Tuesday, 13 May 2008

Women are not small men!

Developing the targeted channel experience

I was recently reading up on consumer trends and one that caught my eye was the trend towards businesses focusing on the female oriented experience. You've probably already come across taxi firms catering for female customers with female drivers like Lady Mini Cabs in Archway, and of course Sheila's Wheels with its cringeworthy adverts on TV, but it goes much deeper. Pink Ladies is a women only car hire company, Bud Light targets the female audience as does the Rosee version of Hoegarden, and there are any number of female focused sports and leisure businesses like Outdoor Divas with its excellent tagline that I've stolen for the title of this post.

Anyway, this post is not about listing businesses for women (you can read more on that at http://www.trendwatching.com/trends/femalefever.htm) but about making the point that the online male v female experience is not only lagging behind, but once again following physical norms rather than thinking freely and outside the box. Standard Chartered Bank for example has a women only store in India, but has no variation in web exerience. Where stores cater for both men and women, the majority of sites use a one-size fits all design and user-experience approach just like the high street; or you sometimes get sub-sites or variations in design when you enter sections with content specific only to women. This is just like walking into a shop that is split down the middle. Men's clothes on the right and women's on the left with maybe a different colour scheme.

We think differently, browse differently, buy different things, and process information differently so why do we have to work through the same web experience? The whole point of customisation is that businesses understand that one-size never really fits all. It just forces the consumer to accommodate the environment. Unlike the physical store however, nothing limits us from developing user specific websites. With the shift to CSS2, not just presentation but also layout is split from content. It really isn't that difficult to identify and target audience groups and then automate the experience and interface presented for all content, especially for sites where users are logged-in. And even if they aren't, "Are you male or female?" is hardly a long questionnaire to present a user when they arrive at your website.

This is not about being simplistic and changing the colour of web-sites from blue to pink, but about researching and understanding real differences in presentation needs and then developing audience specific features to engage and interact with visitors on their own terms. We are still some way from real time evolution of websites based on the way the user journeys through them (although with improvements in business intelligence and web analytics this may change), and we know that allowing users to select their own preferences is just that little bit too much work for most browsers who will never really bother, so the onus falls on businesses and their user-experience experts to develop a deeper understanding of their user groups and build a dialogue with them on their own terms.

In summary then, gender preferences are clearer than any other demographical difference so instead of the one size fits all approach, why dont we look to tailor the web experience based on the way we browse? It's ok to have women only websites but so far I haven't seen any that allow users to choose a different browsing and information experience based on their age or sex categories. The fear factor here is probably political correctness, but as web technologies get more sophisticated in terms of audience targeting, I'm guessing that it is going to happen at some point so why not be brave and get a jump on the competition?

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