Give me a pastel website with a woman's touch

6th January 2006 at 00:00
What kind of car do I drive? I used to drive a red one, but now I've got a blue one. I also infuriate my husband when I'm jigging about looking for a book. "Which book is it?" he'll ask. "A purple one," I'll say.

I'm pleased to discover that it's not just me. Women and men have different ways of categorising information.

I remember when I first started using the Blackboard Virtual Learning Environment. I deliberated over the colour, design and shape of the buttons for my very first course. I eventually settled on a kind of oval contoured shape, in purple and yellow, and themed pages of elegant pastel washes and gently floating panels. A Flash animation tumbled into each page, introducing a nice element of chaos.

Imagine how shocked I was to discover that Steve my colleague had committed his course to the standard Blackboard layout; no nonsense columns, and plain navigation buttons.

Rod Gunn and Gloria Moss would not have been surprised. Apparently, their research has found that, in website design, men like straight lines, fewer colours and formal language. Women like rounded shapes, abbreviations and lots of colour.

The problem is, practically all education websites appear to be biased towards men. Who wants to turn off half their customers?

Most sites are designed by men. Men design for men, women design for women.

So that's why Steve's website did the business for him, but turned me right off.

I feel vindicated in the choices I made over my first course. The problem is that the software we use now is designed to produce web pages that will please men. I've looked in vain for ways to add colour, wavy lines and interesting frilly bits. The assumption made by the program is "get away with you woman, these things are not important".

A survey of my own classes revealed that the lads just wanted the information from sites without too much clicking. The girls liked colour and lots of buttons and bows and "nothing boring and ordinary". As they navigate around my Blackboard course, I am aware that it is, according to the research, showing a bias to men. It is functional, easy to set up, but definitely not what women want.

When I showed my first Blackboard course to colleagues who had yet to take the plunge into the virtual world, I would deliberately annoy the men by murmuring: "It's so pretty, isn't it?" I didn't realise then that I was exposing the great divide.

Designing a virtual course is challenging. You can't separate the material from the technology. As McCluhan said: "The medium is the message." The male bias uncovered by this latest study simply adds another layer to our understanding of how our students learn and interact with the material.

We have to find a way of getting the girls on board. If not, they'll tune out completely. Look at Jane. Her task was to produce a 10-minute presentation. She's no technophobe, and to hand she had a room full of techy goodies, including digital projector, screen, computers, the works.

She eschewed all technology and resorted to the Blue Peter method. She spent an hour cutting up a cardboard box, gluing, pasting and colouring.

Face flushed, she said: "This is great fun - I love doing this."

With the box transformed into a television set, she popped it on to her shoulders and did "an outside broadcast straight into the heart of your living-room".

Dr Carol Gow lectures in media at Dundee College

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