Designing for Identity
To truly foster inclusion and psychological safety, we must design for intersectionality, fluidity, agency and respect
“Inclusion” has become a buzzword and its meaning has been watered-down. Inclusion is diversity and belonging but it’s also trust, ethics and safety.
We have to redefine inclusion. The reality of our identities is that they’re messy, intersectional and always changing. This can apply to any facet of our identities including, but not limited to, gender, race, ethnicity, and sexual orientation. Including people by forcing them into boxes can make folks with marginalized or fluid identities feel unsafe, invisible or dehumanized. Technology has the power to affirm and recognize the wholeness of our identities, but it also has the power to erase us.
The most inclusive digital experiences for identifying one’s identity recognize intersectionality, fluidity, agency and respect.
Intersectionality: ability to indicate multiple identities
Fluidity: ability to change and update the way a person identifies
Agency: giving power back to users with the freedom to self identify in their own words
Respect: acknowledging the vastness of identity and not limiting it to the easiest technical solution
Let’s explore inclusion of intersectional and fluid identities through the case study of personal pronouns. Communicating one’s pronouns to others helps to build trust and lets people know how to respectfully refer to one another. Personally, I use both she/her and they/them pronouns to express the wholeness of my identity.
Recently, a lot of apps and platforms have added fields for users to display their pronouns. Yay! Some of these experiences are great and make me feel recognized and validated for my identity. Others make me feel frustrated and excluded.
Before we dive in, I want to make space to acknowledge that I’m not a subject matter expert in gender and identity studies. My analysis is from my expertise as a user experience professional in the Inclusive Design space. Additionally, I’m approaching this topic from a US-based and English-speaking perspective; I acknowledge that pronouns play different roles in different linguistic and cultural structures. I also acknowledge that sharing one’s pronouns is a privilege that not everyone feels safe to do. Everyone experiences pronouns in a different way based on their own identity and life experience; my perspective is based on my own.
With that in mind, let’s explore some of these examples.
Facebook has a single-select drop down for users to choose their pronoun. Note the label says “pronoun” not “pronouns.” Facebook allows users to select from 58 gender options but for pronouns, Facebook only provides three options: Female, Male and Neutral. This experience doesn’t allow selecting multiple pronouns (ex. she/they, he/they) and also excludes and may invalidate folks who use pronouns other than the three provided options (ex. e/em, ze/hir, xe/xem). I appreciate the in-context example of what a pronoun is but there are definitely opportunities for improvement in this experience like allowing for custom inputs and multiple selection.
Lyft displays a selection of five radio buttons for users to select their pronouns: They/Them/Theirs, She/Her/Hers, He/Him/His, “My pronouns aren’t listed” and “Prefer not to say.” I recognize that they highlighted They/Them/Theirs as the first option, when it’s usually listed lower in other places. This experience could be more inclusive if the radio buttons were checkboxes to allow folks to select more than one option. When I selected “My pronouns aren’t listed,” I was expecting to see a text field that would allow for a custom input. To my disappointment, that didn’t happen and now under the “Pronouns” section on my profile, it just says “My pronouns aren’t listed.” A more useful solution, if an open text field is not technically possible, might be “ask me for my pronouns.” Lastly, I want to give this UI kudos for the help text that provides transparency to let users know who will be able to see their pronouns, and also lets users know that selecting “Prefer not to say” will hide pronouns from their profile.
LinkedIn provides users with a drop down of four options: She/Her, He/Him, They/Them and Custom. The “Custom” option allows folks whose identities are not represented by the first three options to identify themselves in their own words. However, having to select “custom” also may result in a feeling of otherness. I also want to call out the “visible to” feature, which allows users to choose if they want their pronouns visible to all LinkedIn users or only their connections. This transparency empowers users to be in control of their identity and recognizes that sharing one’s identity publicly is a privilege that not everyone feels safe doing.
Instagram gives users the option to add up to four pronouns from a multi-select list. Their list is pretty exhaustive but doesn’t allow for a custom input. If your pronouns aren’t included in their list, Instagram suggests writing them out in your bio. Like LinkedIn, Instagram provides an additional layer of empowerment to users by including an option to show one’s pronouns to everyone or only to followers. I would guess that their reasoning for only allowing users to select from a list is a guardrail to prevent misuse or abuse of this feature.
My organization’s Slacks UI has an open text field for users to identify their pronouns in their own words. This solution is more equitable and inclusive because all users are on an even playing field. Folks are empowered with the freedom to self identify. The open text field doesn’t force anyone to select option(s) from a predetermined list and doesn’t make people feel othered by a “custom” option. A note here is that the first three examples are from consumer apps. Since Slack is a private/enterprise space, user privacy has a different context (there’s no worldwide public view for someone’s Slack profile). An additional note is that Slack admins can configure this field in a variety of ways, including a single select dropdown. One opportunity for improvement here is adding an explanation or link to educate users on what pronouns are and why it’s important to share them.
Now, I know some of you technical product folks who are reading this will say “but an open form field makes it hard for me to run reports!” An inequitable solution might make it easier for you to report on KPIs, but might absolutely dehumanize your users. If your users feel dehumanized by your product, they won’t use it, and then you’re going to have a whole new set of problems on which to report. When measuring the success of your product’s pronoun feature, measure how many people are adding their pronouns, not which pronouns people are using.
Conducting user research with a diverse pool of participants is a critical way to ensure that you’re designing for the needs of the actual people who use, or maybe in the future will use, your product. If you’re designing a pronoun or gender identification feature, test your product with folks with diverse identities including trans, non-binary, genderqueer, genderfluid, agender people. Design with queer folks, not for them. If you want to make your UX Research practice more inclusive but don’t know how or where to start, check out A Practical Guide to Inclusive Research.
Technology products have an opportunity to educate their users on the importance of inclusion and diversity. Product teams should consider adding help text or links to articles that, in this case, explain what pronouns are and why it’s important to share them. If your company doesn’t have any internal documentation, there’s tons of public resources you can link to from Human Rights Campaign, GLAAD, and other organizations. To foster psychological safety and trust with your users, be transparent with them on why this personal identity data is being collected and how it will be used.
Recognizing and humanizing intersectional and fluid identities fosters psychological safety. The products we design and build have real and serious consequences on people’s lives. You might not get it right the first time, and that’s ok! Invite and listen to feedback and critique, keep an open mind and continue iterating to work towards a more inclusive experience. Inclusive design is fluid, messy and always evolving, just like our identities.