Principles of Designing Websites for a Female Audience

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Are women and men really from different planets as the popular book from a generation ago suggests? Probably not. However, that doesn’t mean they have exactly the same triggers when it comes to their reactions to website design, or any other kind of marketing, for that matter.

Because males and females are wired in unique ways – and that doesn’t mean that all women or men are the same, this is a generalization, of course – web developers have to keep the psychological makeup of their target audiences in mind.

A website that’s primarily meant to drive women may therefore be intentionally tweaked to attract female viewers and guide them to take appropriate actions, such as signing up for an email, downloading a PDF or buying a product.

With all that being said, this doesn’t mean that web designers have to give in to the stereotypes or myths of females, such as:

  • They all like pink: This is one of those mischaracterizations that can absolutely turn off some visitors to a site. Pink is a great color when used correctly, but it’s not the right hue for all websites designed with women in mind. Dell tried this unsuccessfully when it launched a more feminine version of their website, called Della, specifically targeting women with pastel netbooks. Guess what? It tanked! Women aren’t dolls, and they don’t want their laptops to look like a Barbie Dream House accessory.
  • They like a lot of frills: Women are often associated with lace and frills, but too much decoration – and too little substance – is a no-no for many reasons. Not only is it tough to focus on what matters, but it’s also kind of an insult. Besides, who wants a cluttered website that looks like grandma’s doily?
  • They want pictures of little kids, cats and fluffy things: Yes, this is honestly still a misconception about women. Certainly, if the site is about being a mom or loving kittens, then it’s fine to use these types of photos, but not all female-focused sites should burst at the seams with cuteness.

Female website design Della

Given these factors, there are definitely some design elements that seem to resonate with female visitors. Some are obvious; others are quite subtle. All depend upon the ultimate goal of the site and should be carefully considered within context.

Here are some web design elements that appeal to women without alienating or offending anybody:

Make the Navigation Simple and Clean

Think women have all the time in the world to navigate your site? Think again. Modern women lead busy lifestyles, and they don’t want to fuss around with a website that has a lousy navigation. Why should they have to hunt for what they need when your competitor’s site is so much easier to use?

Get your audience to the point in as few clicks as necessary. Not only will you see a lower bounce rate, but your client should see a higher response rate. Make sure the site is clean on mobile, too. Even so-called responsive sites aren’t always easy to navigate. Spend some time developing a mobile version of the site or, better, a responsive design that is straightforward and not annoying.

ModCloth‘s website offers a great, simple, e-Commerce navigation that still offers a lot of options at a glance:

Female centric design modcloth

Use Artistic, but Uncomplicated, Typography

Women are often very open to appreciating a website design that uses interesting typography in a way that pulls the site together naturally. Consequently, it makes perfect sense to try unique fonts that may have embellishments. The trick is to ensure that these typefaces make sense when viewed with the site as a whole.

For instance, don’t choose a particular typography simply because it seems girly – which is a horrible word to even consider here unless you’re actually creating a website for little girls – but because it appropriately matches the overall theme of the site. Don’t be too clever; if the font seems out-of-place or forced, you’ll wind up alienating your viewers.

Chobani is a great example here, with clear, beautiful product shots topped in elegantly simple sans serif copy below the video on their homepage:

Female centric design of Chobani

Find Photos with Strong Women

One of the craziest aspects of websites that are designed for women is that some of them use stock photos that make absolutely no sense or that seem to be caught up in stereotypes. An e-Commerce site catering to the plus-size audience should keep photographs of plus-size models positive, instead of trying to hide their curves or disguise them. And if the website you are designing sells kitchen equipment, consider turning stereotypes on their head by showing a man cooking for his businesswoman wife – or even a happy couple cooking together. Women pictured on your site should be strong, confident, and powerful.

Again, this boils down to using common sense, but common sense is sometimes lacking in designs. If you cannot find the right images, consider paying a photographer so you can get exactly what you – and your audience – is looking for.

Google, which has been scorned in the past for not equally supporting women in tech, frequently features businesswomen on the Google Analytics homepage:

Google Analytics' design for females

Use Harmonious Color Palettes

Women in general tend to prefer harmonious color palettes in softer tones. However, they also seem to be fond of open designs with a lot of white space. Play around with a few color palettes, using colors sparingly and with much forethought. Resist the temptation to resort to pastel pinks and baby blues unless the website demands it. At the same time, avoid creating sites that are black, white and red or some other trio of bold, stark shades better suited for masculine viewers.

And yes, sometimes pink is appropriate. Refinery29 does a great job pairing a bold pink with bright blues and oranges on their homepage:

Female focused designing

Highlight Money-Saving Elements

If you’re designing a website for a client that’s offering money-saving tips, coupons or specials, by all means, make sure those items are highlighted. Women typically make the purchases for their households, and this gives them tremendous buying power. Essentially, they’re actively looking to keep their virtual and literal wallets as full as they can. Play around with buttons of different sizes and/or various types of call-to-action designs.

Renewal by Andersen, for example, highlights their free consultation and home makeover sweepstakes on their homepage:

Website design for female audience

Test, Test and Test Again

It’s always a smart move to conduct A/B split tests on landing pages to figure out which website design seems to pull stronger numbers from visitors.In the case of female-targeted sites, this is critical. It may even be worth it to pull together focus groups of the types of women that you’re trying to attract with your designs. You can cull the data you receive and use it to make your final product much stronger.

As you continue testing, don’t forget that there’s another element that most web developers might not have much to do with initially, but should definitely add their input about: headlines and titles. As a Web designer, you’re not likely to be the content creator, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t have an opinion or understanding of what female audiences want to see in terms of content. This includes:

  • Headlines that make the women feel powerful and respected.
    The last thing we want to feel is that you are assuming we are stupid.
  • Titles that can be read quickly.
    Women don’t have a lot of time on their hands.They want to browse a website – fast. Titles that are too long will have a negative effect.
  • Headlines that are in a font that can be read.
    Have you ever tried to read a headline only to discover that the typography was getting in the way? Avoid messy-looking headlines, and don’t fall in love with a particular font to the detriment of your site’s performance.

If you discover that the content really doesn’t seem to be suited to women, you owe it to the overall performance of the site to speak up earlier rather than later. The content manager may not make changes that you recommend, but at least you won’t be sitting back in silence when real progress could be made.

Putting It All Together

On some final notes, it’s important to recognize that women are not an impossibly hard-to-please audience. They also aren’t difficult to figure out when it comes to website design. If you have already developed a site for female viewers, and the site doesn’t seem to be performing at the levels you or your client would like, why not make some adjustments to the design? Simple adjustments that don’t end up with any kind of noticeable change in the Analytics can always be reversed.

Of course, one thing should always be kept in the back of your mind: You’re not necessarily building your site for every woman on the planet. The more you drill down to understand the particular woman you want to appeal to – the first-time mom, the early-in-her-career entrepreneur, the senior taking care of a spouse, the 40-something investor – the more your design is going to morph and change. At the end of the day, your goal should be to know as much about your target viewer as possible, and that goes way beyond chromosomes.

So, I turn to you – what have you noticed in your experience building websites to appeal to specific genders? Share your insights in the comments below!

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Comments
  1. Dora E. H. Crow July 23, 2015 at 12:38 pm

    I have to admit that the title of this post concerned me — as a web designer I don’t design for gender. I like the fact that you encourage the use of imagery of strong women and advise against defaulting to pink colors with frilly fonts! I have to disagree with the stereotype that women prefer soft palettes — I am female and I prefer bold, striking palettes. But there will always be that one person who is a bit different, won’t there?

    Bottom line: great post – lots of good advice!

  2. Adrienne July 28, 2015 at 6:38 am

    Thanks, Dora, I’m glad you enjoyed the post! Overall, the consensus still seems to be that women enjoy softer tones, according to the Kissmetrics study I linked. I prefer bold palettes, too, and I think things are moving in that direction!

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