I found a TED Talk by Rory Sutherland (an ad agency veteran from Ogilvy) called Sweat the Small Stuff, where he argues that some of the best solutions are also the simplest and least expensive. Mr. Sutherland says that the challenge is:
“…the tendency of the organization or the institution is to deploy as much force as possible … whereas actually the tendency of the person is to be almost influenced in absolute reverse proportion to the amount of force being applied.”
Since everything I do these days is seen in context of this research project, I couldn’t help but think of how a lot of what I read/hear from interviews says that women see detail in ways that often escape men. While I couldn’t find any “numbers” research on this, the results of the countless interviews, focus groups and surveys conducted by the women who have spent their lives in this space suggest this is true. In many ways, I think this issue is exactly what most executives (read, mostly men) are getting wrong in the marketing of their products and services to women — they throw a ton of money at problems where simplicity is often the best solution.
I see two areas of “detail weakness”…
User interface (or UX for those who like to show that they’re in the know) is the way an individual interacts with a product. Most often used in web development, the term is finally making its way into product design. The most recent example I saw happened this weekend when I saw a cup holder on the side of a baby car seat — while I totally understand the reason (sippy cup, snack holder, etc.) it’s something I never would have thought to include (remember, I’m a single guy who’s an only child and has only passing thoughts of ever having children). User interface is also mentioned by all of the marketing to women professionals — women want products that work with minimal effort, are ergonomically designed for how they use them, and have straightforward controls that don’t take a of learning to use (the web version of this is convincingly argued in the book Don’t Make Me Think). Often, these problems are not solved with multimillion dollar budgets, but with creative thinking.
I have my own low-budget test for this. There are two people in my life who serve as my “if they can get it, anyone can get it” guinea pigs: I go to my mom to test my web interfaces and instruction manuals; and another friend (who shall remain nameless) for product assembly/use. I give a set of instructions and, if they can find it/accomplish the task, I feel confident that it will work for nearly anyone.
Promotion (Ads, PR, etc.)
Women often complain that they’re not adequately represented in the advertisements they see and roughly 35% of them are actually insulted by the way advertisers reach out to them. I don’t think this is a budget problem, it’s a detail problem.
I’ve been guilty of this. While working on a consumer product, I hired an ad agency to build a look-and-feel, including some photography that showed attractive models (two female, one male) using/wearing the product. The company sold to both men and women (a rougly 60/40 man-to-woman ratio), so the design was supposed to lean male, but not too much as to exclude anyone. The photography came back and I (i.e. my testosterone-fueled self) was in love. There was one particular shot that showed the two women facing the camera, but chest-to-chest, with one of the women’s hand on the other’s shoulder. I thought it was sensual without being over-the-top.
“So, I guess we’re using gorgeous lesbians as our marketing strategy”, my 22-year-old female marketing assistant said (herself a runway model). She hated the entire shoot. I dismissed her concerns as being ridiculous. “We need to be a little bit edgy, especially with our audience skewing male … besides, it’s a good aspirational shot for women … isn’t that critical?”, I responded. She snorted and didn’t talk to me for a week. Guess what? I was wrong. We backtracked and used the far less sexy images — while they were still a little too edgy, we were able to use some of the shots without totally abandoning our investment. I think that’s a great example of our male-centered world being “normal” to us, but not not women.
So what’s the point?
Sometimes, you don’t need a gazillion-dollar marketing initiative to tease out the little design details that make the difference between a usable product that sells and one that frustrates your users and gets a two-star feedback rating on Amazon.com. Here are a few ideas how:
- The customer is the target, not you — This is the greatest challenge for designers and ad executives. We often huff and puff that, if our customer can’t figure it out on their own, they’re not smart enough to buy our product. Well, unfortunately for that kind of team, they are smart people — smart enough to take your product back if it doesn’t work the way they think it should. My college Chemistry professor said, “KISS … Keep It Simple Stupid”. It was great advice.
- Take Mr. Sutherland’s advice and hire a Chief Detail Officer — Designate someone who looks at the world just a little bit differently — an outsider not caught up in the minutiae of what you do on a daily basis — and have them look at what you do. Does it make sense to them? Can they understand how to use it immediately? Do they ask questions like, “why doesn’t it have/do/look like/feel like [fill-in-the-blank]”? Pay attention to their reactions and have the humility to realize that you/your team/your engineers might not have all the answers (or you’re answering the wrong questions). Want real honesty? Ask a twelve-year-old and pay attention to what she thinks is stupid.
- Eliminate the budget — Perhaps this is my start-up bias, but cash-strapped companies with products just coming to market have to be obsessive about usability. For instance, I’m involved in a project now that will require roughly $100,000 to get off the ground, with a considerable amount of that cost related to having injection molds made. We don’t have the type of money to go back to the drawing board and make five or six molds before we have our final product — we have to get it right on the first shot. That means obsessive testing at every step of the design process and constant feedback from potential users. What would you change if you didn’t have a budget? What are the simple things (color-coding, obvious on-off switches, directional arrows) that can be done to eliminate confusion?
It’s incredibly simple to make it simple, it’s just not very easy. Find others with a different perspective on the world, ask questions and step back from your own place to come up with ways to make your products, and our lives, easier and better.
(Rory Sutherland video after the jump)