The virtual environment - The implications

Why Men Like Straight Lines and Women Like Polka Dots: Gender and Visual Psychology - Gloria Moss 2014

The virtual environment
The implications

We say no to a lot of things so we can invest an incredible amount of care on [what we do].

Jonathan Ive, July 2012

It was the third week of a sell-out exhibition on the work of the Turks. The queue disappeared outside the gallery and around the corner and only a few tickets were available on the day. Most people had been advised to book ahead to avoid disappointment, either by the Internet or by telephone. I had bought my tickets by telephone and was waiting to exchange my reference number for a proper ticket. In the queue I noticed an old lady leaning on two sticks and heard her as she tried to get the attention of the man behind the counter. “I’m really sorry but my server is down and I can’t do the usual things such as buy tickets online.”

I observed this with disbelief since I had not realised that an octogenarian could so easily have integrated the Internet into her life. This surprise probably says more about me than anything else but I have to say that I was just as dumbfounded when my five-year old son begged me on many occasions to go on to the Internet to buy him a Spiderman suit. With your computer having permanent residence in your home this gives the phrase ’pester power’ a whole new meaning. Being exposed to it by the sweets at the checkout counter is child’s play compared to this. It demands a whole new set of skills.

At school, children as young as four are being introduced to the World Wide Web and the result was my five year old pestering me to download a website selling toys. For him, traditional catalogues are without doubt yesterday’s materials.

These anecdotes testify to the reach the Internet now has to young and old. All this, in fact, is part of the steady encroachment of the Web into our lives. The statistics tell it all. Since 1998, the Internet has experienced an annual growth rate of 20% per year; and in 2008, the annual growth was estimated at 50—60%. By June 2010, the global Internet user population reached 1.9 billion: ( This is not really surprising.

We all flock to the Web because of its ease and convenience. Not surprising then that surveys show customers’ marketing value goes beyond adding another selling channel, for it is estimated to produce ten times as many units sold with one tenth of the advertising budget. Already it seems that customers are more loyal to websites than shops and catalogues, and return to them more often than they would revisit the store or reread the catalogue. And the flexibility of the Internet is an enormous boon to manufacturers of products with rapidly shrinking life cycles: marketing material and inventories can be changed, literally, overnight in the virtual world of the Web.

Increasing competition

Only thing is, there’s masses of competition out there and how the site is designed can have a critical impact on whether you decide to stay or move on. It has long been recognised that slow loading times or poor content might lead you away from a site. Some spanking new research that I conducted with Dr Rod Gunn in 2006 alerted people to the importance of design and the fact that websites designed by men look very different from those designed by women. When the results of this research were published, the news travelled like the proverbial bush fire all around the world. The BBC, the Wall Street Journal, New York Times and the Washington Post all took it up enthusiastically with another 80 newspapers and websites, from around the world, in tow.

We all use the Web and this research showed that websites can look dramatically different from most of the commercial websites produced. Equally importantly, this research, and subsequent studies, showed that the vast majority of websites that we see on a day-to-day basis are anchored in the male way of seeing with the female completely off the map.

There are analogies here with the newer research field of web usage, where recent studies have found that the visual attractiveness of a site has a strong influence on our judgement of its usefulness and also the satisfaction and enjoyment we gain from using it. These factors have led Human-Computer Interaction (HCI) researchers to attempt to understand the elements in web design that we value, and those that just make surfing a bad experience. Hans von Iwaarden and his colleagues, studying websites from the Netherlands and the US, have identified ten factors which create this sense of disappointment among users, and one of these factors is graphics — the visual impression of layout, typeface and colours chosen by the site designer. Have you ever thought about the design of the websites you look at? Which ones do you prefer, and which features grab your attention?

The study of web aesthetics is relatively new and there is currently very little research examining the factors that appeal to us. What little research there is tends to approach the topic from the assumption that the aesthetic appeal of something will be the same for everyone (see Chapter 4). The contrasting belief, the so-called ’interactionist’ perspective, says that aesthetic appeal is observer-dependent and a product of empathy between the object, its creator and the person viewing it.

The idea of mirroring

If we take this interactionist view, which we do throughout this book, then the concept of mirroring becomes very important. Mirroring has been studied intensively in the field of product branding because purchases are thought to offer us a vehicle for self-expression, amongst other things. So when designing a product of any kind, there should be a harmony, a mirroring, created between the brand personality and the consumer’s concept of themselves, in order for the product to be appealing. In social psychology, psychologists call this mirroring ’similarity-attraction’, where the more people are similar, the more attention they pay to each other, and the more attraction there is between them.

An investigation of people’s tweeting behaviour illustrates this interactionist principle rather well. A tool called Twee-Q (“Twitter Equality Quotient”) measures how many of a user’s recent retweets, taken from their last 100 posts, were originally written by men or women (in other words, what proportion of the tweets that they forward to others are written by men or women). The site delivers a score out of 10; and the lower the score, the more likely the more biased towards a certain gender the tweets are. People who score a 10 tweet male and female opinions equally, but any score less than 10 shows a bias in retweet behaviour. Justin Bieber, for example, has a score of 4.6 showing that 69% of his retweets were from male accounts. President Obama has a low score of 1.4 showing the retweeting of male opinions in 87% of cases. Importantly, real-time statistics show that more than 47,300 people have used the tool and that the average Twee-Q score is 4.7 showing a very high tendency to ’own-sex’ retweeting.

The importance of the interactionist tendency in people’s reactions cannot be ignored and yet, as we saw earlier in Chapter 3, previous studies of web aesthetics adopted a universalist position — looking for a one-size fits all pattern to people’s aesthetic choices — and failed to test for an interactionist effect. Given the compendious evidence in favour of the mirroring principle, this is a major gap. Of course, were Internet usage to be skewed in favour of men, then this gap would not be of practical importance so it is vital to know more about Internet demographics. To what extent are men and women spending time online?

The audience for the Web

A trawl through web usage statistics shows that similar proportions of men and women use the Web in both the US and the UK. In mainland Europe, female use of the Web is slightly lower, at 38%, but the picture overall is one in which website providers have an interest, all things being equal, in appealing to men as well as women. Of course, certain sectors appeal to a larger or smaller proportion of men and women, and their interest in having appeal to both will vary according to the target demographic. For example, the target demographic for beauty sector and social networking websites are predominantly female, while that for football or angling websites will be predominantly male. In between, with roughly equal proportions of male and female viewers are higher education websites. So it is only those websites with a predominantly male audience that will have no interest in understanding gender aesthetics; the rest should really be sitting up and questioning whether the universalist principle is one on which they can rely.

As noted in chapters 2 and 3, I did battle with the question of whether the websites created by men and women differ in any significant ways and also whether third parties have any particular preferences as between the websites created by men and women. Doing this was a way of finding answers to the age-old debate about aesthetics and whether these follow universalist or interactionist principles, with hoped-for answers relating to what men and women create as well as to what they prefer.

Websites created by men and women: are they different?

When it came to comparing the websites that men and women create, a first experiment compared a random selection of male and female-created student websites stored on the Oxford University website. I rated these, together with Dr Rod Gunn, against 24 elements relating to navigation, language and linguistic features, and significant differences emerged on 13 of these elements. “When I analysed the results, the differences stood out a mile,” said Rod. “To discover statistically significant differences on two or three elements is one thing, but to find them on thirteen is striking to say the least.”

The differences spanned the three areas examined, namely visual elements, language and images. Where visual elements were concerned, the ratings showed that male-typical websites included a straight horizontal line at the top of the page while women avoided this; where typeface colour is concerned, the men tended to stick with black and blue typeface with the women using yellow, pink and mauve; where images were concerned, men tended to show photos of men (except where sex comes into it) and women of women.

If the visuals were worlds apart, so too was the language. In terms of the formality or informality of the language, the men’s language tended to be considerably more formal than the women’s, and tended to play up their achievements while the women went in for self-denigration. So, the undergraduate girl whose opening line was “I like knitting” turned out to be pretty typical. Remarkably, all these differences, as Rod said, were very significant from a statistical point of view.

Our next study took the research one step further by comparing student websites produced in the UK, France and Poland. Over half of the characteristics in the websites from these three countries — such as use of expert language, typefaces, the range of colours, the dominant shapes and lines and use of male or female faces showed again an astonishing difference between male and female sites. The possibility that these differences arose purely by chance was shown statistically to be less than one in a thousand.

As for men and women’s preferences, you saw earlier in Chapter 3 how experiments testing men and women’s preferences for male and female-designed graphic, product, packaging and website designs produced strong evidence of own-sex preference. These results showed quite clearly that if you wanted to appeal to a man or a woman you had present them with their own, unique way of seeing.

However, a study I conducted with colleagues looking at the websites created for sectors where women constituted 50% or more of customers showed that very few companies are actually doing this, so the female web browser was not getting much in the way of the mirroring of her ’gatherer’ tastes while the male would have been in his element with the ubiquitous use of the ’hunter’ look. Let’s consider a few sectors so that you have a sense of what this means.

Websites — how fit for purpose are they?

We will start with universities, a sector in which there are more or less equal proportions of male and female customers, but with a slight skew in favour of women. If the websites were adapted to this target market you would expect them to reflect elements of the male and female design aesthetic, wouldn’t you? In actual fact, an analysis by myself and Dr Rod Gunn of a random sample of university websites in Britain revealed the presence of a predominantly male aesthetic (corresponding to a gender coefficient of 0.72 as opposed to the optimised 0.50), with most websites being very boxy in appearance. If you want to check this out, take a look at the websites of these universities and you will see what we are talking about: University of Leeds (three boxes on the home page and the rest of the page white); University of Birmingham (one rectangular image at the top of the page and the rest white); University of Westminster (no fewer than ten boxes of rectangles on its home page); and the University of Bangor (nine boxes and five rectangular links!).

A similar look prevails around the world. If you look at Harvard’s website, for example, you will find fifteen boxes on the home page; Sapienza University in Rome has a central box divided into several thin rectangular lines provided with links; Caen University boasts ten boxes; Tel Aviv University has six boxes with plenty of white space around them. The fact is that the use of a male aesthetic in a sector in which at least half the customers are female suggests that these websites are unlikely to be optimised for this market of men and women.

If this is true of university websites, a sector in which women constitute a little over 50% of customers, it is very much more the case for sectors in which they constitute the vast majority of customers. The grocery sector is one of these and a glance at the websites of Safeway, America’s biggest supermarket (twelve boxes); Kroger, second in the list behind Safeway with a number of chains to its credit including Fred Meyer is one (sporting eight boxes/rectangles on its website); Monoprix (with ten boxes); Tesco (seven boxes excluding the rectangular links); Sainsbury’s (topping the charts with eighteen boxes). My goodness, what these companies couldn’t do to make their sites more attuned to the preferences of the target demographic, women!

If you take the case of Tesco, for example (see, it is slightly surprising to find the company name etched in brown knowing that its demographic is largely female. Surprising, also, to find all its links in blue and in its “Food News” section, photos and features focusing largely on men. So, we are introduced to Harry Irwin, Chicken farmer, with a photo; we are introduced to senior buyer, Mark Grant, again with a photo; there is likewise a photo and text of Gareth McCambridge who works for G’s Growers, who has been supplying lettuce to the company for more than 30 years. Then we are introduced to Gillian Singleton who works on a fish counter but no photograph to accompany the text. Are there no stories about senior women in the company or even photos of other women working there? Over eighty per cent of grocery shoppers are women and, as we’ve seen, each gender likes to see images of people of their own gender. The web design profession is male-dominated and those working for Tesco would naturally relate to images of people of their own gender. However, effective marketing demands moving beyond personal preferences to understanding those of the target market.

This point is particularly important in the competitive and tough market of supermarkets in Britain. According to Graham Ruddick, journalist on the Telegraph newspaper: “Compared with other countries, such as Australia, the supermarket industry in Britain is mature. For the major food retailers, this inevitably means life has got tougher, because there is no fundamental reason why food sales should grow ahead of GDP.” He says that in a super competitive environment, “supermarkets must demonstrate to customers why they are unique in order to attract sales.” How many people at Tesco have asked themselves what women, their main customers, are looking for? I write this at a time that the company is changing some of its front-of-store logo colours to black, blue and red, a step back from the earlier more light-hearted blue and white with a broken underscore which you can see on its website.

If the character of supermarket websites falls short of what could be provided to satisfy a predominantly female demographic, this is also true of websites of small and medium-sized beauty salon businesses. Market research for this sector indicates that women constitute the main customer demographic. The differences in male and female take-up is particularly pronounced in the case of sun tanning treatments (in Britain, they are three times as likely as men to have this) and eyelashes/eyebrows tinted or shaped (eight times as likely as men) and hair removal treatments (ten times as likely) but men are half as likely as women to have beauty treatments in general. Despite the tiny proportion of men likely to visit beauty salon websites, the aesthetic is a predominantly masculine one, with a gender coefficient of 0.68 according to a paper I published with Dr Rod Gunn. This means that close to seventy per cent of the aesthetic was at the male end of the design spectrum, so pretty hunter in feeling with little space for the gatherer. In fact, telephone interviews revealed that seventy-eight per cent of the websites were produced by male designers so one’s hunch was correct!

Finally, let us consider for a moment social networking sites, a sector with a predominance of female visitors. Pingdom has collected figures from Google’s DoubleClick Ad Planner showing the proportion of men and women accessing sites and you can see here a sample of their figures:

Goodreads 30/70 (M/F)

Facebook 40/60 (M/F)

Twitter 40/60 (M/F) 40/60 (M/F)

LinkedIn 47/53 (M/F)

Hacker News 76/84 (M/F)

Slashdot 88/12 (M/F)

These percentages show that just over half of the users of Facebook and Twitter are female and yet the design of the sites is firmly anchored in the male aesthetic. Facebook, for example, has a plain background in light blue with its name set in a darker blue linear strip across the top of the page. Twitter also uses a plain light blue background with information organised in white boxes. LinkedIn with a near 50/50 audience of men and women has a completely white background with a small amount of blue edging. Is there any justification, given the demographics, for using a palette just of blue for these sites? My guess would be that the designers of these sites are mainly men and they are creating sites that appeal to them!

This is not meant to sound critical. On the contrary, the perception that websites in many sectors could be given a bit of a facelift and a nudge in the gatherer direction offers space for many organisations to improve their game and reap the benefits from doing that. After all, our understanding of gender aesthetics is from recent work, and marketing and design directors may not have been exposed to it. Once they became aware of the new evidence, however, a whole new palette opens up and new tools become available for wooing the customer. Creating new-style websites becomes good for the customer as well since they are presented with visuals that match their taste so the new information helps create a win-win for both parties.

Incidentally, I am not alone in taking issue with some of the current ways of presenting things on the Web. Michelle Miller commented in April 2007 on the American Airlines Women Travelers Connected webpage, a page devoted to female travellers with travel tips, lifestyle travel packages and business ideas. The design had all kinds of boxes, sharp corners and tiny type and Michelle noted how: “the design leaves me cold … my first impression when visiting the page was ’Wow … good idea, but it certainly doesn’t speak to me.’” She concludes that: “if you’re going to give women something to hang their hat on, it has to have substance … You have to go deeper — understand a female consumer’s needs from within, and learn the language she speaks.”

That language has, to a certain extent, been understood by the beauty giant, L’Oréal. The world’s largest cosmetics and beauty company, L’Oréal boasts brands such as Lancôme and Yves Saint Laurent and appears to do a better job than the supermarkets, not least because its website boasts smiling, beautiful women, the main target demographic. The general look and feel of the website may be masculine — information and photos are presented in boxes and there is a lot of white and also black in the background — but the preponderance of images of women, and smiling ones at that — remember Majewski’s research revealing women’s tendency to depict smiling faces and the tendency for women to be drawn to female-typical visuals — are likely to have a powerful impact on women. This company chalked up net profits of more than seventeen per cent in 2012 which is an impressive result in recessionary times.

L’Oréal is a company that has a strong awareness of diversity — it presented alongside myself at the big Global Diversity and Inclusion Conference in Barcelona in 2013 — and this awareness is clearly feeding through into its website. To find a website that has elements of the female aesthetic is, though, something a rarity, despite women’s massive purchasing power. As this book was going to press, and I needed a new photograph for an article I was writing (on gender and websites of all things!), I was searching the internet for a photographer who could help out. One website immediately caught my eye — — both because of the quality of the website and its slightly homespun character (if you scroll down to the bottom of the page, you will see four links displayed in slightly irregular-shaped rectangles, each with a different, attractive colour) and because of the extraordinary quality of the photographs. Looking at the engagement photos, you really could imagine that you were a fly-on-the wall and observing an intimate moment in people’s lives. So, I had my photo taken by Clare West and was delighted with the result.

Back to L’Oréal. It is no accident if a website chimes with the preferences of the end-user and the culture of an organisation, and who they employ will be critical factors in determining the kind of designs that they will produce. So, who is designing the websites that you visit on a daily basis?

Who are the web designers?

You would think that with something as important as the Web, there would be a mass of information on the web design sector and who the designers are. In fact, there is a dearth of information with almost nothing published on this all-important sector so one has to do investigations of one’s own to get any information. One of the people I talked to was David Dinsdale, the person who until fairly recently was responsible for two of the biggest Government websites in Britain, Business Link and Directgov, the second providing a shop window to all government services. In February 2013, after he had moved to Atos, we gave a presentation on Gender Marketing at a Global Diversity conference in Barcelona and he had included a video in which the site’s teamworkers are introduced one by one: “There’s Nick, Shodan, Mark, Kiel, Phil, Carl, Uttan, Gareth and then there’s Megan.” So, the majority of the team were male (and young!) and this left a big question as to how common this was.

Since there was no published data on this, it was time to go back to the drawing board and conduct more interviews, this time with human resources people in top interactive agencies. These chats turned out to be highly informative with the chief finding being that web designers had a background either in computing or in Graphics. An understanding of the demographics of these two industries would therefore shed light on those of the web design industry.

I decided to tackle graphic design first. This transpired to be yet another black hole with almost no demographic information available. Fortunately, the Chartered Society of Designers (CSD), a professional body with international membership, allowed me to access their membership figures for 2006 and these showed that 56 per cent of graduate members but only 21 per cent of Members and 12 per cent of Fellows were female. These figures paint a picture of a profession dominated at middle and senior levels by men and so if graphics experts are migrating to web design, chances are that a high proportion will be men.

The computing industry next. This time there is a mass of demographic information showing that, starting in the 1990s, men constituted on average 78 and 81 per cent of the workforce (Robertson et al, 2001). The data showed a dominance of men at all levels and across the three fields of information systems, information technology and computer science, with the situation varying only by country and by IT specialisms. For example, in the US, the proportion of women among computer professionals fell in the 1990s from 35.4 per cent to 29.1 per cent. In the UK, figures for 1994 showed women making up 30 per cent of computer scientists, 32 per cent of systems analysts, 35 per cent of computer programmers, 10 per cent of IS directors, 18 per cent of project leaders and 14 per cent of applications development managers (Baroudi and Igbaria, 1994/5). These numbers are similar to those in the start of the period examined in the US and if we factor in the knowledge that there was a sharp decline in the number of women pursuing undergraduate and postgraduate degrees in computer-related fields in the course of the 1990s in the UK ((Igbaria and Parasuraman, 1997), then you are looking at declining numbers of women going into web design from computing. Coupled with what we know of proportions of male and female graphic designers, it is fair to conclude that web design is a male-dominated area.

Can this situation be reversed so that the web design industry has a more even gender demographic? It seems that this will not be easy. One reason is that the skewed distribution of men and women in IT has produced a “masculine computer culture” with a “masculine discourse” and a prioritization of technical issues (Robertson et al, 2001), all of which are likely to deter women from entering or remaining in the field (ibid). The authors suggest that it is only by including a “broader set of skills and discursive practices” that a more diverse group of people can be attracted into the profession, and that the masculine nature of the culture can be changed.

This could have a powerful impact on websites. We saw a little while ago that the team producing the Directgov website were predominantly male and web analytics provided by the company Alexa show that the majority of people visiting the site are young males aged 18—24 with no children. The website was intended for the general population but was being used by the very group producing it. If you look at the audience for car websites you will see something very similar, even though the buying audience consists of marginally more women than men.

The lessons are clear. If powerful companies could produce websites that really mirrored the preferences of their end-users, then customers would be happier and the big corporates would catch a bigger share of the market that they were targeting. The current vicious circle could be turned into a virtuous one, with benefits for customers and organisations alike. It would just take some work on the demographics — creating a more gender-diverse web design team — or providing regular injections of training. I say “regular” since (as we saw at the end of Chapter 5) I ran a workshop for a team of male web designers, helping them discover ways of making the company’s website more appealing to its predominantly female market. The team did a fabulous job changing the ’hunter’ look of the website into something more attractive to its ’gatherer’ audience and succeeded in attracting substantially more hits from women. However, when six months later I revisited the site, I saw that it had reverted to a ’hunter’ look. There are reminders here of Bernard Shaw’s play, Pygmalion, in which the phoneticist Henry Higgins discovers limitations in his ability to transform Eliza Doolittle from street flower seller to an elegant society lady. This parallels the realisation that, in the world of hunter-gatherer designs, a man can be taught to think like a woman but the effects will be short-lived!