Creating Gender Inclusive Experiences with Online Forms

Our industry is constantly evolving. In the early days, user experience was a backburner topic at best. Now it is central to most strategies. Just a few years ago, accessibility was very low down the typical list of organizational priorities. It is now a central consideration in every project. As of today, the topic of gender inclusiveness is being overlooked in our industry – and that is a mistake.

What is it?

Obviously, your users would be disappointed if you provided no way to accurately answer typical questions on your online forms. If the ‘State’ menu did not include ‘Minnesota’ as an option, you could expect to have some frustrated users.

When transgender and genderfluid users encounter online forms, they often experience something very similar. Gender questions on forms that only provide binary male and female options alienate these users and represent a missed opportunity.

Why is it important?

It has become more common to see transgender and genderfluid individuals represented in media, but we’re just starting to be inclusive in our online experiences.

Transgender and genderfluid people are among your users – and user-friendly experiences consider the needs of the people who will use them. You have an opportunity to welcome an audience who is too often ignored or dismissed.

  • Accessible and usable forms allow users to accurately answer questions.
  • Experiences that acknowledge users who are frequently ignored can positively effect loyalty.
  • Gathering accurate gender data can help research institutions with work that can improve the health and well-being of transgender and genderfluid people.

First a few terms and definitions

Before we dive in and look at how to make your forms inclusive for transgender and genderfluid users, let’s cover a few basic terms.

Gender is our innate feeling of maleness or femaleness (gender identity) and how we express ourselves as masculine or feminine to the outside world (gender expression).

Sex is our physical and chromosomal biology.

Cisgender (often abbreviated as ‘cis’) refers to someone who identifies as the gender that corresponds with the sex they were assigned at birth.

Transgender refers to someone who identifies as a gender different than the sex they were assigned at birth. This doesn’t necessarily mean that they have had surgery to change their sex.

Genderfluid refers to someone who’s gender identity varies over time.

Intersex refers to someone who is born with sexual anatomy that doesn’t fit standard male or female definitions.

While this is far from an exhaustive list, it should illustrate that gender is a spectrum and not everyone falls neatly at one end or the other. Keeping this in mind when you think about the design of forms that ask for personal information like gender ensures that all of your users have a positive experience.

To ask or not to ask, that is the question

Your team will decide what personal information you need to gather from your users based on a variety of business goals and requirements. You will need some information for business transaction purposes and you’ll want other information for marketing purposes. When one of these pieces of information is gender, always take time to consider if it’s really needed and if so, why.

Knowing someone’s gender identity is rarely a requirement for a user to interact with your organization. Some reasons you may want to ask about your user’s gender are:

  • if your system will refer to the user in the third person
  • if you plan to execute on gender specific marketing strategies
  • if you will provide health care or health insurance services
  • if there is a legal requirements to collect and report gender

Consider the following:

Your system will refer to the user in the third person.

In this case, you don’t actually need to know the user’s gender, you need to know the pronouns they prefer. Consider asking “what are your preferred pronouns?” instead and providing the options of ‘he’, ‘she’, and ‘they’. It’s also a good practice to ask your users to indicate their preferred name. Transgender and genderfluid individuals aren’t the only ones who prefer to be called something other than their legal name.

You plan to execute on gender specific marketing strategies

While some companies are moving away from certain gender distinctions in marketing for products like children’s toys, there are still many campaigns that target products and services to different genders. If you want to collect gender for marketing purposes, consider making the question optional and determine a marketing strategy based on other criteria to communicate with the users who don’t provide their gender.

You provide health care or health insurance services

If you’re asking for a user’s gender because you need to provide health care or health insurance, what you actually need to know is the user’s biological sex. If this is the case, phrase the question this way and provide an ‘intersex’ option for those who do not identify their biological sex as male or female. This will allow users to answer accurately and help them get the health care and insurance coverage that meets their needs [The Intersex Society of North America estimates that roughly 1 in 2000 people are born with visible characteristics of intersexuality].

You need to meet a legal requirement

As noted in the example above, if you need to ask the question for legal reasons, then be very specific that you’re seeking the user’s gender as recorded on official government records such as a birth certificate or passport.

We recommend that you only ask the question if you really need to know the answer. If gender isn’t required but you still want to ask, make the question optional.

Erin Wilkins, Program Director of Family Tree Clinic, a local clinic providing a wide variety of sexual health services and specialized care for LGBTQ individuals, pointed out that there has been limited research on transgender and genderfluid people in health care. If you are collecting gender data and your users can opt to share their unidentifiable data for research purposes, accurate data collection can help fill a current gap in research about transgender and genderfluid people. Because many institutions that share this type of data have not accurately collected gender information, researchers don’t have data sets to work with. If your company shares this type of data, you can help provide researchers with data to support research that can help transgender and genderfluid people live healthier lives.

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If not binary, then what?

Once you’ve established that you will ask for the user’s gender, whether required or optional, how can you go about asking the question inclusively?

In her talk at the 2015 IA Summit in Minneapolis, Jessica Ivins shared what she learned the first time she had an opportunity to try to ask a more inclusive version of the question. She chose to offer the following options: ‘Male’, ‘Female’, and ‘Other’ with an open text field. When she got the results, she discovered that the ‘Other’ option was getting some unwanted attention and a small percentage of users chose ‘other’ and provided answers such as ‘octopus’.

Facebook has also attempted to address the identification of gender in a more inclusive fashion. They currently offers 58 gender options to choose from in the U.S. along with the option to provide up to 10 custom entries. In the U.K. users are offered over 70 options. The interface employs a drop list that provides: ‘Male’, ‘Female’, and ‘Custom’ which, when selected triggers an open text field. Once the user starts typing in the field, suggested options become visible. The user may add up to 10 items in the field that display like tags.

Considering that social profiles, like Facebook, are used more and more often as a proxy for our in-person identity, it’s smart to ensure that users can create a profile that authentically aligns with their gender identity and allows users appropriate control over the privacy setting for these details. [Note, Facebook’s ‘real name’ policy is widely criticized in the transgender and genderfluid circles since people often prefer to be called a name other than their legal name and may risk discrimination and worse by being unintentionally outed.]

Both of these options have issues. First, both solutions privilege gender normative options of male and female and lump transgender and genderfluid people into one large group of ‘others’. Second, they both run the risk of resulting in junk data, like ‘octopus’.

So, what is the solution?

Consider a simple text field and predictive search functionality to urge users to a database defined options and spend some time mapping the possible values for your database. Then get comfortable with the fact that you may end up with a very small percentage of junk data.

Erin Wilkins said that at Family Tree Clinic, they rarely ask for a person’s gender, opting instead to ask for preferred name and pronouns, but when they do need to collect that information, they opt to simply provide an open text field.

This approach is easy for users understand and allows them to answer quickly and accurately.

Yes, presenting open text field will require additional work when it comes to database design and reporting, but any attempt to provide accurate options to users will require that you provide more than two possible options in your database and provide the ability to view that data in your reports.

It won’t be long before more companies follow Facebook and update the way they collect sex and gender data. You can get started with the next project that requires you to gather personal information from your users. Transgender and genderfluid users are customers and the first step to winning their business and continued loyalty is to make sure your interfaces show that you respect them, by representing them.

We’d love to talk about your next interactive project, our process for developing inclusive experiences, or the overall importance of user-centered design. If these topics are of interest to you, please contact us.

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