Thursday, November 12, 2009

Viva La Difference!

I have been seeing a lot of research on gender differences recently. Not just in human factors, but in areas as diverse as education, economics, design, finance, nutrition, psychology, happiness, etc etc etc. There are two important overarching issues that this entire line of research brings up. Do we design differently for males and for females? And should government create regulations that compel systems to be designed differently for males and females when there is a public interest at stake. I will cover the first in this post and the second in another post.

First, should system designers create different systems for each gender? When it comes to simple things like apparel, it’s pretty obvious. Men and women have different anthropometry and different style preferences and there is no conflict. We have always had different clothing choices for men and women. Good thing too. I just don’t look very good in a dress and I can’t imagine trying to walk in heels.

But let’s think more broadly about this issue. There are biological differences that lead to different nutritional needs. Should our breakfast cereals be fortified differently? Different meal choices? And with health care we need different drugs. How far do we go with this? We already have drugs specifically targeting male and female diseases (breast cancer v prostate cancer being an obvious one), but what about making different versions of blood pressure medicine? How about different versions of to match different web navigation styles or background color preferences? When you log in (or using cookies) you would be automatically directed to the right version.

It gets harder when we talk about education. Boys and girls seem to learn better in single gender classrooms, but then their socialization might lag. A hybrid school may be ideal. More research would be needed to find out the best combination. But is this a direction we should pursue? What if boys learn better in an all boy classroom but girls learn better when it's 50/50? What would we do then?

I’m not really sure where I am going with this train of thought. Since most design stems from business needs, I suppose the choice comes down to whether the differences create enough customer demand that people will pay more for gender-customized products in each market. They would have to be willing to pay more to cover the added R&D, design, and manufacturing costs required to make two (or more) different sets of products in each category. For apparel, obviously the decision was made generations ago. These questions are just now being asked in these other industries. I am curious how far it will go.