March 13, 1996
Designing for Women:
Low-Tech, Practical Web Sites
By KATHERINE CAVANAUGHhen Federated Department Stores launches Weddingline.com on March 15 it will provide
brides-to-be with a highly detailed "countdown calendar" for planning a wedding, plus sage and time-tested bridal registry tips.
debuts March 15.
But perhaps most significantly, its producers have made certain that the site is quick to load, rich in content and totally devoid of gimmicks that would require cutting-edge Web technologies that can be time consuming to install. In each of these choices, the site's producers believe that their design addresses the values of female Web users.
"If our service helps the time-poor and overextended woman who has hundreds of things to accomplish as she plans a wedding and maintains a career, I think that we have accomplished our goal," said Susan Finkelstein, the vice president of special services at Macy's West who oversaw the creation of Weddingline.com.
Similarly, when Clinique,
the cosmetics company, launched its first Web site this month, its creators were not interested in featuring the latest Web gizmos like Shockwave or streaming video. They were interested in trying to stimulate discussion on the site, in providing customized beauty advice and in focusing on issues that women would want to learn about, like managing a career, family issues and personal safety.
"We are using the technology not just to create eye candy but in a way to create something of value to women," said Angela Kapp, executive director of special markets and technology at Clinique.
As growing numbers of women are spending more work and leisure hours on the Internet -- according to the latest Georgia Tech GVU World Wide Web User Survey, women account for approximately 30 percent of the Internet population.
That represents a strong increase in women's use of the Web, and companies that market their products to female consumers have taken note. Many are working with marketing experts and Web designers to determine what features and factors will induce women to visit their site, to keep them coming back and ultimately, to spend dollars on line.
For now, the guiding principle among Web designers who aim to target women seems to be that women are much less enamored of cutting-edge technology and much more attracted to practical uses of information than their male counterparts.
"Women are not as enthralled by technological gizmos," said Heidi Dangelmeier, (http://www.hi-d.com) who has lectured on gender and Web design at New York University and currently designs Web content for People
magazine online. "Using some software is like a great adventure hunt, and a lot of women simply do not have the patience for it or the time."
Dangelmeier says that communications is a huge part of women's social lives, so any Web site that facilitates conversation would tend to attract female visitors. In addition, she believes that sites that are highly interactive and touch an emotional chord can attract great numbers of both men and women.
As an example, Dangelmeier cites the "Shall I Stay or Shall I Go" site, which she recently designed, incorporating elements of a TV talk show and a focus group in a discussion of whether or not someone should leave a relationship.
Dangelmeier, who previously designed CD-ROMS for games companies, adds: "The Web allows more experimentation and design for women, unlike the CD-ROM market where, for example, the street fighter format is really big and they cling desperately to that formula," Dangelmeier said. "The Web is more a vehicle for silently changing things."
Other designers say that women appear to spend less time on line because there is not enough noncommercial content on the Web specifically targeting women. They also express concern that sites designed expressly for women can be very patronizing in terms of both content and design.
Still others feel strongly that gender issues in web design are irrelevant and possibly offensive and prefer to design their sites for as broad an audience as possible. Indeed the subject can provoke much debate among web site producers and designers.
Betsey Kershaw, a freelance Web designer who helped fashion the Web site for Elle magazine and is now at work on another site targeting women, said: "I think that many of the current formulas out there for Web sites do not work for women. So many of them are about selling products rather than creating a community and fostering feedback, something that is very important in order to attract women,"
Kershaw predicts that as more corporate sites exploit interactivity and find out what women really want, greater numbers of women will go online.
Research facilities are also seeking ways to attract women to the Web.
For example, earlier this year, AT&T Downtown Digital, a production studio and research facility in TriBeCa affiliated with AT&T, unveiled Herspace, a one-of-a-kind gateway to the Internet for women that embodies features its creators believe women will find particularly useful and appealing.
Fruma Markowitz, the executive producer of Herspace, describes it as, "not a search engine like Yahoo but an impartial, third party place," that condenses many different areas of the Web of interest to women into four categories: "Home," "Work," "The 3rd Space," and "Cafe Life," It also offers critiques of the sites to wich t provides links.
"The guiding principle behind this site," Markowitz said, "is that women don't have a whole lot of time to surf the Web and need to find things fast and easily. Thus, we put all the main issues and subtopics on our main page rather than forcing the viewer to travel deeper.
"The idea was, if I am a working mother looking for sites relevant to my needs and I'm also really interested in where to buy great bulbs for my garden and I only have my lunch hour to find all these various sites, it would be really convenient to do all my on- line errands in one place. That's what Herspace allows women to do."
A grassroots notion that grew into a full-fledged research project, Herspace reflects the eclecticism of its creators, a mostly female staff ranging in age from 20 to 50 and spanning a wide spectrum of professional responsibilities, from office help to senior executives.
The site covers a broad range of topics, allowing a visitor seeking information on entrepreneurship, for example, quick-read assessments of four relevant sites -- BizWomen, Office of Women's Business Ownership, Women in Business and the Feminist Majority Directory of Women-Owned Businesses.
A viewer seeking information on cooking will find a broad range of reviews of, and links to, sites that cover topics ranging from mushroom cooking to "Rolling Your Own Sushi."
Markowitz says that trying to create a sense of community and support where women can commiserate is yet another important goal of the Herspace site. It features a "Listening Post" section and a "Weekly Issue" section, both designed to encourage chat and conversation.
"Currently e-mail is the most frequent application that women use on line," Markowitz says, "and bulletin boards appear to be less popular, because that takes more time."
In terms of design, Herspace has a home-made, noncorporate feel, with many whimsical images and a soft, blue sky and wispy, white cloud background. On the welcome page, visitors find a homey, living room setting, with a cozy fire, writing desk and not a single computer in sight.
"The idea was to stay away from anything slick, cyber or supertechnoid and to eliminate all the little videos and RealAudios that other sites offer," Markowitz said. "Instead, the goal here was to try to make any technology on the site transparent and to simply relate to women's interests in the broadest possible fashion."
As to whether or not Herspace is achieving its goals, only time -- and a Web traffic audit report -- will tell.
New Forum: Web Sites for Women
Do you feel that gender issues are relevant or irrelevant in Web site design? Join the discussion.
Following are links to the external Web sites mentioned in this article. These sites are not part of The New York Times on the Web, and The Times has no control over their content or availability. When you have finished visiting any of these sites, you will be able to return to this page by clicking on your Web browser's "Back" button or icon until this page reappears.
Weddingline.com, a bridal site to be launched on March 15 by Federated Department Stores.
Clinique, the cosmetics company's home page.
GVU World Wide Web User Survey from Georgia Tech.
Home page of Heidi Dangelmeier, who has lectured on gender and Web design at New York University and currently designs Web content for People magazine on line.
Shall I Stay or Shall I Go?
Copyright 1996 The New York Times Company