Is gender important for a website redesign?

“Are you male or female?”
I recently wrote an online survey to gather quantitative data about a website’s users. The survey was reviewed by some colleagues with a marketing background. They thought a gender question should be included in the survey (i.e. “Are you male or female?”) so we could understand what proportion of the website’s users are male or female.

Gender isn’t relevant to IA and IxD (but might be for some visual designs)
I said that gender isn’t relevant to the goals of the project we were working on (redesign a government department’s website to make it more user-centred). I don’t think knowing what proportion of a website’s users are male or female impacts the redesign of its information architecture and interaction design. I can see how gender might be relevant for some visual designs. For example, you would expect a site for Barbie to have a visual design which appeals to little girls. But the website we were redesigning is for a large government department.

Designing a website around supposed differences between males and females and the way they perceive information and interact with a website would be odd. Men and women’s mental models of information and interaction design can’t be that different, can they? I could not think of a single instance where the gender of the user would impact an information architecture or interaction design. If your website’s target audience includes both sexes, then your information architecture or interaction design must make sense to both men and women. Even if your website is targeted primarily to males or females, I don’t think their gender is a pertinent factor when creating an information architecture and interaction design. There are other much more important factors to take into account (are the website users confident with technology? What sort of terminology makes sense to them? What are they expecting from the site?).

Talk to me…
Do you think the user’s gender has an impact on a website’s information architecture or interaction design? Have you ever designed a website primarily targeted to just men or just women? Did you consider the opposite gender during the design process? Leave a comment below with your thoughts.


Elizabeth Bacon said...

Good questions. I think gender has got to be almost always totally irrelevant to the IxD and IA of websites. In my practice, I employ personas, and have taught the Cooper U Interaction Design Practicum. At no point in my experience or the experience of any designer or design student that I've discussed the matter with has the gender of a user mattered in any practical way to the manifestation of the system's behavior or organization. The only place in my work that gender has been of concern is in terms of a client's *expectation* about their target users. This is a political issue but potentially relevant. If the consumer of my design solutions thinks that, for example, all nurses are women, then I believe it is best to deliver a female nurse persona in order to avoid the cognitive friction and resistance on the client's part. But that's where the consideration's not like I therefore deliver a GUI with a pink palette and softer edges. ;) And as a matter of fact, in the case of that medical system client who expected a female nurse persona, I defined both a female and a male nurse persona but made the female nurse the one who was going to be our primary target.

Suze Ingram said...

Thanks Elizabeth. Great comments! I use personas in my UX, IxD and IA work too and I've been thinking about how relevant the gender of the persona is. On one hand I think the gender of the persona is irrelevant because of the points I wrote about in this post. On the other hand, including the gender of the persona makes it complete and makes it easier to envisage the persona.
BTW - seems crazy for your past client to generalise all nurses as female. I know a couple of male nurses - plus who could forget Gaylord Focker (Ben Stiller) from "Meet the Fockers"! I think they might get rather tired of that kind of generalisation. Good on you for including a male nurse persona.

TJ said...

It's no more or less important than ethnicity, age, education and income level, to name just a few. And in the cases where it is, for say, a site about investing for retirement (e.g. - 401K, IRA, etc.) - gender is an important factor in framing the educational and informational pieces of a proper experience. 20 year old woman (typically) get it - having to save that is. 20 year old men, again, typically, do not get it (or much else at 20, and I am a male). Cross that up with income, ethnicity (which in some cases implies a style of up-bringing), and you have an amazing challenge on your hands... and as a Design Strategist, Experience Designer and/or a fan of Design Research - that is a dream project to tackle. To create a single experience and message platform that talks to men and woman, young and old, and across ethnic backgrounds is like drinking water... flavorless. And without flavor what do you really have? Peace. -t

Suze Ingram said...

Thanks for your comments, TJ - great thoughts! I like your "flavorless" comment :)

I'm still reluctant to generalise about the sexes and the way they think. I think doing that is simplifying things way too much - it's too black and white: "men think this, women think that". However, I agree with you that age, ethnicity and other factors such as the education level of users are very important to consider when designing an online experience.