August 2010

Volume 25 Number 08

Don’t Get Me Started - Mars and Venus

By David Platt | August 2010

David PlattA client of mine was scratching his head over his wife’s behavior when he’d taken her shopping for a new netbook. “Look at this, honey,” he had told her. “A dual-core processor. How’d they get one into this little box? Wow, what a neato heat sink.”

“That’s nice, dear,” she said to him. “But will it do Facebook? That’s what I want.”

“I told her all about the disk and the memory, how it was a really nice unit for the price,” the guy told me, “But all she kept
asking was, ‘Will it do Facebook?’ How can she not care about this important stuff?”

I don’t think he’d been married very long.

My client was reporting a common, almost archetypal, division of thought, which market research guru Paco Underhill discussed in his book “Why We Buy: The Science of Shopping” (Simon & Schuster, 1999). “Men are in love with the technology itself, with the gee-whiz factor, with the horsepower. … [They’re] gathered around the barbecue comparing the size of their hard drives and the speed of their modems. As they say, it’s a dude thing.” Women, on the other hand, “take a completely different approach to the world of high-tech. They take technologies and turn them into appliances. They strip even the fanciest gizmo of all that is mysterious and jargony in order to determine its usefulness. Women look at technology and see its purpose, its reason—what it can do [for them]. The promise of technology is always that it will make our lives easier and more efficient. Women are the ones who demand that it fulfill its purpose.” The husband in my example obsessed over hardware—the means. The wife concentrated on Facebook—the desired end.

The developer population is almost entirely male. It reached 25 percent female at one point; now it’s down to 10 percent in the United States, and less in Europe. The user population was also once all-male, back when the Earth was still cooling off and the last few dinosaurs tottered around wondering where their friends had gone; today it isn’t. Half of your users are female, which means that their thought processes probably resemble those of my client’s wife more than they do yours.

And it’s often more than half. Many user populations contain far more women than men—nurses, for example (94 percent female, according to nursingadvocacy.org/faq/rn_facts.html ) or elementary school teachers (85 percent female, according to a bnet.com article). I recently walked through the customer service department of one of my financial-industry clients and counted 100 percent females, mostly in their 40s and 50s, soon to be using software built by men in their 20s. At least I got those guys thinking about the differences.

What pleases a female user? If I knew for sure, I’d be retired on my private island, not knocking out these columns for a pittance per word. I remember trying to convince my mother how great my idea was of self-location and directions on her cell phone (back in 2004, before this became ubiquitous). She wasn’t interested. “I can usually figure out where I am without much trouble, and if not, I ask someone. I know you want me to say yes because you think it’s so cool, but I don’t really care. Sorry.” I had a flash of sympathy for the geekiest guy in the galaxy when Harry Mudd told him: “You’re an excellent science officer, Mr. Spock, but you couldn’t sell false patents to your mother.”

When we’re trying to develop software that doesn’t suck, we have to consider the difference between an X and a Y chromosome. It’s bigger than you think. Next time you’re roughing out a design, ask your mother what she would do with it. And listen to what she tells you.

Reader mail department: In response to my statement in the May issue that “your mother might [be interested in your software], because you wrote it and she loves you,” a reader named Barclay drew my attention to B. B. King’s classic blues song, “Nobody Loves Me But My Mother, And She Could Be Jivin’ Too.” You’ll find it online in the usual places, such as youtube.com/watch?v=OIW4ARVbhrw.


David S. Plattteaches Programming .NET at Harvard University Extension School and at companies all over the world. He is the author of 11 programming books, including “Why Software Sucks” (Addison-Wesley Professional, 2006) and “Introducing Microsoft .NET” (Microsoft Press, 2002). Microsoft named him a Software Legend in 2002. He wonders whether he should tape down two of his daughter’s fingers so she learns how to count in octal. You can contact him at rollthunder.com.