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More women needed in interface design

About a month ago, I wrote a post titled “Worst Phone UI Ever,” in which I vented my frustrations over the general lack of phone-ness on the Cingular 8125. Since that column, most people running start ups to develop mobile phone software and services have been a little sheepish when they come to tell be about their products. Remarkably, most of these folks have a much better grasp of UI than do the well-resourced Cingular and its OEM partner, HTC.

In fact, I’ve downloaded a number of these smart applets to my 8125. What the phone’s file system has done with those downloads I can only guess, but let’s just say that Microsoft’s old saw about the flexibility of a general and open computing platform on the phone really only rings true if you can actually use the general and open computing platform to run other applications. On this device, it couldn’t be any harder to do so.

I could go on about the further “dumb design” discoveries I’ve made since I wrote that article. The Windows Mobile 5 software, for example, doesn’t recognize a phone number in a calendar appointment and enable click-to-call. The call log will tell you who called and when, but makes it nearly impossible to quickly capture a caller ID into a contact record. And the not-quite QWERTY keypad on the device doesn’t easily support the Windows key commands that are absolutely necessary to capture and move data from one part of an application to another.

But, while further venting does help my spleen, that’s not what I want to talk about this week. It’s just that this unfortunate UI spawned an interesting e-mail last week from a gent named Troy Thompson.

Troy is the IT director for Faith Technologies, Inc. in Appleton, Wisc., and he had a rather thoughtful view on why my review of this device was so divergent from the bloggers who have waxed poetic about it.
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Out the gate, Troy professed that his conclusions were “not intended to be sexist at all, but as a woman, you probably perceive things differently.”

I have to admit I started to sputter as I read on . . .

“Many of the users in our sales team are men, but a few are women. We are going through a software conversion and it is utterly amazing how concerned the women in this group are with the interface. They make very useful comments regarding placement of fields on screens and are quick to point out what would look better (and function better) regarding the reports. So, kudos for fitting my stereotype.”

Just as the sputtering had me reaching for the delete key, Troy’s message continued: “How do we get more women involved in user interface design? We men sometimes don't realize how much better the world would be if women designed ... we men have weakness and need to admit it!!! ‘You go girl!’”

My mental picture of Troy didn’t include the cheerleading chant “You go girl” (likely a statement about my sexist proclivities), but his comments did puncture my image of how products are tested. I guess I assumed that designers simply failed to test their products at all, or if they did, they tested them among twenty-something, geekish guys. I’d focused on the experience of the test set – engineers pre-disposed to complexity, and not the gender-imposed bias of the test set.

We laugh at jokes about men failing to ask for directions because there is a seed a truth in the stereotype (just as, I’m willing to admit, there are seeds of truth in the stereotypes of women, too). With that foreknowledge, though, why do we ask men to test products intended for mass consumer markets? A guy is going to tinker with a new mobile phone or a Slingbox or a GPS or any other gadget, deeming it the coolest, greatest thing even if he can’t figure out how to work with it. In fact, figuring out how it works is more than half the fun. The more complex, the better. After days of fussing with some new device, a guy can declare himself a genius for figuring out a dumb design.

Women, on the other hand, can’t be bothered. Products ought to work and work well. A woman will use the tools that work well, save time, money, and personal energy. If kitchen appliances had interfaces as confusing as those on mobile phones, most women will still be cooking over open fires. Women don’t do complexity for complexity’s sake. Convenience really ought to be convenient.

So Troy has me thinking that there ought to be a women-centric design ethos. With the exception of those products designed for men only, women should be at the forefront of product testing and interface design. If that were to happen, I think we’d see more products that just work well. Retailers would see a dramatic reduction in product returns. Vendor companies would experience a substantial reduction in call center volume from customers who can’t get products to work. And we’d all be much happier technology users.

Yep, I think Troy is on to something.

Chris Shipley is the executive producer of NetworkWorld's DEMO Conferences, Editor of DEMO Letter, and a technology industry analyst for nearly 20 years. She can be reached at chris@demo.com. Shipley, has covered the personal technology business since 1984, and is regarded as one of the top analysts covering the technology industry today. Shipley has worked as a writer and editor for variety of technology consumer magazines, including PC Week, PC Magazine, PC/Computing, and InfoWorld, US Magazine, and Working Woman. She has written two books on communications and Internet technology, has won numerous awards for journalistic excellence, and was named the No. 1 newsletter editor by Marketing Computers for two years in a row. To subscribe to DEMOletter please visit: http://www.idgexecforums.com/demoletter/index.html.

This column was reprinted with permission of Network World Inc. All registered trademarks are owned by IDG. More information can be found at http://www.idgef.com.

Copyright 2006 IDG. All rights Reserved

The opinions expressed herein or statements made in the above column are solely those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Wisconsin Technology Network, LLC. (WTN). WTN, LLC accepts no legal liability or responsibility for any claims made or opinions expressed herein.

Comments

Rebecca Morrison responded 8 years ago: #1

Finally someone has the where-with-all to state the obvious. Now, if only the technology industry, one in which I've been involved in for 10 years, would see the light and let us break through the preverbial glass ceiling!!

Jim Just responded 7 years ago: #2

Couldn't agree more. While we're at it, let's vote women as the head of every country in the world - simultaneously - and get the testosterone out of the politics of war. I, too, am one of those "easy like a copier" guys -- I just can't afford to spend hours learning how to use a gadget that will "save me time"; hours learning, then forgetting most of it a week later. Let's get back to tight, purposeful code and GUI's that make sense, not just look good.

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