When no gender fits

May 27, 2021
Featured on UX Planet

How to be more inclusive through ungendered design.

I started thinking about gender stereotyping in design after writing my latest blog around diversity in design and how it is our responsibility as designers to be as inclusive as possible through our designs. While gathering material, I was astounded by the lack of available guidance on how to design for a better gender neutral online experience.

In a world that is increasingly digital, human connections happen online as much as offline. Online spaces are used as area of expression. Most people are used to their online options — from gender markers to avatars — matching up with how they see themselves. But for people who have unique or undervalued identities, the disconnect between their offline identity and how they’re able to present themselves online is a source of deep frustration.

The perpetuation of gender stereotypes through design raises questions about how design across all fields both reinforces and subverts gender stereotypes, it harms the ability for individuals to fully express themselves as complete human beings. In this article I hope to provide some guidance on how to provide a better, more inclusive digital experience focussed around the topic of gender.

It’s easy for us designers to just design with the accepted ‘gender norms’ in mind, it’s a guaranteed client pleaser, it’s easy to justify and it requires a little less thinking. However there are indications that this approach to design has a risk of losing large amounts of engagement. A recent study by the J. Walter Thompson Innovation Group discovered that a lot of 13–20 years olds (Gen Z) see gender, sexuality and their own general identity as fluid or different from what was assigned at birth. However the world in which they interact with often forces them to “make a decision” on how they wish to be identified. Gen Z believes that gender does not define a person as much as it used to:

  • 56% of Gen Z and 43% of millennials (20–35 year olds) said they knew someone who went by gender neutral pronouns such as “they” or “ze”.
  • Only 54% of millennials and 44% Gen Z always bought clothes designed for their own gender
  • 57% of millennials and a staggering 70% of Gen Zs felt strongly that public spaces should provide access to gender neutral bathrooms.

As designers our role is to design for our users, our responsibility is to make the experience as inclusive as possible, when we fail to do that it may be a hurtful reminder to some people of how their journey/identity is not reflected in the world. However gender sensitive designs offer alternative possibilities for a world respectful of gender diversity.

Made by Men
There is a commonly held belief that ‘technology is gender neutral’. But the question becomes, “how can the web be ‘gender neutral’ if the web design profession and technology usage is dominated by males?”

Unfortunately our world has been predominantly designed with the male user in mind, whether we like it or not. A study from the American Journal of Public Health suggests that cars put women at 47% more risk of seat belt injury than men in car crashes. Why? Because air bags and seat belts are designed primarily with men in mind. A male dummy is often used throughout testing, and the results lead to a safer experience for men, but women are often shorter than their male counterparts and weigh less, therefore less force is required to keep them in the car during an accident.

Photo by Samuel Zeller on Unsplash

Cars are old technology and we’ve come a long way since then but we see the same errors cropping up in our newer technologies even now, take VR as an example. There’s a decent amount of overlap between men’s and women’s physiology. But our (on average) smaller bodies are distinctly not the norm in the world of virtual and augmented reality development, and it shows. There are headsets that barely tighten enough to fit around female heads, augmented reality glasses whose lenses are too far apart for the female eye to focus on the image (or they are simply too large and immediately fall off the face) or oversized gloves that bunch up the fingers. These products are designed for a ‘range of body types’ that a fairly normal-sized woman cling to the very lower edge of.

Regrettably web technologies are not gender neutral, but in fact are highly influenced by the gender of both the user and designer. We have to learn from the shortcomings of the past in order to design a better, more inclusive future. This isn’t to say that a better future should be designed for women. But at minimum, it should be designed with gender in mind.

Gender in Design
Cisgender people, by definition, will have no qualms about answering the gender question. It’s simple — they are either male or female, it’s not a question of any significance. Cisgenders socialise through a stereotypical style and attitudes and they expect others to be able to tell their gender just by looking at them.

Conversely, trans and GNC (Gender Non Conforming) people have an entirely alternate experience, they have experienced a gender identity shift. It may be some feel like the gender they identify with is different from the sex that was assigned to them at birth. They might be intersex and not know it, while for others is maybe their attitudes, clothes, makeup, hair, nails and other elements of presentation don’t fit the conventions of traditional gender distinction. Others find it’s simply their state of mind on any given day may affect their sense of gender. Beyond identifying by gender others may also think about pronouns they want other people to use while referring to them.

These are all considerations to be aware while designing any user experience. In the same way that virtual reality has alienated woman we need to make sure as designers we are not alienating our audiences through gender identification.

Forms — Cover all your options
Forms are a pain point to any designer, we are always trying to design the most usable form, constantly in deep discussions with the client why so many form fields are required and then somehow making it look really good. So when faced with what we might see as super simple gender male/female question, we are often happy to oblige without too much consideration. It’s more than possible that our audience will identify with one of the options, so great, we have done our job. But what if they don’t conform to a binary gender choice? What if this gender identity question is a hurtful reminder of how our user’s identity is not reflected in society.

First off our user will wonder why we need to know. The sex that was assigned to them at birth is none of our business. It’s not what defines them. What matters is what they are now. And even still, they are so much more than just their gender identity. So we need ask the same question, why do we need to know their identity? What specific information do we need — their gender identity, the gender on their ID, their preferred pronouns to use in communications? Make it clear the intended purpose for asking, if we aren’t honest about these things they may leave the form, the site, or the service and later share their bad experience with others.

Etsy profile caters for all its users through a custom field

These considerations should also be applied to the ‘select your title’ option. While personally I feel this field is a little outdated, and I certainly don’t go by Miss, it’s important to include formal titles and gender neutral pronouns. Many people use Mx as an alternative and this is generally accepted as a good option, but if in any doubt do a little bit of research beforehand.

Avatars — Let’s get wild
Avatars have been around for some time, as early as the computer game ‘avatar’ in 1979. Since then, they have become a regular feature on social and other virtual platforms. Avatars are often used to help people visually recognise comments without having to keep track of names, or they can be placeholder for users who haven’t uploaded their own picture of choice.

While this goal of humanising the online community with human-like iconography is good, many platforms have almost exclusively default to a white, male image. This may seem like an understandable solution to an empty state, but the use of white male avatars reinforces the idea that this the social norm. This assumption can influence real-world outcomes that are detrimental to people who have subdominant identities.

Often, as an alternative and to create a more gender neutral avatar, platforms will create a less realistic greyscale alternative. Unfortuntaely the default is often still male in modern Western society. A better alternative is to steer clear of the human race entirely and instead, venture in to the world of the animal. Google Docs assigns an anonymous animal to users who are viewing a document with a link instead of a direct invitation. What’s great about this approach is it is gender neutral and just quite fun!

Google Docs Animals (Source)

Another option is identicons, these are unique geometric patterns generated based on a hash of user’s IP addresses. These were invented by Don Park about ten years ago, who wanted to find a way to provide anonymized online identifiers. Github currently uses identicons for anyone without a gravatar.

Personas — Challenge our biases
Personas have become an integral part of the UX designer’s process, it is often one of the first steps in a service design engagement. Personas can’t be undervalued, they are created by copious amounts of interviewing, listening and observing. Personas are created for various people; for the benefit of interaction designers as well as the other members of the product team — content strategy, visual design, product management, development, or for stakeholders, those who need to understand their users.

The consumers of these personas are often very similar to the actual users, this can be great, naturally we are very good at empathizing when we can connect with others, it makes it easier to shift our mindsets to designing a customer centric experience. Oftentimes a photograph or illustration assists the documentation, while on some level this heightens our empathy it also allows for our own biases — conscious or subconscious — to affect our feelings towards the users, ultimately affecting our designed experience.

Indi Young writes I urge people to try rewriting their personas without reference to demographics. Demographics can cause assumptions, shortcuts in thinking, and subconscious stereotypes by team members.”

For this reason — imagery makes it even harder to ignore our biases, in the words of Indi Young I urge you to remove your images from your personas.

Part of the usefulness around personas, is forcing us into those discussion that may be uncomfortable to have and this may be where we see discussions around gender raised. Gender may be necessary for your experience then again it may not. First off try to identify whether it really matters what gender your user is. By using gender neutral names and pronouns we can go one step further in removing our subconscious biases. And if gender is important — make sure are our personas covering all eventualities.

Admittedly and inevitably this will make it more difficult to empathise with our users via the personas. However, while removing the images and adding diversity to all of the personas we will help the team humanise these now much more verbal personas. By making the personas more meaningful and valuable, not less, we can perhaps unnecessarily create a much more personal approach. This is also a great way to leave out other information that may only fan the flames of bias.

Design — Moving beyond the stereotypes
If a car hire company wants to attract men, then it will use red and black. If a clothing company wants to attract women then it will use whites and pinks — great, that’s easy then. But I don’t like pink and I know a few other women who share my taste — so by choosing a pink or black are these business repelling many potential customers who don’t identify with that colour scheme? As designers we should aspire to eliminate thoughtless association of colours with gender. This means resolving the tension between current conventions and our desires for inclusive design.

We are starting to see a shift in the world of fashion towards gender neutral clothing — only last year did the iconic fashion brand Zara, introduce it’s ‘ungendered’ collection. Unfortunately, I despair it was not all that original, it relied heavily on greys and simple pieces of design, but they do make good point. Clothes shouldn’t be designed for either boys or girls, or men or women; instead let us browse by style, colour or item. As designers we have a responsibility for not only guiding these online experiences but also guiding the brands themselves. Simple UX changes will appeal to a broader audience and can ultimately pull in more customers. This is not just about social justice. It’s good for business.

Zara’s ‘Ungendered’ Collection

Mind your copy too
There is also a need to check copy text carefully for misuse of gender roles. When people don’t identify with male or female, they don’t feel comfortable being referred to as ‘he’ or ‘she’. Remember to use ‘they’ or ‘ze’. If you say “housewife” then include “househusband”, or leave the term out entirely. Using a term like “male nurse” is often associated with a mocking tone (and bullying nicknames like “murses”). There’s a simple gender-neutral name for the job, “nurse”, so use it. A lot of the time words are used without much consideration and offense is never intended, prevent this by taking the time to read through the copy and re-word anything that could be misconstrued.

By creating digital environments that embrace clear inclusivity, understanding, and acceptance you not only empower LGBTQ users, you help all users. When you ensure the inclusion of one, you make space for all. You transform your digital environment into a place where everyone can belong, where everyone is accounted for, and where everyone can feel included.

Inclusion and acceptance of ungendered design is an important sign of validation but there is still more to be done and a long way to go and we certainly haven’t covered all the topics here. But we do have a responsibility as designers to cater for all our audiences, no matter if they are in the majority or minority. Beyond that, we also have a responbility to educate; we need to educate our brands by leading the way, we need to educate our clients by having honest discussions and we need to educate our users by setting an example.

Interested in working together?

Let's chat.

get in touch