Toys or Tools: What Do Women Want in a Gadget?

Manufacturers target women with design, wellness products and reliability.

Jan. 11, 2010— -- "Chip Chick" Helena Stone said that writing about consumer technology for women a few years ago was was no easy task.

Why? There just wasn't much going on.

"At my first [Consumer Electronics Show], there was nothing for women on the show floor," said Stone, editor in chief of the women's tech blog "Accessories, gadgets, there was just nothing there for women."

But over the years, as technology companies realized that women were a key class of consumers, they started changing their ways and moving beyond the requisite pink gadget du jour.

There was more to write about than ever before at this month's CES in Las Vegas, Stone said. Not only did the annual gadget show feature more products wrapped in aesthetics meant to appeal to women, but it offered technological tools that incorporated a female perspective in more subtle -- and potentially more substantial -- ways.

"When we started here, companies kind of looked at us and women in general as, 'Oh, the men are the ones buying everything' and that's not true," Stone said. "They finally woke up and were, like, 'Women make the purchasing decisions in the household.'"

Women Have Significant Influence Over Consumer Electronics Spending

Indeed, women account for about 40 percent of consumer electronics spending, the market research firm NPD Group estimates. And other industry watchers say that women also have considerable influence over the products that they don't purchase directly.

Although men and women can find utility in the same product, Stone and others say, generally speaking, women and men approach technology in different ways. And the smart tech companies are paying attention.

"Though I hate to generalize, women will often think about the way that a product fits into their larger life," said Lindsey Turrentine, an executive editor at tech site CNET who frequently appears on CNET's women tech show Gadgettes. "So is that something my kids would like, is that something that will help me with my friendships or with my family and how would that fit into the larger picture."

For example, when she hears women talk about the wave of 3-D televisions that the industry says is on the way, Turrentine said, she hears them weighing their kids' experiences with the potential experiences of house guests and other social considerations.

Men Want Toys, Women Want Tools?

Men, on the other hand, seem to take a different tack, she said, thinking, "I like that, I want that, I'm going to play with that."

She also said that, from her observation (and admittedly true to stereotype), men seem to enjoy the physical assembly part of electronics more than women.

"I think there's sort of an aspirational part of a lot of what men are looking for and they tend to be more interested in products that are still not perfected," she said. "And women want it to work right the first time and not get in the way of everything else we're busy thinking about doing."

So while men may be more drawn to the toys, such as a hovercraft-like quadricopter from Parrot that can be piloted with an iPhone or iPod Touch and debuted at CES, women seek out the tools.

"Women are less interested in toys," blogger Stone said. "Men are into the tinkering and the cool gadget that takes like 10 hours to figure out.

"Men enjoy that, women have no patience. They just want it to work."

Wellness, Home Tools Could Attract Women

As an example, Stone said, she expected a new line of wellness products unveiled by Royal Phillips Electronics at CES last week to appeal to women. One product, Activa, is an MP3 player that sorts music by tempo and then matches music to a runner's pace.

She also said a new automated vacuum cleaner from Neato Robotics was another tool that might attract women. Last week, Evolution Robotics also introduced an automatic floor cleaner with women in mind.

Although women are attracted by function, Stone said they're also interested in form. Increasingly, she has seen manufacturers launch fashion partnerships and artist collaborations to create laptop shells, iPhone cases and more to appeal to women.

Fashion designer Vivien Tam continues to partner with Hewlett-Packard on special edition netbook computers and accessories and Monster Cable last week announced Tam will design a pair of limited edition headphones.

But the consumer electronics industry is also recognizing and integrating women's perspectives in other ways.

Spotlighting women's role as decision-maker, CES featured a "MommyTech" zone with family-oriented products as well as a series of panel discussions with women in the industry.

Female Engineers Introducing Changes

But in an industry historically dominated by men, some of the key changes are coming from the female engineers now responsible for creating new products.

Sonia Nematollah, a Ford engineer who worked on the company's new MyFord Touch cabin interface, said that an early version of the dashboard computer included a panel with scalloped, or concave, features to control temperature, volume and other instruments.

That design changed when female engineers realized that they couldn't operate the concave controls with long fingernails.

"I personally had longer nails and I couldn't use it," Nematollah said. "We worked with them and said, 'No, you either want flat surfaces … or we want features that would be convex so you could grab it,'" Nematollah said.

Nematollah also said that the passive entry and passive start features that let drivers open and drive cars without inserting keys into locks or ignition were initiated by female engineers who knew what it was like to walk up to a car, arms full of groceries and children in tow.

Although these details are seemingly minor and not necessarily technological in nature, they go a long way in terms of how women are able to interact with and accept the technology.

And, ultimately, industry experts say, the companies that create unisex products by considering the small details associated with the respective habits, preferences and priorities of both sexes will be the ones to thrive.

"A lot of companies -- and I think the smarter ones -- are working on making products that appeal to both sexes," said CNET's Turrentine.

"That's a really smart move if you can get a couple of products that are so elegant and attractive to everyone. That's a really good move but I would say it varies from company to company."