Gender and user experience: some notes

I attended an InterTech LGBT professional event last year on “UX and Gender” at the Skype offices in London. I took some notes from the panel session that I have edited into prose. My apologies if I have mangled any of their ideas in transcription.

The tyranny of the “drop-down”

UX is increasingly being driven by the needs of advertisers to segment and target their advertising. We get offered little demographic boxes into which to slot ourselves.

The “drop-down box” in which you have to classify your gender is not there because anyone cares about your inner sense of identity. It is there because someone else is making money from doing so. There is typically no benefit for the user whatsoever.

So there is a natural tension between the needs of users, developers, and advertisers. However, that tension can be reduced. For instance, Facebook offers a wide palette of identities to choose from. Or if you don’t need names and titles, why not just ask for someone’s phone number as an identifier, and skip over gender issues entirely?

A richer way of thinking about gender

For most of the world, gender is king for global branding. Goods are carefully targeted at broad and distinct “male” and “female” markets.

However, in the West, gender is in more of a state of flux. We recognise a gender spectrum, and are learning how to market to that spectrum. To make advertising inclusive we need to get beyond “male” and “female” to reach everyone.

You might want to offer a blank or custom gender option for people to express themselves. This is not just to make them feel included, but because the data this gathers is interesting and valuable. Companies are afraid of accumulating meaningless data, and a lot of gender data is meaningless in marketing terms.

Rather than trying to pin down someone’s gender, what you really want to know if their persona. They may wish to express themselves in different ways depending on the context. This presents a new set of UX design challenges.

Cultural limits to gender expression

We see many ways in which gender fails to be properly expressed in technology. For example, health applications typically lack tracking of menstruation. The whole culture of Silicon Valley is oriented towards serving the needs of white, Asian and Indian males, who by default design for themselves.

Inclusive experience design aims to break beyond these barriers. An application for “new mothers” needs to also accommodate “new fathers”. Gender roles exist both in flux, and in a social context. They are not fixed and isolated.

We see many gender stereotypes in UX design. For instance, rounded corners are seen as female, and square as male. Certain colours and tones have a gender association, which varies by geography and time. Pink was the colour in which the Victorians dressed up baby boys!

There are real differences in how different genders shop online, and UX needs to accommodate these variations in perception and navigation. This is in some ways the opposite of a profession like journalism, when you are taught to write for a gender-neutral audience. Taking journalism as a template, what we lack is the design equivalent of a gender “style guide”.

Moving beyond stereotypes

If a car hire company wants to attract men, then it will use red and black. However, that will in the process repel many potential customers who don’t identify with that colour scheme. Thus the UX community should aspire to eliminate thoughtless association of colours with gender. That means resolving the tension between current conventions our desires for inclusive design.

There is also a need to check copy text carefully for misuse of gender roles. 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.

This is not just about social justice. It’s good for business. A company like Betfair has a client base of 80% male to 20% female, yet their design process has no female personas. Compare that to online bingo, which has a much more even split. Simple UX changes to appeal to a broader audience can pull in more customers.

Respecting gender variation means allowing for anonymity and accepting the authenticity of the creator of whatever persona is offered to you.

Keeping our own house in order

Improving how we deal with gender in design demands more self-awareness from UX practitioners. This is difficult, as there is a lack of mentors who appreciate the issues involved.

A place to start is internally. We need to remove gender labels from HR policies. Terms like “maternity leave” should be replaced with “parental leave”.


Perhaps the most significant part of the event for me was at the end. The organiser said a video of the panel discussion would be put up on the Web. An audience member who had asked a question came up afterwards to him, and I overheard her request. She said that as a gay Asian woman she is terrified of her family finding out, and asked that the video be edited to make sure she was not visible or audible.

We have a long way to go still, both in UX and society.

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