At Betterment, we are embarking on a journey to discover a designing product that can truly be for everyone. We are learning lessons: some we knew, some we did not know. We’ve learned how complicated it can be to ask a customer’s name. How to display data for people with different visual abilities and what questions we should ask in our product development process.
My name is Chris, I am a Product Design Manager at Betterment for Advisors. I am a fundamentalist and a non-binary person interested in the obsolete. Here is one of my first ‘inclusive design’ successes and walking through learning on my way.
TL; DR – Gender: Never, ever, ever, a radio button. This will cause friction in your flow and it is negligible.
But if you’re interested in getting into the weeds with me, how hard is it to ask this question, read on!
First, a thought test. When you put it into your experience, what are you actually asking?
The answer is probably more complicated than you think.
Gender is not binary, and it is not limited to men and women. Men and women can vary in the social construction of masculinity and femininity and in different cultures. So when you ask if your customers are male or female, are you asking if they are male or female? How does that person play that role and how important is it to your organization? If our radios had that context, what would it look like?
Maybe that’s not what you’re looking for in your main question.
You’re probably thinking about their biological sexuality. Do men and women feel right in that context?
No. Sexuality is not binary and it is not limited to men and women. Biological sexuality is related to genetics and chromosomes. I won’t go into specifications, because I’m not a geneticist, but sex can be different from what we usually think of as XX and XY, such as X (Turner syndrome), XXY (Kleinfelter), XYY, and XXXY. There are more chromosomal variations beyond these six.
So our question should look something like this:
This will definitely cause friction in our flow.
Okay, so hyperball and confrontation aside, how do we move forward? How do we begin to challenge what is a common practice for most businesses?
Ask yourself, your stakeholders, their stakeholders, and a few more people why you should ask a customer their gender. Finally, you get the answer. Once you know the answer, you can solve the problem.
Early in my career, I was asked a ton of questions as part of my design process. My last design consultant asked me to ask five questions in response to a point or feature. Up to this point, I’ve tried it, but it seemed really uncomfortable. I don’t want to feel a problem maker or hard to get along with. And also, they were much wiser than I was, so I trusted them well. Right?
In Betterment, we asked the gender question to sign up for any account. I work at the Betterment for Advisors business line, a platform that gives financial advisors the ability to manage their clients’ money using Betterment. Here, we allow advisors to set up accounts for their clients, to facilitate the sign-up process for their clients. Our purpose here was to reduce friction for our clients, but the real effect was to put our advisers in an awkward position to identify someone’s gender – perhaps to misunderstand them.
So I started asking about why we ask this question. I asked Product Folk, other designers, engineers, my general manager and my VP. I felt like a shiny wheel, because I was passionate about it. I myself am a non-binary person and have seen the response of our trans and non-binary customers who have not been able to cross this part of the flow. This question caused so much friction for them, they dropped out and went into another business.
After digging, we had reason to want to know this information. Our human advisory team has a desire to use demographic information to personalize financial advisory algorithms, but we haven’t been there yet. This means we isolated potential customers even without getting business benefits for it. In the end, we removed the gender question and put it on the table until we knew exactly what we wanted to do with it. Seeing that PR removed the 11 line code may be the highlight of my career as a product designer.
But what if you really want to ask the gender or gender of a customer? This question has already been answered several times. My favorite response is from the “UX Collective” blog.
This small feature was my first search for inclusive design. It’s been aha! Combining my passion for moments, craft and social justice for me. I’ve learned from this, and subsequent projects that have repetitive moments or questions that you can ask yourself as a designer to incorporate. I’ve read a lot about inclusive design, but it’s only in the preview where I can see those principles laid out. Here’s how you can be more intentional about inclusive design from scratch:
- Think complex. Whatever the purpose, what is the real impact and on whom? To take it one step further, what is the worst case scenario? (Credit: Project Inkblot)
- Ask questions. I have focused on the above, but questioning is a sign of a healthy culture and is skeptical of quick or vague answers.
- Specify. Specifying your question will help with the first two suggestions. This will lead you to clarify the problem with clarity and persuasion. People have a tendency to take emotional shortcuts. This has been a huge survival strategy but it can often lead to bias.
- Slowly. As a start-up, we move quickly to bring quality and functionality to the business. Pause for a moment, make some space for questions and be open to what you can open up.
- Solve for one, extend to many. (Credit: Microsoft Inclusive Design) Considering your most adversely affected customer experience, all of your users will reap the benefits. By releasing gender radios to allow non-binary people to sign up for our products, we have reduced friction for the rest of our customers.
These are just a few of the things I started to incorporate into my design practice. I hope you find them helpful or a place to start thinking about your own work through this lens. If you’re on this ride with us, talk to friends! We’d love to hear from you. If you are new to inclusive and equitable design, a word of warm welcome and encouragement: be kind to yourself and others. Try your best and start somewhere. Just make sure you get started!
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