University websites need design shift

Professor Gloria Moss at Bucks New University looks at the influence of gender on university website design and the affects on users

By Professor Gloria Moss at Bucks New University 

Look at most premier league football club or car websites and you will see the same format. A box in the middle of the home page featuring players in full flight or shiny cars. Shifting to University websites, you will see boxes filled with young people but essentially, all these websites are strikingly similar.

A little known fact is that websites can look different. My studies comparing personal websites by male and female students have shown that this ‘boxy’ look is more likely to occur on the men’s than women’s websites. The differences do not stop there. Other features in the men’s websites include horizontal lines; black and blue typefaces; few background colours and images of men. The women’s websites, by contrast, are more likely to feature rounded lines, use of small details to break up space, and images of women and colour in the background and typefaces (especially yellow, mauve and red spectrum). These differences were all statistically significant.

In a follow-up study with co-researcher Dr Rod Gunn, the all-important question of preferences was examined. The results showed, to a statistically significant extent (p<0.01) the tendency for each gender to prefer websites by their own gender. A bombshell was finding that while men preferred the male-produced websites overall, they had no significant preference when it came to shapes, and even preferred the female-produced pictures. Women, by contrast, preferred the female-produced websites on every measure tested, including also language, layout and typography colours. What clearer case, in a market where 55% of undergraduates are female, for harnessing the use of the male and female design aesthetic. .  

Yet, a further study by myself and Dr Gunn found a male design coefficient of 0.72 in a sample of University websites. As my new book on gender aesthetics (due to appear in 2014 ) reveals, most university websites are still boxy in appearance with the University of Leeds home page boasting 3 boxes; Westminster, 10 rectangles and Bangor nine boxes and five rectangular links!  

Effecting change may be difficult since web design teams are predominantly male, naturally choosing a style that appeals to them. A positive step can be organizing a workshop to discuss the new scientific evidence refresher training to prevent relapses into the ‘hunter’ style of design (one theory is that male/ female design styles have their origin in evolved visuo-spatial skills). Interestingly, the websites of Universities with higher than average female students such as Liverpool Hope and Bath Spa strongly feature women.