New Study- Gender differences in Web Usability

Comscore released a study (June 30 2010) entitled Women on the Web: How Women are Shaping the Internet. It explores gender differences in usability.

The worldwide study adds some key insights into the growing research on gender and Web usage. It particular it looks at social networking. Why is this a big deal?

Differences in gender are important to understand so we can increase our ability to provide more targeted,  relevant, and desirable user experiences. It’s a design issue as much as an advertising and strategy issue. I feel the User Experience community has not fully tapped the potential of gender-sensitive design aka Inclusive Design.

Gender as an audience-sensitive criteria (differentiation) is barely present in North American technology product design (where it is much easier to do) let alone Web experiences. In Asia there is more design innovation in this area. For example, Toshiba created a “femininity” series of products aimed at the Smart Home user. However, these highly gender-specific designs were retracted since they reinforce gender stereotypes– for example, that women clean the home.

Implications of gender-sensitive design are discussed below. First, let’s review a summary of the findings:

Note: While this report focuses on women, it is important to acknowledge non-gender conforming. You should include transgender and non-binary people when reading the terms ‘gender’ or ‘women’.

Comscore report ‘Women on the Web’ Key Findings

1. Women have surpassed men as online buyers (and they spend more) and their influencing is growing rapidly, in addition to the use of group buying or ‘flash sale’ sites (eg. Social retail is an emerging area for women, due to their tendency to share and discuss with other others.

2. Women spend more time online (8% globally) than men and 30% more time on social networking sites than men.

3. Women are motivated differently in their use of social networking sites like Twitter. Twitter adoption is equal or higher than men. Twitter is used by women more for conversation, to follow celebrities or to find deals and promotions. Men are more likely to post their own tweets.

4. Social networking is emerging as a driver for women in the mobile sphere.

5. Women are using online entertainment (e.g. puzzle, board and card games) and functional sites (money management) as much as men (change in past behavior where health, apparel, baby goods).

6.  Cultural differences in emerging markets (Asia, Latin America) will always influence online behavior by gender- an important localization issue.

7. Older women moreover men, are rapidly adopting social networking sites– and at the same intensity of younger women.

8. Women are still attracted to health content, community and lifestyle sites. However women are outpacing men in some areas of finance and are actively engaging in male-dominated areas: adult content and gambling.

9. Compared to men, women Bing users spend more time on Bing for search, than Google- and YouTube for video.  Facebook, while visited more than men is unable to compete with regional social networking sites (such as CyWorld in South Korea, in Russia, in  Japan or StudiVZ in Germany), especially among older women.

10. Women spend more time on Social Networking, Instant Messaging (IM) and Email than men globally.

11. The embrace of social networking and its importance to women has significant implications for content and user experience.

12. Women spend more time on photo sites and adopt photo sharing faster. Email usage is higher in the 45+ age group. Latin American women do more IM’ing than other women globally, with their use of email topping North American females.

Significance of the Data

The Comscore global study provides a fresh starting point to understand the opportunities for designing user experiences, both Web and product, that resonate with women specifically. Women’s presence on the Web is changing, and as Comscore found- access to technology (computers and Internet access) is a major hindrance to more women getting online. As more women get online, designing for women (and people of all genders) must be amplified.

A 2002 study by Van Slyke et al. titled Gender Differences in perceptions of Web-based shopping found that women were visiting shopping sites more than men; however, men were buying over women. The study also recommended: “Web merchants may find it useful to use technology to increase a sense of community and create a social forum for their customers”. Given the Comscore findings above, women’s usage of the Web has clearly changed! But has web design and user experience strategy kept up?

A 2007 study by Horvath, Gender and web design software (PDF), found that website design has an over-arching tendency to be more masculine or male-oriented (in terms of layout, colors, font) than to be female-friendly.  In 5 of 11 design items  (Cyr and Bonanni, 2005) found differences in perception, opinion and satisfaction between men and women. They concluded:

“Women were significantly less satisfied than men with the navigation of the site. This suggests a need to better understand the needs of women in order to navigate and find product or service information on websites”… and that “clear differences regarding perceptions on design occur between men and women”.

More research is needed

The authors note that very few studies of gender and web design exist; there is a need for more exploration. Previous studies have given some indication of gender differences showing that women prefer ease of use and navigation ‘features’ over download speed (men like fast sites). Moss and Gunn (2005; 2006; 2008; 2009) at the University of Glamorgan (Wales) have conducted the most extensive studies in the past five years in the area of gender and web design.  They have found significant differences in how men and women differ in web design. See the slideshow summarizing their work.

Does gender-sensitive Web or product design work?

We don’t know empirically, but from the studies that have been done to date, including the Comscore data, very strong suggestions exist that it’s time to look in that area. Stilma (2006; 2009) found differentiation in design with a bias for women was an extremely effective product design approach. Therefore, more designers should focus on designing for women.

Gender as a design variable is something clients in my corporate projects over a dozen years at Experience Dynamics don’t deliberately assess or design for. Yet, in a recent usability test, I was reminded of the opportunity. One of two women in a ten-person usability test said she wanted an extra pink tab at the top for women’s content or features (in a male-dominated content website).

As social becomes the new infrastructure for all software and web experiences, it will be characterized by global adoption and innovation by women and other genders. Will gender-diverse usage scenarios in social networking open the potential for more gender-sensitive design approaches and opportunities? Industry is slow to get the message, but change is coming. For example, personal expression laptop manufacturers are allowing in their offerings of colorful, stylized products. This was difficult to find in the mainstream five or ten years ago.

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