Gendered By Design?

Image by vintage findings courtesy Flickr

I’ve been thinking a lot about consumer electronics in the home, especially remote controls, and I’ve noticed a disturbing pattern. Nearly every interview subject I have interviewed describes their comfort level with or understanding of the TV remote control in terms of a female member of their household (and these are actual user quotes):

  • “It must have a simple interface, so that also my daughter can use it.”
  • “She’s a woman and she doesn’t understand it.”
  • “It’s not wife – friendly. I can’t watch TV when my husband is out of town.”
  • “It’s so easy even my Mother-and-law could use it.”
  • “Are you kidding? My wife cannot find the help button.” 

Most of the time, this female referred to is not around at the time of the statement. Shockingly, it is such a common association that you even may be able to relate to some of these statements yourself without having ever been critical of the phenomena. When I shared this observation with one of the sharpest and most confident females I know and admire (a professional in the tech marketing industry), she readily admitted the shortcoming: “Oh yeah that’s me. I cannot use the Tv remote control. I get my husband to do it”.  What is going on here??

It’s no secret that TV remote controls can be intimidating and unintuitive to anyone with their many cryptic, non standardized buttons. But I can’t help but think about the other complicated or coded control mechanisms in the house that don’t appear to have the same stigma - take for example the microwave and room temperature controls. The surprise association for me is the degree to which domestic gender roles have been ingrained into the consideration of this particular electronic object.

In the article The Lens of Feminist HCI in the Context of Sustainable Interaction Design Interactions Volume 17 Issue 2, March + April 2010, Shaowen Bardzell and Eli Blevis ask us to consider designing artifacts, user experiences, and new approaches to user studies that effectively communicate with different genders but do not alienate or make assumptions about gender roles and experiences. Their suggestions:

  1. Employ and listen to female designers. Design is predominantly a men’s world. An increase presence of female designers who understand and appreciate women’s experiences can narrow the gap between the design team and the target user group.

  2. Conduct user research in a way that is sensitive to everyday gender-identity practices. When interacting with users, one should be mindful of the cultural conventions of gender—this especially means being critical of what’s considered “normal.”

  3. Focus user research on making users’ varying access to resources visible—so as to acknowledge different points of view and experiences. 

As a researcher, I plan to use these tools to understand the varying perspectives of all users in a non-essentialized  and non-restricted way, starting with my smart professional female friend who claims she cannot use her remote control.

 See also Shaowen’s full paper:

Bardzell, S. “Feminist HCI: Taking Stock and Outlining an Agenda for Design.” Proceedings of CHI’10: World Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems. ACM: New York, April 2010