Designing Vehicles in Changing Times
Connie L. Gutowski
Ford Motor Company
The primary commercial change in society of the last decade is the impact women have had in the marketplace. There are 56 million women employed in America today, representing 45 percent of the total work force, and three-fourths of all women between the ages of 35 and 44 hold jobs outside the home. Even more important, women now own nearly 8 million companies in America—a number that has escalated an astounding 78 percent from just 10 years ago.
This coalition of working women has become increasingly independent both financially and intellectually. Women earned more than one trillion dollars in 1995, a fivefold increase from 1975. Increased household income over the last two decades is due almost exclusively to the number of married women working outside of the home. What do women do with this newfound wealth? Not only do women influence consumer purchases, but they often are the primary decision makers in the purchase process—whether that purchase is an automobile, real estate, soft goods, hardware, or health care.
Industry must refine its perspective of the female customer. Since men and women obviously are different physically, emotionally, and socially, strategies for product engineering cannot be gender neutral. Designers cannot construct a single model, and engineers cannot design to a single standard and then expect that their results will best serve all consumers. The basic differences between men and women must affect design in order for the end result to be practical, efficient, effective, and beautiful—all of the attributes for which we engineers strive.
Primary, Secondary, and Tertiary Design
A closer examination of primary, secondary, and tertiary design issues as applied in the automotive industry illustrates these gender differences. Primary design issues concern unique physical differences, such as size and shape, body proportions, reach (arm and leg length), and strength. Secondary design issues focus on the following: usage, which addresses not only practicality but also such safety and security concerns as antilock brakes, airbags, power locks, delayed lighting, cellular phones, and child seats; functionality, which includes such things as ease of entry and egress; and affordability, which includes quality, perceived value and price, and motivation. Finally, tertiary design issues focus on social and cosmetic characteristics. Those include clothing and overall fashion orientation.
Let us investigate some examples of primary design issues. For years, an average-size American Caucasian male was the accepted ''model' of the typical customer. Women tend to be shorter than men, so arm and leg reach—to a brake pedal or gearshift, to instrument panel controls, or to a shoulder harness—have become primary gender-design issues. When researching door handles and door handle heights for the Windstar, for instance, we discovered that there can be as much as a 2-inch difference between the hand width of a small female and a large male. These different dimensions therefore dictated the design and placement of the Windstar handles. Visibility over an instrument panel or rear seat is another primary design issue. Windshield wipers on the Ford Ranger, for example, were reengineered after we determined that the wiper blades could impair the vision of shorter-than-average drivers.
Secondary issues are less tangible because they focus more on consumers' differing motivations and usage patterns. Focus groups confirmed that women place great importance on functionality and affordability. The success of the minivan design, for example, can be attributed to prominent, but simple, functional design features. These include the large side door that opens and allows easy access for children, infant car seats, pets, groceries, and other cargo, as well as cupholders that are strategically placed and designed to hold children's juice boxes and bottles, which have proven to be real benefits for children and, therefore, for mothers.
Another secondary gender-design issue that underscores the differences between men and women is emphasis on safety. Women consistently request safety-related design features, such as power locks, power windows, and delayed interior lighting systems. They want integrated cellular phones and child seats. Women clearly understand the benefits of functional safety items such as airbags and antilock brakes, and they have been instrumental in creating a demand for such features to be standard, even on entry-level vehicles.
Finally, there are the tertiary design issues. Traditionally, it is these tertiary issues—cosmetic design issues—that companies have found easiest to
address. For example, through the 1960s and 1970s, cars were equipped with vanity mirrors for the right front passengers. When the auto companies recognized the growing prominence of women in the marketplace, vanity mirrors were installed on the left-hand visor as well, since more and more women were driving. It was a relatively simple, but superficial, solution. The stereotypic treatment of tertiary design issues can be seen in the introduction in the 1950s of La Femme, a car designed "for women only." With its tea-rose brocade interior and matching hat and handbag, La Femme designers and engineers addressed fashion or tertiary gender-design issues only, and they failed to understand what women really wanted and needed.
Other Industries Face Same Issues
Today, many companies are responding to the increasing impact of women in the marketplace.
About 5 years ago, Gillette discovered, through focus groups and in-home tests, that although both men and women shave, there are clear differences in primary and secondary gender-design issues in razors. Men shave in front of well lit mirrors; women usually shave in dimly lit showers. Men use short shaving strokes for the face, whereas women use long strokes for legs, which is an awkward task with traditional T-shaped razors. Women tend to see shaving as a chore. Men see it as a skill—a rite of passage—especially among teenage boys. Armed with a new thought process, Gillette developed the Sensor for Women. It has a uniquely shaped handle and head, better suited for a woman's hand and for making long strokes. Now, more than half of all razors sold to women are Sensors, and Gillette's market share has risen to over 67 percent, up from 55 percent just 2 years ago.
Ten years ago the term "women's athletic shoe" meant generic aerobic models that were simply smaller versions of men's cross-trainers. According to an industry spokesperson, "the only thing that classified it as a woman's shoe was a pink stripe . . . and little else." Nike's research and development team developed shoes—men's shoes—based on pressure points, shape, weight, padding, and size and then scaled down these shoes for women. In reality, though, a woman's foot is shaped differently from a man's and has different pressure points. It took a complete rethink by Nike and a new focus on women consumers to react, but Nike did it. Building on research, Nike began designing separate molds to ensure a better fit and greater comfort for its female customers.
Although there are positive examples, there is still a great deal of refinement to be done, even in such a high-tech industry as computer software. According to Trendata, 50 percent of personal computers are bought by women—up from 30 percent just 15 years ago. As a result, the computer industry has revised the software bundles it loads into home computers. For example, PCs are packaged with many more programs keyed to women: programs that plan a family vacation and that keep track of key dates and financial records, as well as programs to support home-based businesses, which Trendata acknowledges that women are more likely to own than men.
Nevertheless, although the computer industry appears to be addressing women's needs on a secondary level, the extremely lucrative videogame software market is still searching for the key. The majority of videogame buyers are young males between the ages of 10 and 25. Is this because young women simply are not interested in videogames? Or is it because today's games, which are primarily designed by men for men, do not appeal to women? In general, what appeals to men does not necessarily appeal or sell to women. Software companies need to investigate the motivators. It is known that women shy away from confrontation and violence, but to what other factor does this technology lend itself? There is clear market growth potential here for the first companies that calculate the correct formula.
Women's Marketing Committee Formed
To better understand the female customer and to guarantee that women's needs are addressed, Ford formed the Women's marketing Committee (WMC) in 1987. The WMC's mandate is to educate designers and engineers about the far-reaching effects of the choices they make. The committee is composed of volunteers representing all operational areas of Ford Motor Company, gathering input from design, engineering, manufacturing, finance, and sales. Although the word "marketing" is prominent in its name, marketing is not the committee's primary focus.
Working through eight subcommittees, WMC confronts a variety of design and engineering issues. Its Product Review Team is composed of hundreds of employees—mostly women—who review advanced design concepts. Members also participate in test drives of current and future models, which adds balance and depth to decision making in all facets of design.
Addressing secondary gender-design issues requires a different, more expansive thought process. It requires recognizing what motivates consumers, appreciating their specific needs and wants, and defining those needs and wants in the end products. In an effort to move toward this goal, the WMC completed an extensive women's market Pulse Study, which was the most
comprehensive survey ever conducted specifically with women buyers. The study revealed not only what women want in terms of design, products, and services, but it also uncovered women's attitudes—the reasoning behind their choices.
The study concluded that product quality is the number one buying consideration among women. This is no surprise, since women perceive mechanical breakdowns as personal security concerns, whether they are driving alone or with young children. Because of this, it was assumed that women defined "quality" largely as "reliability," primarily because of their fear of breakdowns. But our Pulse Study data also showed that women are just as concerned about paint flaws and body margins. They are critical about instrument panel fit and finish and about wiper blades that do not streak or smear. Obviously, details get noticed.
Performance is also part of the total package. Power represents both safety and fun to women. They believe increased horsepower will help them pass safely or enter a freeway with more confidence and that better-handling vehicles will improve their ability to avoid accidents. The study also confirmed that women enjoy driving for driving's sake. Women's focus groups have made this point repeatedly: "You don't have to be a man to enjoy quick acceleration or hanging out in the left lane."
A vehicle's performance and its styling are the overwhelming motivators for men, allowing them more easily to "tradeoff" or forego such other attributes as ease of entry and package space. Conversely, our Pulse Study proved women see vehicles as a whole. Women tend to be complex as well as practical. Sacrificing one design feature for another lessens their perception of that vehicle's overall quality.
Impact on Other Consumers
Designing cars and trucks with women in mind will not turn away male customers, nor will it hurt other market segments. In fact, this approach almost always enhances products for all consumers. The lumbar seat support that is now popular in many models originally was designed for the comfort of pregnant women. The Windstar's easy-lift hood, easy-access engine maintenance points, low step-in height, and exterior door handles are features that reflect gender-based design. While they appeal to women, these features benefit older drivers, shorter drivers, and, not surprisingly, most men.
These are changing times. Women are more independent and are making important purchasing decisions. This sea change is very evident in the automotive industry. In the United States in 1995, women purchased 4.3 million new vehicles. They now buy almost 50 percent of the cars and one-fourth of all the light trucks sold. That translates into $83 billion in new vehicle sales every year.
The impact of societal evolution is not confined to the automotive industry. All companies—and the designers and engineers whose jobs are to create commercially successful products—must be both attentive to changing demographics and vigilant in addressing their customers' evolving demands and desires.