People of gender?

A few years ago, I hacked together a prototype of an IBE-encrypting IM client using an early version of the Voltage IBE Toolkit. It was interesting to use the Toolkit to IBE-enable a new application. Even more interesting was what I learned about usability and user interfaces from the experience.

After having finished the encryption part of the IM client, I thought that I’d ask people how they wanted the IM client’s user interface to indicate that a particular message was encrypted. I found the results to be a bit surprising – they were clearly divided along gender lines.

Men, it turned out, wanted a fairly in-your-face indication that a particular message was encrypted. They suggested things like changing the background color of an IM window to bright red or displaying the text "SECURE" in a large font. Every man that I asked about this gave a similar answer, although the particular way to indicate an encrypted message varied from man to man.

Women didn’t seem to like this idea at all. They all wanted a much more subtle indication. They thought that a small padlock icon was adequate to indicate that a message was encrypted, and that the padlock should be the familiar shade of gold that’s often used to indicate that a browser is using SSL for an encrypted connection. Every woman that I asked about this gave a similar answer. They even described the padlock icon that they wanted to see in a similar way.

Extrapolating from a single point is not a great idea, but based on this one data point, there seems to be a significant difference in the user interface that people would like to see based on their gender. Is there enough of a difference in the user interface that men want versus what women want to justify having two options – one that’s tailored to the expectations of men and another that’s tailored to the expectations of women?

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