Gender-Oriented Design in Light of the Extreme Male Brain Model

By Liraz Margalit

Published: July 7, 2014

“User-centered design tries to optimize products for the ways users can, want, or need to use them rather than forcing users to change their behavior to use a product.”

For the past fifty years, successful product marketing has involved an effort to see products and services from the customer’s or user’s point of view. User-centered design tries to optimize products for the ways users can, want, or need to use them rather than forcing users to change their behavior to use a product.

“User-centered design (UCD), is a design philosophy where the end-user’s needs, wants, and limitations are a focus at all stages within the design process and development lifecycle.”—Webopedia

Since the late 1980s, the paradigm in design theory has shifted from technology-oriented design to user-oriented design. However, recent studies have shown that this shift has yet to be fully integrated into current design practices. Engineers, product managers, and others who are involved in the design process still consider the user interface and the context of use primarily as integral parts of the overall development process. Many of them—even some UX designers—still mistakenly assume that their own preferences and skills are representative of those of the user or that users will adopt the perspectives of the designers and developers as they interact with a Web site or application. An extreme example of this self‑as‑user outlook is the belief that problems interacting with a product are the fault of users’ mistaken interactions or their failure to follow instructions.

Transforming the Web into Effective Experiences

We need to conceive of a method of systemizing the way people perceive Web sites and applications….”

Rather than approaching design from their own viewpoint, implementers need to recognize that user-centered design specifications are necessary to the process of transforming Web sites and applications into experiences that are more effective and more enjoyable for consumers. Therefore, we need to conceive of a method of systemizing the way people perceive Web sites and applications—and the way we define their functional attributes.

One possible route to understanding the mind of the customer or user is the study of market-segmentation variables. This approach assumes that certain types of people interact with products in specific ways, in particular situations—and that their behaviors relate to the properties of the product that they’re using. Segmentation provides a method of identifying subgroups of consumers who are likely to respond in a relatively homogeneous way to particular products or brands.

An important variable that we can use to differentiate between users is their gender. Research has provided evidence that there are inherited differences between the cognitive styles of men and women—that is, the way men and women think, perceive, and remember information.

“There are inherited differences between the cognitive styles of men and women—that is, the way men and women think, perceive, and remember information.”

The Extreme Male Brain (EMB) model suggests that there are two cognitive styles that explain the differences between men’s and women’s information processing: systemizing and empathizing. This model derives from Simon Baron-Cohen's Extreme Male Theory of Autism. According to Baron-Cohen, there is observable neurological differentiation between boys and girls at birth. While most female babies give most of their attention to social stimuli such as human faces and voices, the majority of boys pay greater attention to non-social, spatial stimuli—for example, the movement of a mobile hanging above a crib. In other words, while female babies like watching people, male babies like watching things that move. Throughout their lives, male and female individuals continue to manifest these early traits in more and more complex ways.

In general, males are significantly better at systemizing than empathizing, while female brains have the opposite cognitive profile. Extreme male individuals who may be weak in empathy—or mindblind to some extent—are at the autistic end of the spectrum; thus, the name of Baron-Cohen’s theory.

Empathizing encompasses all of the skills that are involved in normal, reciprocal social relationships—including intimate ones—and in sensitive communication. Psychometric testing has shown that women, as a group, are better at decoding nonverbal communication, picking up subtle nuances of tone of voice and facial expression, and judging a person’s emotional state than most men.

Extreme Male-Brain Cognitive Styles

Empathizing is competence in recognizing another’s mental state and communicating the appropriate response….”

Empathizing is competence in recognizing another’s mental state and communicating the appropriate response—for example, knowing not to ask “What will we have for lunch?” immediately after hearing that a colleague’s father has just passed away. This complex ability requires a high-level of integration. It’s necessary to:

  1. Identify the other’s feelings in a given situation.
  2. Act accordingly, choosing the appropriate behavior or response.

According to the Theory of Mind, or ToM, empathizing is, therefore, the ability to put oneself into someone else’s shoes; to imagine their thoughts and feelings; and to understand that others have beliefs, desires, and intentions that are different from one’s own.

Systemizing is the drive to analyze or build a system—or to try to identify the rules that govern a system in order to predict how it will behave.”

Systemizing is the drive to analyze or build a system—or to try to identify the rules that govern a system in order to predict how it will behave. Systemizing requires paying a great deal of attention to every detail, since each tiny part in a system may have a functional role. Such systematic analysis allows a person to understand the cause of a certain action, rendering the world more predictable. In an extreme case, the male brain tends toward systemizing and mechanistic thinking, treating other people as if they were logical systems or machines.

In general, females are stronger empathizers and males are stronger systemizers. A growing body of evidence suggests that males spontaneously systemize to a greater degree than females do, while females spontaneously empathize to a greater degree than males. Furthermore, other studies have suggested that mathematics, physics, and engineering—all of which require a high degree of systemization—are largely male occupations, while women are better at decoding nonverbal communications, picking up subtle nuances from tone of voice or facial expression, or judging a person’s character.

Obviously, this does not mean that all men are systemizers and all women are empathizers. Rather, it indicates that, on average, a higher percentage of men tend to systemize while women tend to empathize to a greater degree.

Men’s Versus Women’s Behavior on a Recipes Web Site: A Case Study

“[There are] several distinct differences in the way men and women approach the task of looking for a recipe.”

At Clicktale, we conducted an analysis of the behavior of men and women on a recipes Web site. Our evaluation of heatmaps, showing the parts of pages that each segment viewed the most, points to several distinct differences in the way men and women approach the task of looking for a recipe.

The majority of men demonstrated behaviors that correspond to the systemizer cognitive style, as follows:

  • Men tended to look for simpler recipes that take less time to read and prepare. The recipe most viewed by men was that for cooking salmon.
  • Many men read more comments from other Web site visitors to understand what they considered to be easy recipes. This may indicate that they might not otherwise fully or intuitively grasp whether a recipe is easy or difficult to execute.
  • Men visited only a maximum of three pages, demonstrating very focused intent.

The behavior of women, on the other hand, was markedly consistent with the empathizing cognitive style:

  • Because most women are more confident in their abilities in the kitchen, they tended to look for more elaborate recipes—perhaps those that would enable them to show off and demonstrate their culinary expertise. The most-looked-at recipe for women was the maple cake.
  • For the most part, women did not read the comments that others had posted.
  • On average, women visited six recipe pages or more.

The mouse-click heatmaps shown in Figure 1 indicate that a higher percentage of women browsed up and down the page. Plus, more women tended to browse through the different categories of food recipes at the top of the screen. Men, on the other hand, just looked for exactly what they wanted, then left the site.

Figure 1—Mouse-click heatmaps for men, on the left, and women, on the right

Mouse-click heatmaps for men, on the left, and women, on the right

The attention heatmaps shown in Figure 2 demonstrate that men were very focused on the ingredients of a recipe and how to prepare it, as indicated by the most-read areas in the upper-middle section of the page, which coincides with the systemizer style. Women, on the other hand, browsed up and down the page more and were less focused on the instructions.

Figure 2—Attention heatmaps for men, on the left, and women, on the right

Attention heatmaps for men, on the left, and women, on the right

This simple analysis demonstrates that we must consider the cognitive styles that men and women typically use to interpret the world when designing a user experience. However, this does not mean that we should design Web sites specifically for men or women. Our designs for all sites must take these differences into account.

Implications of Gender Differences

We must consider the cognitive styles that men and women typically use to interpret the world when designing a user experience.

Gender differences impact many aspects of life—for example, shopping behavior. A study titled “Men Buy, Women Shop” revealed significant differences between the shopping behaviors of men and women. According to Wharton’s marketing professor Stephen J. Hoch, shopping behavior mirrors gender differences in many other aspects of life. He says, “Women think of shopping in an interpersonal, human fashion, and men treat it as more instrumental. It’s a job to get done.” He points out that this data has implications for businesses that are interested in developing a more segmented approach to building and maintaining loyalty among male and female customers.

The study found that women are more focused on the experience, men on the mission. Women react more strongly than men to personal interactions with sales associates, while men are more likely to respond to the more utilitarian aspects of the experience—such as the availability of parking, whether the item they need is in stock, and the length of the checkout line. Women tend to be more invested in the shopping experience, while men just want to go to Sears, buy a specific tool, and get out. According to Delia Passi, the founder of WomenCertified, women tend to be more focused on people, while men sometimes act almost as if they are dealing with an ATM machine. In fact, they might prefer to deal with an ATM machine. They don’t really want to deal with a person.

Gender-Oriented User Experiences?

“Online behavior is greatly affected by one’s cognitive style. Men and women go online for different reasons, are attracted to different types of Web sites, and pay attention to different elements on a Web page.”

Online behavior is greatly affected by one’s cognitive style. Men and women go online for different reasons, are attracted to different types of Web sites, and pay attention to different elements on a Web page. Here are some examples of how the online behavior of men and women reflects their different cognitive styles and what distinguishes their interactions with Web sites:

  • reasons to go online—Men are more oriented toward impersonal or individualistic goals than women, while women are more oriented toward social integration. While women enjoy the browsing process, men are more task oriented and focus on how well they are able to accomplish a task and find what they are looking for.
  • types of Web sites—Women focus on socializing and communication and spend more time doing social networking and writing email messages, while men care more about functionality and are more likely to use the Internet as a tool—for example, to check the weather; get news, sports, political, and financial information; or download software.
  • behavior and attention—When online, women are much more concerned about security, need more information to make a decision—which ties in with the results of our analysis that women read more pages than men—prefer different colors, read more ad copy, read stories with details, and care more about bargains. Men, on the other hand, tend to be more impulsive shoppers, prefer headlines and bullet points, and are less concerned about shipping costs than women.

Segmenting by gender is crucial if businesses are to make their Web sites more enjoyable for everyone, empower their visitors, and ultimately, increase their revenues. This does not mean, however, that gender-based segmentation should lead to the creation of Web sites that are for only women or only men. But we do need to pay careful attention to gender differences and avoid designing Web sites that have a strong male or female presence or bias. On the other hand, if a site fails to support the cognitive style of either men or women, the quality of their interactions with it could be strongly affected.

We can apply gender segmentation in two ways:

  1. By analyzing the online behavior of men in comparison with that of women, using traditional tools and in-page analytics
  2. By surveying a sample of visitors to discover whether they are systemizers or empathizers, then checking whether we can detect specific behaviors that are connected to a higher rate of success or failure

The results of this segmentation process can increase our ability to provide better targeted and, thus, more relevant and desirable user experiences. Gender is an important factor in the meaning-making process. By recognizing the role of users in making sense of interactions and viewing them as co-creators of the online experience, we can improve the browsing experience. At the same time, we can significantly increase the growth and profitability of a business’s online endeavors.

References

Boyle, Grace. “A Comparison: Men’s vs. Women’s Online Behavior.” Small Hands Big Ideas, April 27, 2009. Retrieved July 7, 2014.

Lawson, John, Simon Baron-Cohen, and Sally Wheelwright. “Empathising and Systematizing in Adults with and without Asperger Syndrome.” Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, Volume 34, Number 3, June 2004.

Dexter, Andy. “Egoists, Idealists, and Corporate Animals: Segmenting Business Markets.” International Journal of Market Research, Volume 44, Quarter 1, 2002. Retrieved July 7, 2014.

Hudson, William. “Reduced Empathizing Skills Increase Challenges for User-Centered Design.” In CHI ’09 Proceedings of the SIGCHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems. New York: ACM Press, 2009.

9 Comments

Can you provide some more details on the study: How many participants? How did you recruit them? Did you do any screening? etc.

Thanks for a great write-up! It’s great to see an article addressing gender in UX design.

Can you elaborate on how you came to this conclusion in the recipe study?

“Because most women are more confident in their abilities in the kitchen, they tended to look for more elaborate recipes—perhaps those that would enable them to show off and demonstrate their culinary expertise. The most-looked-at recipe for women was the maple cake.”

I’m not sure I agree with this. Can we assume, in 2014, that women are more confident in their kitchen abilities than men?

The data from the study is what it is, I’m just not sure I agree with the context indicated. I’d really like to hear your thoughts.

Wow. Lots of unsupported gender essentialism in here.

How were confounding factors tracked? What are the sample sizes? How diverse is the pool of participants? Did you control for culinary skill, or did you just assume that women are more skilled in the kitchen?

While I am open to the idea that man and women may tend to different styles of information access, it is unfortunate that you chose to use a recipe Web site in your study, when you clearly believe that women are more expert cooks. The differences you observed could be due, at least in part, to the difference in expertise rather than any intrinsic difference in male versus female browsing behaviour. It would be interesting to repeat this experiment using a more gender-neutral Web site, aimed at an interest known to be shared more equally by men and women.

The work in this article is informed by the 2004 formulation of “Extreme Male Brain,” but a lot more has been written about the major limitations of that perspective. The EMB authors have in fact edited their diagnostics to address some of the limitations. Others feel it is incorrect to think of autism on the male-female continuum, but rather look at it as a pattern wholly unique to either.

From the article “‘The Extreme Male Brain?’ Incrementum and the Rhetorical Gendering of Autism:”

“Women who have autism or Asperger’s syndrome are effectively marginalized in the EMB theory.”

“In essence, Barbeau, Mendrek, and Mottron argue against the incrementum that positions men, women, and people with autism along a scale; instead, they suggest, autism might present a different type of pattern altogether, one that does not fall neatly on a male-female continuum.”

“Some researchers question the EMB theory for its failure to account fully for the range of features that characterize autism.”

LOL This article was like flypaper for feminazis. :)

Agree with Alan: the results seem more correlated to the content itself versus any intrinsic gender differences. For example, if you were to test a page for how to assemble furniture, you might find men tend to avoid instructions (for better or for worse) whereas women find them useful.

Interesting topic though.

Thank you for your comments. I would like to address a few of the issues that were mentioned. As I wrote in the article, we conducted an analysis, not controlled laboratory research.

Clicktale helps businesses to achieve their online goals by providing actionable insights into their customers’ psychology and behavior through visualizations of in-page behavior and those actionable insights.

The analysis was based on the recorded behavior of 5000 unique visitors. Our interpretation of the gender differences was supported by a questionnaire and self reports.

Of course, when analyzing visitor behavior in a different context or on a different Web site, the behavior might change. When interpreting the data, we took all of these factors into consideration.

With regard to the EMB model, the only important criticism states that gender differences are not innate, but learned. This observation does not effect the accuracy of the model.

I’d just like to add to Marsha’s comments above. There is quite a lot of, how shall I put it, healthy debate in the cog psych world about the validity of EMB.

In particular:

  • Various studies have found only a weak negative correlation between systemizing and empathizing in the general population. Being good at one does not necessarily make you bad at the other.
  • Generally the gaze fixation differences between infants—objects versus faces—that were a basis of EMB weren’t reproduced in later studies. See “Sex Differences in Intrinsic Aptitude for Mathematics and Science?,” for example.

There’s a brief write-up and some further reading over at Wikipedia for those who might be interested.

TL;DR: Colour me skeptical…. I’d be interested in a breakdown of other factors—level of experience, and so on—in addition to gender.

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