I’m bored of hearing about your wife

Almost every time I go to a tech- or gaming-related conference, I hear middle-aged white men in suits talk about their wives and children. This would be lovely and rather sweet, were it not for the fact that they all seem to be married to the same woman, and they all seem to be raising the same children.

A photograph of a blonde woman smiling and holding two blonde children. FlickrCC image by Micah Taylor

“The wife”, as she is often called, is frequently described as “not very good with computers” or “not a gamer.” Often, I hear humbling stories about how The Wife provides an amazing insight into the human condition. Or how she teaches The Exec about what it’s like for the ordinary user, who isn’t familiar with the high-end technological wizardly in which he is apparently so accomplished.

“My son”, says the exec, “is already using an iPad, and he’s only a year old.” There are older children in the family too. “My daughter would be so embarrassed to be seen using a Blackberry!” remarks The Exec, concluding “young people are all using iPhones.”

It’s taken me a while to figure out why this bothers me so much. So what if the people running technology companies make public reference to their wealthy, heteronormative lifestyle in an attempt to give examples of use cases from ‘ordinary people’? They’re bound to draw on their own experience in their work. Far be it from me to tell them to leave their personal life out of it.

I’ve realised that it bothers me because they never once talk about focus groups, and only ever reference market research on a macro-level. These two things combined – coarse, macro-level demographic data and constant reference to the upper-middle-class nuclear family, are leading to design and product decisions that are bad for women, bad for the elderly, and not even that good for business.

I don’t care about this guy’s wife. What she spends her time on is her own business. I do care that he gives his technologically inept wife as the key example when talking about the vague demographic of ‘women aged 35-50′. I don’t care how talented his children are. I do care that he calls tablets “a technology that doesn’t require any training – your children will teach you how to use it” – someone actually said that at the Global Mobile Internet Conference this week. What if I don’t have any children? What if my children don’t have their own iPad?

The Exec decides where to allocate the product development budget. He decides what products get made. He decides the direction the tech industry is moving. And the future he sees is one in which women are removed from the means of production, and anyone who cannot afford to buy an iPad for their children is irrelevant. All because he can’t be bothered to carry out a focus group or buy some qualitative survey data.

This narrow-mindedness appears particularly stupid when you consider the millions of elderly people who are completely neglected by the tech industry. Many of them have a sizable disposable income and lots of leisure time on their hands – perfect for selling computer games to, as long as you get the platform and design right. I always wondered why they were being ignored by the market. Could it be because they don’t fit into the image of the nuclear family with which execs feel compelled to ally themselves?

15 thoughts on “I’m bored of hearing about your wife”

  1. (I just realized I’m commenting with a personal anecdote. Now that’s irony!)

    My first introduction to computers back in 1989 was at my Nana’s house, where she had an Apple with a ridiculously large collection of floppies. I was around three years old and fascinated by the magic box in Nana’s office. She set up a floppy case with my name on it to keep my favorite games in and taught me the commands to run them before I’d even gotten a handle on reading. She was in her seventies at that point. During her final years, she kept herself entertained in part with a Nintendo DS (unfortunately she passed on before the XL came out; she’d have loved a larger screen!) She didn’t consider herself exceptional, or even nerdy. Computers did useful and fun things, so she liked them.

    Of all the many things Nana did for me in my life, helping me grow up comfortable with technology was one of the greatest– something I’ve only come to realize recently. It’s irritating that more than twenty years after Nana first showed me how to use floppy disks older women are still considered only as a periphery demographic, if they’re considered at all.

  2. There’s also the “your mom can use it” thing, which I always disliked.
    My mom can use AutoCAD, 3DS max, Photoshop and Corel. So when I’m cleaning up my code, I’m thinking about my fucking code.

  3. I wonder how many of these Execs wives are actually that computer illiterate. If they want to make a blanket statement like that they probably don’t spend enough time with her to get to know WHY or even HOW she is illiterate in computers. Maybe she really isn’t and he only assumes she is.

    1. I think you’re exactly right. Also, it’s possible that there is a social pressure to show conformity by repeating these tropes, quite apart from the reality of one’s married life.

  4. I’ve realised that it bothers me because they never once talk about focus groups, and only ever reference market research on a macro-level.

    The first thing that comes to my mind is the thought that their personal experience is their “market research” and they just sort of extrapolate from what they know.

    Which can be taken in one or more ways… how often can we really say that any particular person has such a big slice of the pie that they have a serious duty to consult with all those who are not like themselves? If we all do, when can we start doing our own thing?

    Without wanting to say the privileged-marketing problem does not exist (it does and is a problem), “Be yourself” is sort of ironic when the self really is the thing that everyone ought to stop being all the time.

    1. I think when entrepreneurs with a smallish audience take themselves and their own experience as their market research that’s one thing. It’s still not a good idea and they still should do some proper user research to serve their customers well, but it’s not terrible. When execs of huge companies that dominate the market do it, then I think that’s really foolish. If you have a 30+% market share, then your audience is mostly not the Wisteria Lane set they portray themselves belonging to.

  5. I don’t even know what “when I think of cleaning up my code, I think of my wife doing the dishes…” is supposed to mean. Is it that he knows his wife dislikes doing the dishes, and he dislikes cleaning up his code? Is it that his wife rewards him for having elegant code by doing the dishes for him? Does he have some sort of dishwashing fetish that somehow helps him code better?

    There are zero work situations that I’ve been in where picturing my spouse washing dishes would help, harm, or even be enough of a factor to take into consideration. So I have no idea why these two things are connected in his mind.

  6. About 10 years ago Microsoft sponsored a multi-day “diversity” (read: gender) conference. One of the keynote speakers (a msft vp, no less) spoke of how our challenge was to make technology accessible to old people. He asked rhetorically, ” have you ever seen a 60 year old try to use a cell phone?” As he staggered around the stage, holding a imaginary cell phone at arm’s length, making stabbing gestures with his other hand.
    I left Microsoft soon after for a company where my experience would be seen as an asset, rather than an opportunity for ridicule. It will also be a cold day in hell before I purchase a Microsoft product.

  7. “when I think of cleaning up my code, I think that I should also do the dishes…”

    When somebody refers to “my wife doing [dishes, laundry, cooking...]” I can’t stop thinking of this Exec as a boy who plays with computers, but can’t take care of his basic needs.

    Dishwashing is my husband’s duty.

  8. In my software engineering class during college, the teacher would refer to a naive, uninformed user as the “MOM USER”, which annoyed me to no end, but I didn’t stop him. Should’ve.

  9. It actually worries me as much that execs who constantly bring up their wife as the arbiter of female experience apparently don’t know any other women to reference. A lack of personal familiarity with a wide range of womanhood is as disturbing (to me, anyway) as a lack of desire to qualitatively learn about women and technology.
    Because they won’t even know what they aren’t getting out of the data if they get it because they’ll reference their personal lens to help understand the information.
    It’s like a political candidate referencing his wife as his link with the women he represents – you have no business serving women if you only know one well enough to ask her opinion.

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