Forget A/B Testing. Do M/F Testing [Designing User Interfaces for Different Genders].

Here’s a plain and obvious truth: men and women are very different. We have different interests and motivations. These differences become apparent when we are kids. By the age of three, young boys start playing with make-believe swords and guns, and my nieces started having imaginary friends and conversations.

These differences are apparent even in monkeys.  In the modern world, the roles men and women take on as adults – of technology workers, business owners, parents – overlap and are not as starkly different as they were in the past. Men and women are educated and join the workforce in similar numbers and similar capacities, and with equal success. But that does not mean that we are now identical in how we think and what we like and desire.

I authored a widely discussed book about sexual desire for which we analyzed the fantasies and desires of millions of men and women around the world. The picture that emerged couldn’t be clearer: men and women are fundamentally different.  And yet, we create user interfaces as if they weren’t.  We forget that interfaces and web design we come across were designed by men in tune with their own tastes, which leaves women out of the picture. That’s fifty percent of your clientele. Why is that?

The web has seen such remarkable growth and is so pervasive in our lives now – who remembers life before Google and Youtube? – that it is quite easy to forget it’s only a few years removed from its teens. Many of the discoveries made in the real, brick and mortar and paper world are yet to make their way into the digital one. Consider this panel of images.


One the left are covers of Vogue, a magazine catering to women. On the right are covers of Esquire, a magazine catering to men. The two magazines, both catering to the upper crust, have been in continuous publications for a combined two centuries. Enough time, presumably, to intimately understand their audiences and cater to their tastes.

Go on, take a minute to look over these covers. What do you see?

The Vogue covers are more consistent in their use of images and text. The density of text and the fonts are pretty consistent. Esquire covers are more playful in comparison, mixing up the interplay of fonts and figures.  (And Esquire also features hot women on their cover, D’uh ) Over a long period of empirical, real-world testing and stylistic choices, these magazines have discovered that their audiences have different interests. Hardly shocking.

Is the topic covered?
No, the bigger factor is the demographic differences. One caters to men, another caters to women. Pick up any magazine off the rack and you will notice the same pattern in aesthetic choices, depending on which sex it caters. These differences become even more apparent in retail stores and visual merchandising decisions at play in a Christian Louboutin boutique or a Savile Row tailor’s store. Or, for that matter, a Fab India or a Raymond’s. None of these differences are surprising.

And yet, the lessons learned here have been lost in translation in the online world.

The online storefront presents the same facade to the shopper, male or female. Considering the advances made and technical effort expended in A/B testing even marginal changes, this is surprising. Worse still,  the online store remains unvarying and does not take advantage of the freedom and fluidity afforded by pixels – you can rearrange them without incurring a cost!   OK, so you now realize men and women are different, and you want to cater to their different tastes, but you obviously don’t want to spend two centuries stumbling around to arrive at a solution. What do you do? How do you figure out what men want and what women want?

Surprisingly, erotica has a whole lot to say about this.  Unless you live under a rock, you will realize that men watch porn and women read romance novels. Now, there are many who flout these stereotypes , but these are stereotypes because they are a ready short-hand for statistically accurate averages. So just as we can say men are taller than women (on average), we can say men watch porn and women read romance novels.

That’s sort of obvious, isn’t it. What’s really interesting is how they watch, read, or consume. Men are goal-driven and seek out novelty. Women are interested in the nuance and complexity. Men spend two minutes flipping through images or videos where women spend hours reading about the tender feelings of the protagonist and the context and character of his feelings. And here’s a crucially important one: men indulge in their interests in isolation as individuals, but for women it is inherently social.
They have long, intense group discussions where they tease apart the subtleties of the character they are interested in. One of stickiest sites on the web is, where young women write, read, and discuss stories about their favorite characters (like Edward the Vampire from Twilight or Christian Grey from Fifty Shades of Grey).  And there are many more differences. To put in a convenient nutshell, men are individuals on quests, and women are social creatures who value community, sharing, and communication.

Now that you know this, you will realize why the usual gamification strategies of offering badges and points don’t work with women. The strategy that does work is one of harnessing the social, communicative element, which Farmville accomplished so brilliantly.

There are other examples worth considering. Pinterest, the fastest site in history to break the ten million unique user barrier, is hugely popular with women – an astounding 97% of its regular users are women – and is essentially a scrapbook that allows women to hit all the interests we just listed: sharing, community, communication. Pinterest is easily the most natural and dominant platform for communication and commerce for women on the web. And yet, people assume it’s success is simply a result of it being visual and easy to understand.

On the other side of unfortunate misses, you have Google Plus, which now resembles a deserted town in the Wild West – it’s last remaining residents are keyboard cowboys interested in holding forth about their own wonderful and great ideas and less interested in communication, sharing, and discussion as equals.  Google Plus was a male designer’s reaction to his interests in separate hierarchies and tribes writ large.  Women communicate differently and with greater emotional sophistication. Who needs circles when you could simply send messages to a smaller group of friends? When you misunderstand the fundamental nature of social communication of an audience that is inherently more social (women), and focus on one that is individualistic and driven by quests (men), you are doomed.

It is the nature of the marketplace that these lessons will re-discovered and re-learned as competitors pick up on what works and what doesn’t and the multitude of random steps taken average out to a march in the right direction. But, equipped with this obvious yet secret knowledge, you could be the one leading that procession. So, let this be your mantra: Men are individuals on quests. Women are social creatures who value community, sharing, and communication.

And design accordingly.

[About the author: Guest post by Dr. Sai Gaddam, Founder, Kernel Insights and author of A Billion Wicked Thoughts. He is also the creator of the MakkhiChoose browser plug-in]

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