lie beneath them. So, even if the end goal is to simply boost business, there is only one way forward.
This is not just true about cars, white goods, mobile phones or office chairs. I know of lingerie or femcare brands that have no women in their product development teams. When women are purchasing goods/ products/ services or are making purchase-oriented decisions, it is imperative to consider their points of view. Sounds like a no-brainer, but does it really happen that way?
The author is co-founder and director, Elephant Design