As designers, we’re always thinking about our blind spots. As researchers, we’re concerned about the potential for bias to tinge our work.
Since its founding in 2017, &Partners has focused on making improvements that aid in our mission to design ethical technology products. We believe a human-centered approach can improve every aspect of design and, when implemented diligently, leads to the creation of better, more inclusive products. This effort includes making intentional changes to how we approach gender in form design and inspiring others to promote gender inclusivity in their own research and user experience design.
This post is the first in a two-part series on gender inclusion in user experience design between Sabrina Fonseca (SF), Director of Design Strategy at &Partners, and Jess Mons (JM), Director of Business Intelligence at dscout. Stay tuned to the &Partners Medium blog for part two: 10 Ways Designers Can Promote Gender Inclusivity in the Workplace.
SF: While working at dscout, you began looking into the company’s gender form question, which led to research into the subject and eventual changes in how dscout approaches gender both internally and through their app. What prompted the shift?
JM: I’ve worked for dscout a little over four years and this was something that I noticed my first week. Creating a profile on the dscout user app required me to select a binary gender — male or female. As someone who identifies as nonbinary, there was no comfortable way to proceed through the sign-up flow. This surfaced in our internal product meetings, but it took a while for it to gain momentum because the project encompassed so much. What should the options be? What are the best practices? Where else in our user experience does this show up? Back then our company was about 20 people so resources were also limited. In the last four years, we’ve had a lot of growth and are now closer to about 90.
Earlier this year, when the project gained traction, two dscout employees, myself included, identified as trans and/or gender nonconforming (TGNC) and our internal culture at the company was pretty inclusive. Pronouns were discussed openly and added to email signatures, and I felt supported and validated in my gender identity. Our building had some obscure rule about requiring the single stall bathrooms in the building to be gendered and our COO fought them about it so we could convert them to be gender neutral. We even had a small ceremony for it that included ripping the old (gendered) signs off the wall replacing them with new gender-neutral signs. While all this was happening internally, the friction between it and our external messaging started to build and become more apparent.
Our internal culture was very much at odds with the message our product was communicating to the world and what we were putting our users through.
SF: So the internal culture was already changing, and there was some momentum building up internally, but the product was still binary.
JM: Exactly. We had a problem. The sign-up flow on the dscout app required users to select a gender, either male of female. This language also showed up all over our researcher dashboard in the form of filters and labels. More folks started to speak up, inside and outside of dscout. We began to hear from clients requesting a more inclusive gender-identity prompt and many of my coworkers began to strongly advocate for the change. When it came down to it, it wasn’t good research, because it was incorrect.
When we received support from leadership to start, we also received tons of resources. We constructed a little dream team of people who were interested in helping. It was truly a cross-company collaboration.
SF: What were some things that helped move the internal momentum to get buy-in from leadership and make the change happen? I’m asking for all the people that are interested in making similar changes but feel like making that progress within their organization might be difficult.
JM: I think there were two things that made this an urgent issue for the company. The first was centering the discussions around the experience of the users and creating empathy for those users. Understanding the design’s impact by seeing what a nonbinary or trans person experiences when they are forced through a form like that is really eye-opening for people. Having no option to identify yourself is something most cis-identified folks don’t ever have to think about, so it requires a pretty big reframe of reality. We were able to collect stories from about 70 trans and gender nonconforming people and the power that held was huge.
The second part came down to the quality of the research our platform was providing. At any research and design firm, research is your life, right? Good design is informed by good research. Our entire product is built around helping people understand and connect with their users through in-context research and what we were enabling was bad research, because it was just wrong.
We had participants in our pool that couldn’t properly identify themselves, so they had to select an incorrect label. Beyond the poor, and even harmful, user experience, it also just creates bad data.
SF: When I started thinking about writing a Medium article on gender forms back in 2017, I thought the outcome of that article was going to be a proposed recommended design for gender in all forms that addressed gender diversity and inclusion. That assumption was crushed by the first two people that I interviewed.
I learned right away that there was more than one solution, and that restricting the form to proscribed terms or categories was problematic in and of itself. It was presumptive.
There were broader questions to ask before even getting to the way the form was designed for gender: Should you even be asking that question? Is that question even important to your product or research? What do you even learn from asking about gender that will impact your product or your service?
JM: I can relate! I feel like our team went through a very similar process. In the beginning, we had an open meeting to just get everyone who was interested in working on this in the same room. The goal of that meeting was to start the conversation about our approach, but I think there was a general assumption we’d be able to identify the changes and implement them pretty quickly. I remember as we started to talk through it, the scope of the project began to grow and grow. It became very clear how important it would be to talk to the community this impacted.
I am one trans person and my experiences differs greatly from many people who also identify as TGNC. If we wanted to understand how to improve the experience for this community, we needed to talk to as many people from that community as possible. We scoped a research project with a few main goals, to gather examples of what it is like to move through the world as a TGNC person, understand how that shows up in digital spaces, and collect feedback and design suggestions specifically for the dscout form in our app. This work was necessary before we even started to think about the redesign.
We learned so many things by devoting a large amount of time and resources to the research portion of this project. In the end, we were able to distill our findings into a few key design principles, improve the design of the form on our app, and change some other features to align with our findings. When dealing with the way people identify, there is never going to be (and it should never be the goal) to have a quick fix.
SF: Right. I think if you come from a research background, absolutely, you’re always looking for bias. You’re always educated about that, but coming from a design background, I think people often are told told that any research is good and it’s true. It’s better to have research than to not have research — at least you’re doing something. But that means that people have less opportunity and less training to be able to identify those biases and to have the tools to check in on those biases.
JM: I think something that’s changing in design companies and with clients that work with design companies is the prioritization of the user experience through research that really focuses on defining who your users are. Actually, who are you users, what is that audience, and how can you get in contact with them? This shift in thinking will identify a mismatch between assumptions or inherent bias that you have in the way that you’re designing something and how someone is actually using it or being classified or represented. It becomes a lot more transparent.
SF: In your research you ask folks to share moments from their everyday experience where they felt seen and validated in their gender identity and one when they felt silenced, overlooked, or misunderstood. Can you tell us a little bit about what that question revealed and the kind of variability that you got from the answers?
JM: The question about validating everyday experiences was really focused on driving empathy and highlighting the interactions, small and large, that come with identifying outside of the gender binary.
To move through the world as a TGNC person, you’re reminded constantly, sometimes every hour about how how little space there is for your identity.
These experiences that were shared varied greatly — from mild inconveniences to moments of feeling unsafe when seeking basic things like a restroom or a fitting room. We first collected moments from our participants that existed in their everyday life and then narrowed the focus to digital spaces.
One of the most insightful entries we received was from a participant who said, I sat here for like five minutes and tried to think of a digital form experience around my gender identity that felt validating and I can’t think of one. It became so clear how low the bar is for a validating experience in digital spaces. So many of these moments were simply the inclusion of a custom write-in box or a ‘prefer not to identify’ box or a space to capture pronouns. Really any interaction that avoided forcing someone to choose between a binary options was viewed as positive or validating.
Unlike the validating or positive experiences, there was no shortage of negative experiences in digital spaces. While most the examples focused on forcing participants to choose their gender as a required field with only two binary options, there were many other areas that even surprised me.
Inflexibility was a huge pain point. Making it hard or impossible to change your name or even provide a preferred name that differs from your legal name in financial or insurance spaces were mentioned. This can have huge consequences, especially with financial apps that have a social media aspect. One participant mentioned how in order to make an instant transfer they needed to quickly change their username to their dead name so it matched their bank account and then quickly change it back. In those moments, their dead name was automatically made public through the feed portion of the app so it was a triggering and stressful situation every time.
Some companies also made huge assumptions based on information captured in their profile. When a user is prompted to select between male or female and then the salutation used to greet them or the personalizations of their experience (clothes, avatar, or products) are all informed by this selection it makes a bad experience that much worse.
SF: All of these assumptions based on gender could be really triggering for someone for whom they don’t fit.
JM: Exactly. Something that was common across the whole project is how important follow through is. There were a handful of companies that were mentioned as facilitating good AND bad experiences.
Even on some of the best dating sites, there’s still a disconnect. We would see a great example and then two steps further down that flow they would completely contradict themselves. For example, some dating apps allow you to identify by multi-selecting from a long list or entering your gender identity manually. However, at the end of the set up process, they then ask a question along the lines of “how would you like to appear in searches?” with only binary (man/woman) options. This gives the impression of “sure sure sure, we’re going to let you identify how you want but which of these two buckets can we put you in?” When you capture that information, there has to be follow through.
SF: Or you’re matched with people in ways you can’t control. That could result in a lot of grief. But it’s not all bad news. In some cases, companies are getting it right. What were some validating experiences?
JM: Beyond custom write-in boxes for gender-identity or the inclusion of pronouns, a lot of examples revolved around transparency and the ability to opt out.
If a company included a blurb that explained why the information was needed, how it was going to be used, and where it was going to show up, then participants felt better about providing it. When combined with the option to decline to respond, agency was placed in the hands of the user.
They have the information to make an informed decision. I think it helps build trust between users and companies.
SF: Do you feel some of the situations around expectations of privacy, safety, and concerns about being outed can be mitigated within an organization?
JM: Yes, completely. Internally we often talked about the fact that this project was much more than a simple form redesign. It is important to make space so all our users are able to express their identity. That also means we have an obligation and responsibility to protect that information and ensure they aren’t being excluded based on the information they provide. We heard this concern from our participants through the project, will this impact my ability to be chosen for research projects if this is something new that’s included?
When we started the recruitment process for this project, I assumed that we wouldn’t find that many people who identified as trans or gender nonconforming within our existing participant pool because the way our current form was set up. But when we launched the screener, we got a little more than half of our participants from our own pool. Until this project, this group had been basically invisible because they didn’t have the option to accurately select how they identify.
SF: How did dscout respond to that new information?
JM: We had to take a look at the way we used and presented information around gender identity in our participant app and our researcher platform. One of the features we focused on was the option we gave to researchers to pre-filter who receives a screener or an opportunity to participate in a research project based on the gender they selected in their profile. For example, if a company was looking to only show a screener to users who had selected female in their profile, they were able to use this feature to do that.
During this project, we completely removed that feature. Not only did we want to avoid the exclusion of folks whose gender identity exists outside the binary but we also wanted to shift the way we advise our clients to recruit. From our perspective, a more accurate and a better approach to research was to focus on behaviors instead of demographics. It ties back to those questions: What is the goal? What are you trying to accomplish?
SF: Can you give an example that illustrates why that’s important?
JM: Of course. I’ll use one that actually popped up a couple weeks after we removed this feature. A client was running a project about women’s clothes and wanted to include a question in the screener that would exclude participants based on their gender, or only include those who identified as women. This initiated a conversation where we were able to shift the focus of that recruitment question to the core behaviors our client was interested in instead of assumptions based on the participant’s gender. So we advised asking “Which clothing departments do you primarily shop in?” or “How often do you shop in the women’s clothing section?” as a replacement. This yielded more participants in the project and also better defined who their target audience was. It was a learning opportunity and they were excited about the approach.
SF: I love that example so much. It also provides a more accurate understanding of who the user actually is, which goes back to the point about more rigorous data.
JM: Yeah, because in our world, where we’re researching how people interact with products and services, gender in my opinion is kind of obsolete, or should be. We should be focusing questions more on behaviors and how an individual moves through the world instead of how can we put this individual in a box and classify them in a specific category and then make assumptions based on that category. It’s just better research.
So to answer your original question about privacy, safety, and inclusion, beyond removing the ability to pre-filter on gender, we will also be monitoring acceptance rates and talking with our clients to make sure these changes aren’t having unintended consequences. In our case, I think a combined effort of transparency, education (internally with how we talk about the changes and externally with how we talk about it with our customers), and monitoring impact is necessary.
SF: What are some positive examples of follow through with gender diversity?
JM: One app came up in the positive experiences twice. One participant highlighted the design of the actual form in the app and another talked about their experience of how the information they captured was later used. The app was for a health group that used the form as part of the patient’s sign-up flow, and they were prompted to insert a legal name and sex because of insurance requirements. However, on the same screen they also created space to include a preferred name and information about gender identity, acknowledging that a legal name might be different than what someone goes by, and that sex and gender are also separate.
A participant reported that after they created their profile, their correct pronouns and preferred name were both used by the people they interacted with at the doctor’s office. It’s a great example of follow through.
Two other examples centered around the lack of gendered language for designs in spaces that are usually heavily gendered. The first was for a hair salon in Minneapolis called The Fox Den Salon. When selecting which services you’d like to recieve, there is no mention of gender, just a brief description of the service. The second was an app called Clue, for menstrual cycle and health tracking. The designs and language were both read by the participant as genderless, which made them feel like it catered to their experience.
SF: Gender nonconforming identity labels can involve personal meaning attributed to them by the individual, and many of them are culture specific. They are also numerous. What did you learn from research about this, and how can organizations address that richness?
JM: That’s a great question. One of the most important principles we used to guide the changes we were making was to use language with care. To understand exactly what words mean and their context, you need to talk to your users.
Don’t assume that you’re going to know everything or that language exists to capture everyone’s experience. That’s the beauty of being human right? Our identities are constantly evolving so of course the language we use to talk about those identities are as well.
There are new terms being created and expressions that more accurately describe the way people identify all the time. To address this in terms of our form, we went back and forth between two options: using an exhaustive list of all of the different permutations and options that people provided us, or using a shortened list and offering the ability to customize it or opt out completely.
In the end, we went with the second option. Giving the power to the user to self-describe is a best practice. I’m in the data world, so this is a data nerdy thing, but I also love the fact that then we can make this form flexible and adaptable — it has the potential to improve on itself.
SF: It learns from or suggests labels, you mean?
JM: Not quite. There is no automation, but when I review what we’ve collected from our users in six months and we have 1,000 folks that wrote in a specific term, we’ll consider adding that as a static option to list. This approach creates an ongoing opportunity for us to learn and evolve, which is a key principle in this space: the work is never done.
If we as humans are constantly evolving and our language is as well, our forms and designs should reflect that. It’s never a finished product you can tie up with a bow.
Sabrina Fonseca is the Director of Design Strategy at &Partners. She has over 12 years of experience leading every stage of the user-centered design process, focusing on discovery, user research, strategy, conceptual design, and iterative user testing. In past roles at leading design firms, Sabrina uncovered people’s needs, articulated problems, and broken down complicated tasks into easy, delightful experiences for clients such as Walgreens, Tuple Health, Planned Parenthood, Infor, Bayer, E*Trade, Scottrade, and others in the healthcare, enterprise, financial services, retail, and nonprofit sectors. In 2017, Sabrina conducted research with Trans and Gender Nonconforming folks for a UX Collective article, Designing Forms for Gender Diversity and Inclusion.
&Partners builds ethical technology products that disrupt the status quo through human-centered design and research. Learn more about our work here. We are a certified Service Disabled Veteran Owned Small Business (SDVOSB) and are minority owned.
Jess Mons is the Director of Intelligence at the mobile research platform dscout. They have dedicated over eight years to telling stories with data.
From their 3+ years spent as one of the company’s Lead Research Advisors, they also gained experience designing, executing, and analyzing research projects to inform user-centered design across the tech, retail, CPG, and healthcare spaces.
Most recently, they led a research project at dscout that gathered stories, feedback, and designs from ~70 trans and gender non-conforming participants to improve the inclusivity around the way dscout’s mobile app captures and presents information related to gender identity. Jess identifies as trans and non-binary and is dedicated to making both physical and digital spaces more inclusive for their community.
dscout is a qualitative remote research platform for unlocking in-context user insights. Hundreds of the world’s most innovative companies trust our suite of tools to collect “in-the-moment” data that reveals their users and transforms their products and experiences. To learn more, head to dscout.com.