Norm-Critical Innovation

Defining the problem and need
Do women and men have different perceptions, priorities and needs?

Make sure both women and men have the same influence in defining the problem that needs a new solution. This may require a specific focus on the previously underrepresented group.

One example is Volvo’s YCC concept car, which was designed by a team composed entirely of women. The YCC concept car resulted in 50 new solutions, and several were technically forward-looking. The YCC concept car clearly showed that cars usually are designed by men for men. The All Aboard concept boat is a similar project in the boat industry. This involved the design of a boat with user-driven solutions that took into account the needs of women on board pleasure boats. The intention with the YCC concept car and the All Aboard concept boat was to highlight neglected needs and target groups that had not previously been prioritized in the design of cars or boats.

Another example is the Bang & Olufsen (B & O) Beosound 5 product, which was researched within the female innovation study led by the Danish firm design-people. Female-focused user research showed that the communication around the product highlighted benefits for men, and the product itself felt complicated to operate for women and stole too much of people’s attention when installed in a living room. Following the study, B & O modified its communication and products to better reflect women’s preferences (design-people, n.d.).

Norm-critical (or intersectional) analysis
When we do not see the norm or do not emphasise others’ experiences, solutions risk strengthening stereotypes and limiting, hindering or even discriminating against others (Börjesson et al., 2016).

Norm-critical analysis questions norms, roles, power relationships and power structures that can be linked to different kinds of discrimination, and reveals who or what is or are included or excluded by implementing various norms. Understanding norms also helps us to relate to underrepresented groups and understand their day-to-day experiences that shape their motivations and attitudes towards a product or service (Vinnova, 2018).

For example, when analysing health-related products and services, it is important to understand how women experience the healthcare system differently from men: among other things, they are more engaged with the healthcare system, go through more procedures that involve physical exposure and are more likely to have their physical complaints dismissed as emotional.

Norm-creative ideation
When generating ideas it is important to engage in a user-driven method whereby ideas are generated by the end-users. Include diverse group of end-users in order to ensure inclusive solutions. Using representative personas is a good methodology to relate to and empathise with diverse groups of users, which leads to user-centric ideas. The ideation phase is the most creative phase in an innovation process. Often, however, end-users are engaged in the test phase, when it is already too late to ensure that their ideas are considered for the project. Prototyping and testing are narrower in scope than ideation.

It is also important to try different solutions to a problem. This is done in the norm-creative phase, when norm-creative tactics, and various stances and procedures, are used to work towards that objective. The tactics illustrate various action paths, such as correcting social norms of exclusion by addressing the specific needs of marginalised groups through the design outcome. Another tactic might be to neutralise social norms of exclusion by creating flexible solutions that can be expanded, transformed or otherwise reconfigured by the users themselves.

The illustration below features different tactics that can reframe a problem and lead to innovative outputs (Wikberg Nilsson & Jahnke, 2018).

from radical, through Inclusive to social tactics

Prototyping and testing are preferably done in real-life situations rather than in a lab. End-users should be engaged in this phase in order to reveal deeper insight and more valuable experiences.

For example, new technologies such as VR have been found to make women sick twice as often as men. Symptoms may be due to conflict between the body’s visual and vestibular (inner ear) systems, resulting in greater sensitivity in women (Al Zayer et al., 2019; see Case Study: Virtual Reality). Regulating the field of view in the navigation might be necessary to mitigate the visual/vestibular conflict, and prototyping this should be done in collaboration with women.

There may be differences in how women and men have access to solutions/innovations due to differences in income, access to technology, income differences, etc. All of these require gender analysis and the involvement of both women and men in the implementation phase.

Scaling up
It is important to analyse and identify key gender barriers to the scale-up phase. Scaling up an idea and attracting the market is not gender neutral.

For example, bias in VC decisions more often lead to underfinancing of women’s ideas. However, crowdfunding has been found to be more gender neutral than other financial instruments needed to scale up. Research on venture capital financing has found that female-led companies receive substantially less venture capital financing than men and are also often expected to give up a greater proportion of ownership when receiving private funding. On the other hand, crowdfunding has been found to have a funding advantage for women, since they are perceived to be more trustworthy, an important criterion in crowdfunding (Gorbatai & Nelson, 2015; Johnson et al., 2018).

Failing to take into account gender factors can limit the reach and scale of innovation. A systematic approach to ensuring gender awareness in scale-up processes could significantly improve the effectiveness (Grand Challenges Canada, n.d.).


Works Cited

Al Zayer, M., Adhanom, I. B., McNeilage, P., & Folmer, E. (2019). ‘The effect of field-of-view restriction on sex bias in VR sickness and spatial navigation performance’, in: Proceedings of the 2019 CHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems (

Börjesson, E., Isaksson, A., & Ilstedt, S. (2016). ‘Visualizing gender: norm-critical design and innovation’, in: Alsos, G. A., Hytti, U. and Ljunggren, E. (eds.), Research Handbook Gender and Innovation, Edward Elgar Publishing, Cheltenham, UK, pp. 252–274.

design-people (n.d.). ‘Bang & Olufsen bring a female perspective to Smart Audio’ (

Gorbatai, A., & Nelson, L. (2015). ‘The narrative advantage: gender and the language of crowdfunding’ (

Grand Challenges Canada (n.d.). ‘Innovation, gender equality and sustained results’ (

Johnson, M., Stevenson, R. M., & Letwin, R. C (2018). ‘A woman’s place is in the start-up: crowdfunder judgments, implicit bias, and the stereotype content model’, Journal of Business Venturing, 33(6), 813–831. (

Vinnova (2018). ‘What is norm-critical innovation?’ (

Wikberg Nilsson, Å., & Jahnke, M. (2018). ‘Tactics for norm-creative innovation’, She: Ji. The Journal of Design, Economics and Innovation, 4(4), 375–391.



double logo double logo double logo


TermsSite Map