The Questions | Femme Den | Smart Design

DECEMBER 2008—In advance of an IDSA-sponsored presentation that Smart Design’s Femme Den group will deliver in Las Vegas at the 2009 CES, this edition of the WHOSNEXT series engages with the group and drills into the challenges of being a female consumer as well as the design opportunities their currently unmet needs present.

What is the Femme Den and how did it come about?

The Femme Den is an internal movement at Smart Design dedicated to studying gender through design. Our independent research and expertise enables a deeper understanding on how men and women approach products and experiences. We believe that designing with ideas and methodologies that appeal to women, we can devise design solutions that are more appealing to everyone.

The Femme Den was founded three years ago by Agnete Enga (Norway), Gina Reimann (UK), Erica Eden (US) and Yvonne Lin (US).

It started with a client coming to us specifically asking to work with female designers. This client was experiencing difficulties connecting with their female audience, and since they had an all-male design team they realized they were lacking a female perspective.

That project made us take a closer look at products out on the market and we realized that modern-day women’s real needs are often not taken into account in the product development process, and some companies even fail to realize that women actually use their products. Given that approximately 85% of the industry is male, we thought something had to be done and that this gap needed to be filled. As a result, the four of us started to meet after work and on weekends to talk about what would later become the Femme Den. Once our point of view was clear, we approached the upper management at Smart Design and they have supported us 100% ever since. We are continuing to develop our vision and creating a knowledge base, and have participated in several conferences worldwide to inspire companies to make their products more relevant to women.

Can each of you describe the individual disciplines you represent and/or the product categories in which your individual experiencelies?

Erica: I have worked on a variety of different design projects but specialize in the home environment. My expertise in design strategy and trend research has helped guide multiple design projects. Clients I have worked with in the past have been World Kitchen, OXO, Omron, and Church & Dwight.

Agnete: I have been working on a wide range of projects, including various consumer electronics, housewares and medical devices as well as trend research and fashion. Clients I have worked with in the past are OXO, Hewlett-Packard (HP), Microsoft and Nike.

Gina: I enjoy working in the areas of consumer electronics, medical devices and kitchen tools. Clients I have worked with include Hewlett-Packard, Panasonic, Philips and Intel.

Yvonne: I have worked on several projects in the fields of sports, consumer electronics, toys, housewares and fashion. Clients I have worked with in the past have included Nike, Johnson & Johnson, Tefal, Hewlett-Packard and First Response.

What factors explain why so few women work in industrial design?

We have been trying to find specific statistics on this issue, but have, for the most part, been unsuccessful. We do know, however, that roughly 50% of the industrial design students in the US are females, but that they represent only about 15% of the industry. We believe that since an industrial design education creates many opportunities for its students, many women may be going into communications, fashion or interior design. Women could also be moving towards design research and strategy, perhaps because women tend to be more interested in figuring out how people work, rather than how products work.

Is there a single, agreed upon persona that neatly encapsulates the average female consumer?

There is definitely not one persona that identifies the average female consumer. This is what most brands fail to realize. Some of our clients tend to oversimplify women and view them as a homogenous group, usually naming all women ”soccer moms.” This is the wrong approach, especially when the boundaries between genders are blurring and females are doing what was traditionally known as male tasks. It is important to realize that women are diverse. There is a huge range of differences we must consider, from class and race, to lifestyle and career choices.

Even though women are diverse we have identified five guidelines for how to better connect with all women. They are:

  • Give her benefits, not features
  • Consider the experience
  • Consider her body
  • Consider her life cycle
  • Consider how it makes her feel.

Is there a prototypically good product experience that bestserves the needs and desires of female consumers? If so, how does it succeed?

 The HP 375 printer is a great example.

With this printer, HP changed its focus towards women and created an award-winning and best selling product. Early photo printers made quality prints and were loaded with features and buttons. But something was missing. Then the team realized that women were the primary caretakers of family photos. The 375 printer focuses on the benefits for women. First, the printer integrates into their lifestyle by being portable. There is no need to connect to a computer so they can share photos wherever they go. Second, knowing how busy women’s lives can get, it was intuitive to use and easy to understand, so there is no need to read a big manual in order to know how to operate it. Third, the design language is friendly and approachable. This is an example of how we designed around the needs of women but made a product that works for everyone. The 375 has become one of HP’s best selling products.

What are the most commonly madedesign mistakesthat inadvertentlydisrespect female consumers?

The biggest mistake we have seen is treating women like a special interest group with post-design consideration, like color and finish. We call this the “shrink it and pink it” approach. We have also seen women be turned off by products that are visibly designed and marketed to them. This is compounded by designs that oversimplify their real needs and focus only on aesthetics.

What product categories offer the best opportunities for designers who want to design progressively for female consumers?

Almost every category in product design can benefit from a deeper understanding of women, being that they make up to 80% of consumer purchases. Some of the most obvious opportunities we have observed include the sports and car industries.  

Yvonne and our new member, Whitney Hopkins, recently presented at the Outdoor Retailer Show in Salt Lake City, UT. The primary message to that industry was that their approach in attracting females was wrong, very wrong. The industry tends to divide women into two groups, women who want decorative products and hard-core athletes who care only about function. The first group gets the “shrink it and pink it” type of products, such as smaller, low-quality snow boards with pink floral graphics. The hard-core women, who are seriously pursuing their sports, may get quality design but lack any consideration on aesthetics.

We have learned that women want BOTH high-quality products that are well-designed and fit well into their lifestyle. We’ve heard time and time again (and we feel this way ourselves) women saying “We want to kick butt in our sport, but we also want to look cute while doing it.” And when we say cute we don’t mean pink and with flowers. We want high performance, good fit, fashion and sleek design. We want to keep it feminine, but in a bold way.

The most crucial mistake in sporting design is that designers overlook the physical differences between genders. Male and female bodies start diverging as they enter puberty and adapt to the loads they have to bear as adults. For instance, girls’ hipbones begin to change and widen. The width of the hipbones determines the “Q angle.” The larger the Q angle, the larger the amount of force is concentrated on the knee every time the leg twists. Designers should take into account these types of physical differences when they design gear for sports that involve the twisting of the knee, such as ski bindings, basketball shoes, cleats, etc. Why should women have to go through more ACL tears then men? We can go on with many other examples of how the sporting industry needs to change and innovate—redesigning everything from backpacks to sports bras and many other things!

As for car designs, why is it so hard for a female who is 5’3” (the average height of a US female) to reach the pedals and not put her life in danger? Shorter females have to slide their car seats dangerously close to the steering wheel just in order to reach the pedals, but this close proximity can be life threatening in case of an accident where the air bag is deployed. It’s about time we address this problem!

To what degree does the consumer electronics category get things right where female consumers are concerned?

According to a report by the Consumer Electronics Association only 1% of females said that consumer electronics manufacturers consider their needs. So they don’t really get things right, actually. That’s why we will be presenting at the CES in January. At our presentation we will discuss how physical and psychological differences between men and women impact how each gender interacts with and values consumer electronics.

What are some of your own favorite consumer electronics goods?

Erica: I love my DVR. It is super easy to use and I watch way less meaningless TV and commercials now. I only watch what I want, when I want. The TV works around my schedule, not the other way around. The only problem is that I hate the ugly remote and even uglier silver box sitting beside my beautiful flat screen TV. I wish I could put it inside my cabinet and have the remote still work.

I also love my iPhone. I love having my email available at all times. I love having all my photos with me and being able to take decent photos without carrying a camera. I love that I don't have to carry an iPod anymore - I listen to a lot more music now. The only problem is that I hate typing/texting on that stupid keyboard and the earphones don't fit inside my tiny ears.

Agnete: I personally have very little interest in TVs, and have lived perfectly happy without a TV for long amounts of time, but the moments I’ve been without the internet makes me feel like I’m missing a limb. I can Skype with friends and family back home, browse for new music and simply keep up with what’s happening in the world and with people I care about. In that sense, I love my laptop not for what it is but for everything it allows me to do.

The Flip Video camera is another favorite. We are using them a lot when interviewing people for projects. It is quick and easy to operate as it doesn’t have all those additional features you never quite know what to do with anyways. I love the fact that it comes with a built-in USB so there is no need for yet another cord. And since it is so small it makes it a lot less intimidating for the person you are filming—it’s easier for them to feel comfortable in front of a video camera.

What do makers of consumer electronics not appear to know about their female consumers?

Stay tuned for our POV piece we plan to present at the CES on Jan. 9! You can read more about us at