Gender, diversity and wearable technology

Is gender inclusive design the same as unisex design? If it is, does it work for all genders? Companies producing wearable technology interpret universal design as unisex design. But is this the best way to interpret it? When it comes to diversity and wearable technology some nuances are needed.

Companies making wearables are interpreting and implementing the concept of universal design in different ways. That’s according to some recent research by Jenni Hokka.

A Suunoto sports watch on a wrist. Wearable technology.

Wearable technology sits between fashion, design and technology. The concept of wearables covers many kinds of devices. Intelligent textiles to medical devices, and shoe sensors to fitness trackers are all wearables. As the technology changes so do the users. Sports watches were originally designed for male amateur athletes, but now they are used by all genders.

As niche wearables become everyday items, the designs need to change and adapt as well. That is, if you want to capture a wider market – and be more inclusive with designs. Being inclusive is what Hokka wanted to discover in her research. The first step is to find out what designers think universal design is and how they practice it.

Hokka discusses the history of design practice and the way design culture varies across nationalities. She took the approach of sociology of design in the research. Many companies want to be socially responsible and provide benefits to users, but are they capturing all potential users?

  1. Some objects have a gendered user history
  2. Design language reflects gendered thinking and needs to overcome this
  3. Companies want to approach new user groups with inclusive design
  4. Economic imperatives drive the need to appeal to the widest range of users
  5. Inclusive design is more than a goodwill gesture
Moodmetric ring in a black and white image. The ring has wide black band over a silver coloured base. A wearable device.

Case studies

Four Finnish wearable products, two different rings, a watch, and shirt and shorts were the subject of the case studies. Suunto Sport Watch was not designed explicitly for men, but the size and shape indicate the imagined user would be male. Products designed to attract female users is usually done through stereotypical colours (“pinking”).

When male users are envisioned, the product is promoted with the most advanced technology. When female users are envisioned, the product is promoted as having style. But now Suunoto wanted to design a watch suitable for every situation. That means it had to look stylish and comfortable to wear night and day. The design language also had to change from unisex to gender-neutral.

The decision to design a unisex ring was based on the two companies in the study being small and therefore cost of production was a major factor. The Moodmetric stress management ring was originally targeted at the yoga market. Eventually it included the health care research institutions. The ring needed to be small and comfortably used in any environment.

Sportswear with digital sensors was considered mainly for women because of the fabric, But wearing lycra has become non-gendered. Myontec sportswear is more focused on scientific data than fashion. However fashion played a part in the development of the product. That’s because the sensors needed to hit the right muscles. Consequently, the placement of the sensors is the starting point for the whole design,

Solving the design problems

All the companies interpreted inclusive design as unisex design. However, their reasoning for implementing these ideals varied. Suunoto modified the size and colours of the products based on user feedback. User feedback lead to more inclusive products that are financially worth making. Inclusive design is therefore more than a goodwill gesture.

The rings were redesigned to be smaller because they are meant to be worn all the time. Designers believed men would not want to wear a large ring, which culturally is something women usually do. Consumer behaviour for these products don’t necessarily act on gendered social norms anyway. The lesson for designers is not to presume an gender-related user expectations.

The shorts and shirt clothing faced the dilemma of combing inclusivity and human diversity in the same product in practical ways. The design challenge involved more than gender – it had to accommodate different body sizes. However, there is more funding for men’s sportswear, which is creating a gender bias.

The title of the article is, Gender and the Diversity of the Human Body as Challenges for the Inclusive Design of Wearable Technology.

From the abstract

Wearable technology products that need to be in close contact with the user’s skin to function must be a good fit for the user’s body. As wearable technology has transitioned to a widespread, everyday item, these products compete to appeal to ever-larger user groups.

This study investigates how designers of wearable technology a interpret the idea of inclusive design when developing their products for a diverse population. Four case studies, show how the diversity of the human body poses practical challenges for inclusive design. In addition inclusive design is also influenced by cultural understandings of gender.

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