Saving good women from bad design: mindsets matter

Design Director
New York

Despite women’s burgeoning economic power, brands continue to over-simplify their approach to creating products and services for women, chasing “female” dollars through a narrow, generational lens. Whether it’s Millennials, Digital Natives, Gen X, or Baby Boomers – companies are crafting products specifically aimed at these generational segments. The reality is that everyone is different and human-centered design is deeper than a generational lens: it’s a necessary approach to designing successful products and services for women today.

A powerful new wave of women is aiming to save good women from bad design. They include Hirumi Nanayakkara from littleBits, Helen Steed from Glossier, Gabrielle Guthrie from Moxxly and Melissa Cullens from Ellevest: four leading-edge designers who I interviewed, at a Women in Innovation event hosted at Smart Design. These creative leads understand that successful female-centered design is about creating meaningful products and services that are holistically in tune with a woman’s mindset, and with the context in which she lives her life. By using design as a tool to tap into the realities of a woman’s life including her unmet needs, they are experiencing huge success.

Here are four principles that they embrace when it comes to designing for women:

Don’t get boxed in on gender issues

Gender as a concept is increasingly fluid, with younger men and women more open to seeing gender as a spectrum, embracing opposite gender aspects of their personalities. Marketers need to be sharply attuned to shifts in how each new generation thinks about gender.

littleBits – a platform of easy-to-use electronic building blocks empowering everyone to create inventions – is a great example of a brand that lets young people pick the experience that reflects their identity, whether that’s gender fluid, female, male or anywhere in-between. Interestingly, dads have become the purchasers of littleBits for their kids – a shift from moms. Hirumi Nanayakkara, brand and experience lead at littleBits, explains that by not inflicting identity politics on children, they are free to explore, play and learn with an open, confident and instinctive mindset. This is critical to fostering creativity and confidence in the next generation of leaders, particularly as STEM education becomes a priority for young women.

Get up close and personal

Creating products and services that have a special place in women’s lives is far from simple. Design and business challenges are more complex than ever, reflecting how women live today. Women don’t live in one ‘mode’ which can be the default view of designers – that they are professionals or stay at home moms. The reality is, they live in multiple ‘modes’ and the problems they face are often networked, social, responsible and emotional. Brands need to be thinking more thoughtfully about women’s multi-dimensional needs, and use design as a tool to address the ever-present gaps. Whatever service or brand we create needs to take that into consideration.

Beauty is an overcrowded category that has traditionally marketed to women in very narrow ways. Yet newcomer Glossier has taken a distinctly different approach both in redefining beauty and in developing an alternative path to engaging with its audience. Using a direct-to-consumer model, Glossier’s pared down, highly edited collection of core essentials is based on the premise of a ‘no makeup, makeup’ look.

In an age where social reigns, creative director Helen Steed leverages social and other marketing channels as conversation tools to reinforce the audience’s desires, and reflect back what they are saying. Glossier’s positive branding reflects its down-to-earth real world positioning, with messages such as “Skin First. Makeup Second. Smile Always”.

This desire to stay close to consumers is also reflected in Glossier’s hiring of eleven of their most engaged commentators as formal company representatives.

Challenge past and current assumptions

Despite the fact that meeting women’s needs today is more complex than ever, many traditionally ‘female’ product and service categories are stuck in the past. Take the breast pump, which hasn’t gone through a significant redesign since it was first brought to market in the 70s – an era when far fewer working mums were employed full-time. Moxxly co-founder & creative director Gabrielle Guthrie recognized that existing breast pumps no longer served the modern mom, who is looking for products that are as beautiful as they are functional. So, they reimagined the breast pump for working women. Moxxly is a connected, stylish, high performing breast pump that allows working moms to pump wherever they are, with their shirts still on, while receiving real-time data about their breast milk supply. The aim is to deliver the breast pump experience that working mothers need. So much of motherhood can be unpredictable; Moxxly wants to make breast pumping one less issue for women to worry about, helping them to go about their working day with more confidence.

This level of sophistication requires a deep level of insight into women’s needs that traditional product development approaches don’t allow for. Designers like Gabrielle are challenging long-held assumptions about a mother’s needs and desires, and using human-centered design techniques as a way of tapping into the unrecognized, unmet needs in the marketplace.

Hire more women!

All too often design teams are dominated by men, who can have an outdated or incomplete understanding of women’s needs. By contrast, the startups I interviewed at the Women in Innovation have employed female designers to drive innovation efforts, and deliver what’s most relevant to women today.

Take Ellevest, a digital investment platform that is redefining the investment industry by looking to close the financial gender gap between men and women. According to Ellevest’s chief design officer Melissa Cullens, financial services products traditionally skew towards the male and default to men’s salaries, career paths, preferences, and lifespans. By contrast, Ellevest is designed exclusively with women in mind: its algorithms are optimized to incorporate traits that are specific to women. These include factors such as women’s lifespan typically being five years longer than men’s, limitations in career earnings due to common gender pay gaps, and other possible influences such as extended employment breaks due to pregnancy.

littleBits, Glossier, Moxxly and Ellevest are examples of women-founded brands led by female creatives, who have used their emotional intelligence to understand how to help other women achieve their goals.  The lessons from these brands show us that to meet women’s real life needs and desires, good design should be nuanced and filled with meaning.  By practicing human-centered design, and truly understanding the people they are designing for, these brands are helping to demystify categories ranging from beauty to breast pumps, that have traditionally missed the mark when it comes to targeting women with meaningful products and services.

With thanks to our event partners, the delightful Women In Innovation team.