A big player in the tech field asked us to develop product concepts for emerging markets. They suggested we interview women from those areas to see what kind of technology could be built to meet their needs. We knew focus groups or one-on-one interviews conducted in the U.S. would not yield the most accurate portrait of users’ needs. Instead, we needed to witness firsthand their everyday lives.
True Ethnographic Research
We decided the best way to learn about the technology needs of women in targeted emerging economies was to immerse ourselves in their culture. We arranged to go on volunteer trips to India and Brazil with a company called Cross Cultural Solutions. Cross Cultural Solutions provides volunteers the opportunity to learn about the culture and history, and the chance to work side-by-side with and for the local community.
In India, Jody spent a month teaching basic English and computer skills to women in the Delhi slums. For two weeks in Brazil, the team worked in the favellas of North East Brazil in Salvador. This city is experiencing a major growth of its working class as the new manufacturing hub of South America. Being women and working directly with women in these cultures gave us a unique vantage point. Truly contextual research. As close to inside as we could get.
Leaving the U.S. to do this research yielded surprising findings, ones we may not have otherwise noticed. There is a duality in emerging economies between analog and digital, which has a direct impact on how we need to think about designing technology for these cultures. Unlike countries with developed economies, countries with emerging economies are still largely analog societies. While cell phones are omni-present, computers and networks are not. This is especially true among the working classes who are soon to surge as the middle class of these emergent economies.
As designers, we take for granted the paradigms our technology is rooted in. In the U.S., the computer interface is a baseline that most technology companies build from. We do not, for example, choose to deviate much from UI standards such as “file” and “edit”, and we tend to see menus or toolbar as simplicity. It is the predominant metaphor in developed countries, but it isn’t a metaphor that emerging countries, which have less exposure to computers, are attached to. Essentially, that computer interface baseline is a barrier that we as omni-users of technology don’t notice. Looking at the analog nature of these economies, and the prevalence of NUI technologies available, it would make sense to develop products that leapfrog past existing interface metaphors.
Safety is also a concern, more so in these emerging cultures. In India people are in near constant proximity to each other at all times when outside the home. Women do not travel alone in public and they travel on women-only train cars because of pick-pocketing, groping and targeted harassment. In Brazil, Jennifer and Jody were warned that if they showed anything of value in public it would be stolen. Due to a real danger and prevalence of kidnapping, volunteers were instructed to avoid leaving the house alone after dark and told not go to any ATM after bank hours. These safety concerns have implications for how conspicuous technology should be, especially technology designed for women.
Designing for Women
In emerging economies, women are the pivot point between digital and analog worlds; tradition and modern life; family and the outside world. Women of all generations are experiencing revolutionary new access to education. In Brazil, it was common for entire families of women to be attending the same school, learning the same subjects, only at different times of the day. Women in these countries very rarely, if ever, live alone; instead they live with family until they are married and living with their husbands and, most likely, his family. So while many women work outside the home, they occupy a uniquely prominent role in the family structure. They manage their own lives and the lives of their multigenerational family members. As a result, women serve as the family’s coordinator of education, technology, health care and the outside world. This became important to our design solutions.
We also refined some universal truths about designing for women. There are many commonly cited issues with designing for women, from forgetting that we are “women”, not “girls” to thinking that making a product pink automatically feminizes it enough for us to buy it. The following basic insights can go a long way in informing design for women.
Women use bags more than pockets, so products should be designed with this in mind. Small, slick objects get lost in women’s bags. Creating an object that can be easily found in a bag or that can be operated tactilely will be appealing to women.
Also, women wear jewelry, opening up the market to small wearable devices that can, and should, be both stylish and functional.
Women use a lot of new technology, more than most people think. Studies show that older women dominate the user market for new digital devices. Technologists and designers should reconsider for whom they are designing, and they should explore what older women want in devices, none of which should involve time-consuming interface.
Women think spatially. They perform best when given the opportunity to understand spatial relationships. They rely on real-world spatial cues such as landmarks and lighting cues to process digital information. Devices that allow women to create and understand spatial relationships will be especially appealing to women.
While we aren’t able to share with you our design solutions, we’re sure that you’ll be seeing their impact in our partner’s very near future products. Suffice it to say, we highly recommend volunteering abroad as a method of investigation, discovery, and inspiration.