Tech companies are looking for ways to design devices that not only appeal to women but are explicitly for women.
This summer, Google announced a version of Google Glass embedded in Diane von Furstenberg frames, and is working with Luxottica on more. Rebecca Minkoff and Case-Mate said they might but have not yet released a line of wearables and tech accessories.
And then there’s the My Intelligent Communication Accessory, or M.I.C.A., smart bracelet, designed in collaboration with Intel and Opening Ceremony, which finally went on sale this month.
The question for all of these “styled for women” devices is simple: why?
“I’m not a woman and I find a little bit of it insulting,” said Robert Brunner, the founder of the San Francisco design studio Ammunition. “People seem to think the way you’re going to sell this to a woman is to just make it look a little more blingy and then they’ll buy it.”
Take the M.I.C.A. Intel said it wanted to design a piece of luxury jewelry that would meet the needs of women, and after listening to in-house focus groups, determined that women were interested in three major criteria for a smart, jewelry-oriented wearable: appearance, communication with family and friends and calendar notifications.
Appearance is obviously subjective. I like the M.I.C.A.’s chunky bangle style, with white or black snakeskin that features lapis lazuli and pearls on the black model and tiger’s-eye with obsidian on the white one. It’s coated in 18-carat gold and is a heavy, formidable piece of jewelry that retails for $495.
But even if I were the kind of person who spends that kind of money on bracelets, the M.I.C.A. is a dismal failure as a communications device.
It cannot communicate with your actual smartphone — there’s not even an app for it. And the M.I.C.A. has its own phone number. So if you want to receive text message alerts on the bracelet, your contacts will have to text the bracelet, though it cannot receive calls.
Responses to incoming messages are limited; there’s no virtual keyboard, which would be impractical on such a small screen, or microphone for dictation. You can reply with up to 30 canned responses or create 10 of your own.
Intel said it’s working on enabling some kind of “twinning” functionality on the M.I.C.A. that would let it share your existing number. But the stand-alone phone number introduces other complexities: Two years of data are included in the price of the bracelet, but after that it will require its own separate data plan or go offline permanently.
The M.I.C.A. can alert you to upcoming calendar events and email, but that, too, is limited. Using the M.I.C.A.’s web interface, you can add two Gmail accounts, but no other web accounts and it can display only Google calendar and Facebook calendar notifications.
The M.I.C.A. includes GPS and integration with Yelp for finding nearby businesses. The Yelp listings show you the address and rating of a business, but not its phone number.
On top of that, the bracelet’s interface is not intuitive and the touch screen isn’t very responsive.
What it is, in a nutshell, is pretty but dumb.
And that’s the problem. Tech companies like Intel or Google believe they need designers to help them make wearables that will appeal to women. Maybe they do, but not if the tech suffers as a result.
It’s good that Intel tried to research the tech needs of women, even if they don’t sound that different from the tech needs of men. But they prioritized fashion over utility.
A few women-only wearables are stripping out excess technology in a way that could make sense. Most people who have tried smartwatches appreciate their ability to notify you about events, calls and messages without requiring you to look at your phone.
So, Ringly created pretty, Bluetooth-enabled rings that can notify you through vibrations or flashing lights about incoming messages or imminent meetings (you customize the notifications).
Ringly’s Bluetooth-enabled rings send notifications through vibrations or flashing lights about incoming messages or imminent meetings. Credit
And that’s all they do. The design makes a relatively safe assumption about women: that we tend to keep our phones in our purses, not our pockets. So, if you prefer a lovely ring to a clunky smartwatch for your notifications, Ringly is a nice feminine option.
Not every design partnership has to be a flop. The line of Tory Burch accessories for Fitbit works because the Fitbit Flex is actually a removable tracker that slips inside the rubber bracelet that comes standard with the device. The jewelry accessories let you pop the tracker into either a bracelet or necklace and wear it in a different way.
The pendants and bracelets come in gold, silver or rose gold. I tried the gold necklace, which is way too large and flashy. But the rose gold bracelet is elegant.
You have to buy an entire Fitbit Flex for $100 and then the bracelet ($195) or necklace ($175), so accessorizing is expensive. But then you can pop the tracker back into the rubber bracelet when you’re working out or want something more sporty.
Accessorizing existing wearables could be a promising track. And there may be some successful devices that are simply designed for women, as long as they’re designed well. It’s O.K. to differentiate wearables by gender or style — they’re not a simple tool like a computer or a smartphone.
Wearables make a personal statement. But designers must tread carefully as they try to find a balance between style and utility.
“The trick is making something that people feel good about wearing and has some meaning to them,” said Mr. Brunner. “You only get so far with sprinkling some fashion dust on it. You have to get in and engineer the thing inside and out.”
© The New York Times 2014