E-Male? No More

What has been a fact of life in the real world since Adam and Eve trod through Eden has at last become a reality in cyberspace. The Internet is no longer mostly for, or by, boys.

Women, especially those between the ages of 18 and 34, are becoming a significant force in adopting new technologies and engaging in sophisticated Internet use, according to a poll of 2,000 Canadian Internet users. That POLLARA survey found that more than 40 percent of the most frequent and sophisticated Internet users are women. That’s up from the 30 percent claimed by the previous year’s study.

Now let me ask you one simple question: Bearing in mind that 40 percent of such users in Canada, and most likely even more in the States, are female, do the Net’s content, style, navigation, and general approach reflect that fact? I don’t reckon you would think so.

I’m not referring to an absence of superficial “feminizing.” But of course you know I don’t mean that. What I’m pointing out is that most Web sites clearly reflect a lack of an appreciation of the female user’s psyche and approach to inquiry and tasks.

By now the Internet is part of mainstream communication media. So the flexibility, accessibility, and straightforwardness of traditional communication channels should be forming part of the Internet’s operational repertoire as well.

But just think about it. Most Web sites, if not nearly all of them, look like index pages from the New York Stock Exchange. They use stock photos, often of people shaking hands or grasping something equally unoriginal, such as cell phones. The stock subjects are all clad in stereotypical colors. The result of such thoughtlessly deployed and, as a consequence, often superfluous imagery, is the site’s utter lack of unique personality. Presentation is not a superficial issue. It’s a vital part of a site’s message, and it’s an invitation to the user to navigate her way toward a brand’s objectives.

If you’re a woman, and I assume some 40 percent of you who are currently reading this article are, it’s likely to have been some time since you encountered a Web site that elicited a response from you such as this: “Wow! What a useful and intriguing Web site. Great message, logical navigation, memorable personality. Hey, I wouldn’t mind becoming part of that company! And I’ll certainly return to the site.” Am I right in guessing that you’ve never experienced such Net-inspired optimism?

On the other hand, when did you last visit a site and leave as quickly as possible, weighed down with an impression such as this: “What an incredibly boring, information-free, unrewarding site. What were they trying to tell me/sell/achieve?” I find this reaction a regular occurrence, and I’ll bet you do as well, even when you’re supposedly part of the site’s target audience.

But hear this, all Net users: Despair not of your fading interest. Things are changing for the better, and soon site builders will be achieving that all-important site characteristic: stickiness.

One of the reasons site design has been so apparently uninformed by the driving need to gain and hold human interest is that most site builders have to date been — you guessed it — men. In fact, an Australian survey shows that 85 percent of Web sites have been designed by men.

But the female portion of the world’s technology and programming population is growing rapidly. The result is likely to be navigation and style characteristics that better reflect an appreciation of human interaction and a broader understanding of communication needs. Site logic and accessibility will assume the universal application enjoyed by other mainstream communication channels.

The real world of men, women, and children — the elderly and the young, the informed specialists and the generalists — will at last be reflected in cyberspace.

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