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Inclusive Design: how to avoid gender bias in your experiences

When we talk about designers’ responsibility, we often talk about cognitive bias, dark patterns and ethical design (attention economy, persuasive design, hook canvas…). But what about our responsibility regarding gender inequalities and the representation of women and men in the products we design?

As digital professionals, we design products and services that influence — consciously or not — the way we care for ourselves, love ourselves, entertain ourselves or manage our professional careers.
But since #MeToo, expectations in terms of inclusiveness and gender equality are increasingly strong. Let’s see what role design can (should) play in deconstructing gender stereotypes.

But first, what is gender?

The term gender was initially used in sociology (gender studies) to study the social relations between the sexes. This study defines the masculine and the feminine as products of a social relationship, with a hierarchical distribution between men and women, with roles, codes and tasks associated with each of the genders.

Agender, transgender, third gender, non-binary… the notion of gender is nowadays more and more flexible. So how can we design products to match this diversity?

Here is a non-exhaustive list of principles we should use to be more gender inclusive.

#1 Do you need to collect gender at all?

A general guiding principle for gender inclusion in UX design is that if gender is not intrinsic to your experience, don’t collect it.

Should a person’s banking experience be any different due to their gender?

For some other industries, like healthcare, gender can actually be incredibly important to one’s experience.

A seemingly simple field can be frustrating for patients and also have significant impacts on their health. How can a doctor provide personalised care for a patient if they don’t know the gender? And how can a healthcare company properly serve its members, if their identity doesn’t exist in their data?

In a nutshell, if collecting the gender does not add any value to the experience, don’t do it. If it does, clearly explain how.

#2 How to ask user’s gender?

First things first, we should inform users how their information will be used. A simple tooltip could offer great transparency and reassurance to your user.

Another tip is to refer to the design principles of GOV.uk. It offers concise and clear instructions on how to ask someone’s gender, see the checklist below:

  • Avoid hierarchy by listing the fields in alphabetical order
  • Avoid using gendered pronouns like ‘he’ and ‘she’, addressing the user as ‘you’ where possible.
  • Never use titles to guess gender
  • Test that this works for your users

#3 Make it optional

Make that field optional as much as you can. User may know better than you if it’s safe or appropriate to disclose the information based on the context. Also, offering the option not to give an answer, may actually increase your chances of getting a response.

#4 Ask for preferred pronouns

Instead of gender, consider asking for people’s preferred pronouns, and including the gender-neutral “They/their/theirs” as a singular pronoun. It is now largely adopted in the press and many products and services like Instagram.

Use of gender-neutral pronouns in Instagram

#5 Use gender-neutral visuals and design elements

  • Avoid gender stereotypes in visual design (choices of colour, typography, etc.).
  • Use photos and illustrations of people with diverse gender presentations
  • Avoid use of images that suggest gender stereotypes to single users or to categories of users (for example, stereotypically feminine or masculine presenting avatars)
Gender neutral Google Drive avatars

#6 Use gender-neutral language

Another way of being more gender inclusive and avoid sexism in our digital solutions is to use gender-neutral language.

Since 2021, you can use Google Translate to find gender-neutral alternatives to words with gendered baggage.

See few examples below.

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Brought to you by Orchard: Creating Customer Experiences for a Modern World.

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A creative and technology business based in Sydney & New York. Blending creative & technology to invent better outcomes that make a difference.

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