Episode 009: Not Your Father’s Forms

Hosted by:
With guest: Rebecca Grazzini
June 13, 2017

Mahtab   Hello, and welcome to episode nine of the Crux of It. I am Mahtab Rezai. I'm the principal and CEO of Crux Collaborative. We are user experience consulting firm specializing in regulated industries. Today, I'm joined by my colleague Rebecca who is a Senior User Experience Consultant here. We're going to be talking about form design, inclusivity, accessibility, all sorts of fun stuff. Hi Rebecca.
Rebecca   Hi Mahtab.
Mahtab   All right. So, when we're talking about this kind of stuff, a lot of the companies and organizations we work with, a lot of what we do is form design. We're capturing information. We're relaying information. We're customizing information and as a result, there's lot of questions that get asked. Some of them get asked well, clearly, and some ...
Rebecca   Sometimes not so well.
Mahtab   ... not so well. Not so well. So, we're going to talk about a few things that are important to know and consider when you're designing forms: How are you going to use this information? Or actually, let me rephrase that: are you going to use the information? Because we've seen a number of times it's actually pretty common, that people ask questions where they capture information that they end up just never using.
Rebecca   Or using for purposes other than the service that the person is signing up for, or the actual task that someone is completing. So, using it for nefarious marketing purposes after the fact.
Mahtab   I love it, “nefarious marketing purposes”.
Rebecca   That's a whole avenue of marketing: nefarious marketing.
Mahtab   That's like three whole podcasts right there. Nefarious marketing. But, we'll stick with this one, so yes. Only capturing it if you're going to use it, and only capturing it if it's relevant to the service or task you're providing. Then I also think providing choices. So, that's the other thing we need to always be thinking about is this is ... I keep thinking of that old commercial. I'm just totally going to date myself now, but the “This is not your father's Oldsmobile”. This is not your father's form fields. The world is a different and more inclusive place now. So, we need to be thinking about not only the questions we're asking but the answers we're allowing for.
Rebecca   Yes, yep. Exactly.
Mahtab   We're going to cover gender, we're going to cover race, and we're going to cover marital status, and some considerations and some best practices around the capturing of that information. All right. So, gender. First let's make sure to talk about some terms.
Rebecca   So, gender very specifically is our innate feeling of maleness or femaleness. So our expression of being male or female compared to the social norms around us. A term that is relatively new, but a lot of people are starting to use it, cisgender, so those of us like you and I who were ... we express the gender that we were biologically born as. So, we were born as women, we express ourselves as female in the society. Someone who is transgender is someone who expresses a gender that is different than their biological sex. Then there are other terms out there, but for the sake of a 10-minute podcast we'll leave it with those two.
Mahtab   Yes. I think the only other clarifier I want to add ... and this came from a panel I had the opportunity to facilitate recently through Minnesota Tech Diversity Initiative that one of the panelists ... It was about being trans at work. One of the panelists said, "It's more of a slider. It's not a "switch". So, I think that historically maybe we thought about it as it's either one or the other, but many people don't identify as a binary, as either/or.
Rebecca   Right.
Mahtab   So, that's the other thing to consider. When you're capturing gender, there's different reasons you might be capturing that information. Let's talk about what some of those reasons might be.
Rebecca   Exactly. So, one of the main reasons is to be able to have your system refer someone in the third person. If you're going to refer to your customer in the third person, you want to know which pronouns you should use to appropriately mention them. The other are executing on any gender-specific marketing initiatives which can be somewhat dubious in and of themselves, but that is a thing, and a reason that people capture that information. And then, in terms of providing, for example, healthcare and health insurance, this is something that is very challenging for transgender individuals. The healthcare space is a challenging environment to kind of explain who they are and get the kind of care and services that they require. So, being inclusive there is important. And then, if there's a legal requirement to collect and report on gender for any sort of kind of counts, diversity requirements, any ... Some people get grants where they have to kind of document that sort of information.
Mahtab   Yes. So, let's talk about some corresponding approaches or best practices for each of those reasons. If you're trying to capture that information, to be able to refer to somebody, what are some ways?
Rebecca   Ask what pronouns they prefer to use. You don't need to ask their gender and then make assumptions. Ask for the information that you're actually seeking. In every case, that's really what it comes down to. If you're asking for medical reasons, ask specifically what someone needs in terms of medical.
Mahtab   And provide context of why are you asking...
Rebecca   Exactly, so that they can give you the information that is going to allow you to give them the most helpful service.
Mahtab   Then, what about if you're using it for like legal or census information?
Rebecca   I think mostly what I found very interesting in that panel that you facilitated was making sure that people are counted because that is important so that people are not invisible. So, provide a whole suite of options. If you can't provide every option, allow someone an “other”. Allow them to freeform that option so that they can be accurately counted as they see themselves.
Mahtab   And that just applies for so many things, but that's a beautiful segue into race. I just recently completed for the US Census as a business owner, a questionnaire, which first asked me if I was Hispanic, so that was pretty easy to answer yes or no - although I think it would've been really interesting if I was mixed, of what my choice would've been there. But then provided me with some options and it gave me the instructions: "Please select one or more." So, for context, for people who may not know, I'm Iranian. So, that's not considered Arab. It's in the Middle East. It's not white and it's not one of these options. The options that I was given was I could select that I was American-Indian or an Alaskan Native... not that. Native Hawaiian or a Pacific islander, as much sometimes I wish I was during Minnesota winters. Again... not that. Asian, which again, how are we defining Asia? So, potentially, maybe if we're throwing the Middle East into Asia, but typically in more standard definitions of Asians, I'm not that. Black or African-American or White. Those were my options, to pick one. This would happen... Also, this was not unfamiliar to me. This happened to me all throughout school and my education, particularly when it came to standardized testing where we needed to fill out one of those. I would always ask my teachers like, "What do I do?" Especially, because many of these don't have an “other” option to provide clarity. And very well meaning, but, you know, not trained for it, teachers would say things to me like: "Well, just pick white. Just pick white." But I mean, back to your point about being counted if how many people were told to “just pick white”, and sort of change those numbers beyond.
Rebecca   And so consequently, we don't have a clear understanding of what populations were involved in certain things like standardized testing, and things like that where you would look at those metrics.
Mahtab   So, making sure when it comes to race that you're clear about why you're asking. If you just have a legal requirement to indicate how many, for example, Hispanic or Native individuals are in a specific population set for a particular government grant or something, rather than forcing everyone to go through it and have to fit into a standard set, ask it so that people can self-identify: Are you Hispanic? Are you Native American? And then that way, anybody else who it's irrelevant to your information and data set what their race is anyway, doesn't have to be forced through the exercise of picking something that they aren't.
Rebecca   Exactly.
Mahtab   Otherwise, allow for options. Allow for “other”.
Rebecca   Yes. Yeah, especially when you have such a diverse world in which, you know, you can't necessarily include all the options on the form.
Mahtab   Yes. All right. Then let's talk about marital status. So, marital status is an interesting one because, again, what are we asking? We're asking for number of people in the household? Are we asking because we want to understand how many people are covered with an insurance policy? Are we asking because we're trying to understand communication protocol in emergency context? What is it that we're asking? Because I think that a lot of these forms depending on if they need to know if there's two people to contact or one - lump divorced, widowed, single, all into a single category. And the lived experience of those three things is nowhere near the same, and it just ends up being at best confusing, at worst hurtful to the people trying to navigate these experiences. So, just being mindful. What are you asking? Why? Provide the context. Make it clear.

So, recap of best practices around these forms.
Rebecca   Most importantly, ask  it in meaningful ways. Make sure you're asking what you're asking.
Mahtab   Yes. Provide the context of why you're asking it.
Rebecca   And allow for all options. Allow for that “other”.
Mahtab   Yes. Allow for the open-ended and free-form.
Rebecca   If you're not going to use it and someone can't move forward, don't make it required.
Mahtab   Yes, absolutely. Or if it's an incomplete set, right?. So, if you know it's an incomplete set, offer an option for “other”, and last but not least ...
Rebecca   Don't capture it if you don't need it.
Mahtab   Yep. And if you can't give a good reason to the person for why you're collecting it, maybe you shouldn't be collecting it.
Rebecca   That is a sign.
Mahtab   Yes. That is a sign. All right. Well, that was all we wanted to say about that. Let us know if you have any feedback about what we shared. Thank you for listening. You can find us on SoundCloud, on iTunes, on Google Play, on Stitcher, and on Bye.
Rebecca   Bye.


Hosted by: Mahtab Rezai
Principal & CEO

Mahtab has spent nearly two decades as a user experience designer, researcher, strategist, leader, and mentor. She has designed user experiences for companies ranging from startups to the Fortune 50.


With guest: Rebecca Grazzini
Senior User Experience Specialist

Rebecca has worked on user experiences in a variety of industries including online education, health care, financial services, tourism, energy, and agriculture. She has spent much of her career developing complex transactional experiences under strict regulatory constraints.
View Rebecca’s Profile


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