Are iPhones from Mars and BlackBerries from Venus?

Phones are designed for busy lives and different genders

When it comes to smart phone preferences, there are clear differences between the sexes, say market researchers and usability testers. And those differences have implications for the success of the devices.

Researchers stress that gender is only one way that cell phone vendors differentiate their wares; age, for instance, is another. And the researchers also emphasize that, overall, men and women have the same capabilities. But that doesn't mean that, as a generalization, men and women like the same types of smart phones, they said.

We talked to researchers and some mobile industry types to get an idea about how the sexes vary in terms of their phone preferences and what features make one phone more attractive to men or women than another.

Equal but different

As with so many things, it's hard to know whether the differences between men's and women's phone preferences have to do with innate capabilities or with the socialized differences between the sexes, experts say. But they stress that differences do exist.

Men report themselves as being tech-savvy more frequently than women do, said Jessica Jourdan. She based her comments on what she has seen as a senior research scientist with Perceptive Sciences Corporation, an Austin, Texas consulting firm that tests devices such as smart phones for usability. "Women aren't less tech-savvy, just different," she said.

Women often can be more cautious when first handed a complex device like a smart phone, said Jourdan.

"At the beginning of our tests, women will say they're more intimidated, but [in the end] they won't perform any differently," she said. "As a result, they may be more thoughtful, they may read the instructions more carefully, where a man will just jump in and only read the instructions if he gets stuck. But at the end, women will tend to be more enthusiastic about the product, maybe because they've invested more in it."

Busy women, busy men

Michael Woodward, vice president for business mobility products at AT&T, said that over time even mobile phones used for business have "cracked the door to our personal life." Our personal lives are busy, he stressed, and men and women are sometimes busy in different ways.

Sometimes, he said, women tend to be busier, particularly if they are managing their family's schedule in addition to their work lives. As a result, the challenge in designing phones that women will appreciate is to keep the phones simple, he said. That doesn't mean "dumbed down," Woodward noted, but simple as in "usable."

"Some women are busier than men. They don't have as much time to give to a learning curve," said Jourdan. "If I'm a test subject in a lab, I may have time to read the instructions. But if my 3-year-old is jumping on me, it might be different."

However, this type of simplicity of operation is often missing in smart phones. Excluding Apple's iPhone and Research In Motion's BlackBerry devices, smart phones were the most returned consumer electronic gift of the 2007 holiday season. According to Opinion Research Corp., 21% of smart phone purchases were returned during that season.

Smart phone as fashion statement

So, which phones are more appealing to men and which are more appealing to women?

Woodward said that, for business reasons, he didn't want to get specific. And he noted that specific brands of smart phones don't seem to have special appeal to one sex or the other.

However, there are model-to-model differences when it comes to gender preferences, he said.

"Within the product lines of Microsoft Windows Mobile, BlackBerry and Palm devices, I can find [devices] that sell more to women and some that are more masculine. We see differences in the sex of the customer in terms of color and size."

He added that women have some requirements that men wouldn't normally think about.

"Women carry their phones in purses, where they bang around, so the finish needs to be durable. And it's dark in there when they look for their phone, so it helps if the device lights up. And when they reach in and touch it, it needs to feel different. That's why, for instance, our [Samsung] BlackJack has a leather panel on the back, to give that tactile feedback."

The shape of the phone doesn't seem to be a differentiator, Woodward said. Folders and candy-bar phones sell equally well to men and women. But color has its Mars vs. Venus aspects.

"We start with black and silver because they look professional, but when we move beyond that, we see red and purple skewing to the feminine side, and white, as well. Men stay with navy blue."

Thomas Thornton, a senior researcher at Perceptive Sciences, agreed that style is increasingly important, something that may reflect an increase in the number of women buying sophisticated phones.

"Women express more interest in the color of phones, in their style and making them coordinate with their settings," he said. "New phones are paying more attention to chicness, to finish. Part of the appeal of the iPhone is that it's so fashionable. As these devices become more stylish, women will be more accepting."

This evolution of the smart phone as fashion statement still lags the evolution of technology, according to Jourdan.

"They've been adding this function and that function, but they'll become more acceptable to women as an evolution in aesthetics follows the evolution of functionality," she said.

Age matters

Thornton said that age may have more to do with the adoption of advanced mobile devices than gender.

Older folks want a phone that's simple. Said Thornton, "Feature bloat degrades the overall functionality. They say, 'Can't you just give me a phone that does what I want, with a screen that I can see and buttons I can push?' "

On the other hand, Thornton said, as the workforce gets younger, there will be more demand for different types of phones. Younger people, for instance, are more likely to want their phones to play music and other media, he noted.

In addition, Jourdan said there's a significant generational difference in the complexity people can tolerate. The difference is caused by physical differences, motor coordination and visual acuity. Put simply, younger people of either gender will tolerate more complexity, she said.

Multitasking in a busy world

Whether a phone is preferred by men and women, there are some basic design considerations that make smart phones easier to use, Jourdan and Thornton said. Here are a few of those guidelines, based on their experience in the usability lab:

  • All the major functionality should be available from the main screen so that users are aware of the available services without reading or navigating a hierarchical file structure like the one common to PC operating systems.
  • A dedicated "escape" button should get the user back to the main screen from anywhere with a single click.
  • Icons should be large and labeled, and given ample space on the main screen so that each is salient and clearly discernable from the others.

Both Jourdan and Thornton expressed admiration for the iPhone and its user interface, which implements many of these ideas. Perceptive Sciences specifically conducted usability tests on three smart phones for Computerworld last September and found the iPhone scored extremely well.

"The iPhone is the most recent example of a smart phone that is easy enough to use straight out of the box without much guidance," said Jourdan. "There is actually very little instruction shipped with the handset."

Copyright © 2008 IDG Communications, Inc.

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