Small acts of inclusion in app design that make a big difference

Learn how these small considerations can make applications much more inclusive for everyone.

As someone who identifies as a gender minority, I often find myself feeling overlooked or unseen in applications that I use everyday. Gender selection options and titles often don’t include options that allow me to accurately represent myself. In many situations this leaves me with no other choice but to intentionally misgender myself in order to use the application. I appreciate when developers use inclusive and expansive language for gender vs binary-only language. 

This article is based on my personal experience and expertise but you’ll see some notes and additional tips from Director of Content, Rease Rios, as well. 

Know your terminology

First, let’s define some terminology for those who may be unfamiliar.  All of the below definitions have been pulled from PFLAG, which has a comprehensive glossary that will help you dig deeper into terminology.

Sex: Also referred to as Biological Sex. Refers to anatomical, physiological, genetic, or physical attributes that determine if a person is male, female, or intersex. These include both primary and secondary sex characteristics.

Gender: Broadly, gender is a set of socially constructed roles, behaviors, activities, and attributes that a given society considers appropriate related to a person’s assigned sex.

Gender expression: The manner in which a person communicates about gender to others through external means such as clothing, appearance, or mannerisms. This communication may be conscious or subconscious and may or may not reflect their gender identity or sexual orientation. While most people’s understandings of gender expressions relate to masculinity and femininity, there are countless combinations that may incorporate both masculine and feminine expressions, or neither, through androgynous expressions. All people have gender expressions, and an individual’s gender expression does not automatically imply one’s gender identity.

Pronouns: The words used to refer to a person other than their name. Common pronouns are they/them, he/him, and she/her. 

Cisgender: Often shortened to cis, a term used to refer to an individual whose gender identity aligns with the sex assigned to them at birth.

Transgender: Often shortened to trans, from the Latin prefix for “on a different side as.” A term describing a person’s gender identity that does not necessarily match their assigned sex at birth.

Nonbinary: Refers to people who do not subscribe to the gender binary. They might exist between or beyond the man-woman binary. Some use the term exclusively, while others may use it interchangeably with terms like genderqueer, genderfluid, gender non-conforming, gender diverse, or gender expansive.

As you can see from the definitions above, there’s a distinction between sex and gender. I personally do not identify as the sex I was assigned at birth (female). I identify as nonbinary and use they/them pronouns.

How to make forms more inclusive

In almost every application there are form fields that must be completed in the signup process and other points along the user journey. Typically, these forms have drop downs or other selection methods that are pre-configured. But for those of us who don’t fit the binary, preconfigured form options leave us out. 

For example, if the options in a drop down are male and female, which should I select? I am not a man or a woman, so neither option accurately represents me. Additionally, context matters — does the context require me to answer based on gender or assigned sex at birth?

Ask the right questions

The nature and context of the application will drive what options should be present in forms. Asking the right questions will help identify which options should be present and in some cases, even how messaging to a user should be worded.

Some questions to consider with your team when developing forms:

Is sex required or is gender more appropriate? If you’re building software for the medical or insurance industries, sex may be an important data point to collect. If this is the case, consider a second set of questions that ask for gender and pronouns as well. 

Is a standardized list the right way to handle gender, pronouns, or titles? When asking for a person’s gender, pronouns, or title, the user’s self-identification may not match the options in a standard list. Consider using an open text field and allowing users to type out the information instead. 

Does the user use their legal name or prefer something else? While legal names are often required for registration, not everyone chooses to use their legal name for communication. This is especially important in situations where the name will influence identifying accounts such as a forum username, email address, personalized messaging to the user, etc. 

Will the user understand why this information is needed? Some information, like sex or legal names, can be uncomfortable and upsetting topics for people who are not cisgender. If this information is needed, providing an explanation for why it’s needed will help your users feel more comfortable. For example, “To comply with health care regulations, we must collect sex assigned at birth and legal names.”

A note about wording from Rease: There are many reasons someone might use a name different from their legal name or want to specify pronouns or titles — and none of those reasons are any of your business. It’s your responsibility as the information-gatherer to explain why certain information is necessary. It is not the users’ responsibility to give you any additional context or explanation. 

Have the right options

It’s important to remember that inclusion requires us to expand beyond the binary. Additionally, developers tend to look for ways to shorten drop down lists or avoid options that they think will go unused. However, doing so often results in leaving people out. Consider instead using a combination of multi-select checkboxes and open text fields to allow for self-identification. Below are some examples of what this might look like.

  • My sex assigned at birth: Female/ Male/ Intersex/ Prefer to self-identify [open text box]
  • I identify as transgender: Yes/No
  • My gender is: Man/ Woman/ Nonbinary/ Genderqueer/ Agender/ Prefer to self identify [open text box]
  • My title is: Dr Mr/ Mrs/ Ms/ Miss/ Mx/ Prefer to self identify [open text box]
  • My emergency contact is [open text box] - avoid pre-configured options like “spouse” and “mother” and allow users to fill in the relationship
  • My pronouns are: [open text box]

A note about wording from Rease: Notice that we said  “My pronouns are” and not  “my preferred pronouns are.” Pronouns are not a preference, they are a part of someone’s identity. Including an open text field rather than a drop down allows users to use a variety of combinations such as they/him, she/they, they/them, he/him, she/her, etc. 

Avoid gendered design

Ensuring an application is inclusive of all genders goes beyond asking good questions and offering the most inclusive options in forms. It also requires making the experience of using the application inclusive. I’ve encountered a number of applications over the years that ask for gender and then misgender users in the application. It’s critical that the correct pronouns, title, and gender are used anywhere your user is addressed. 

Making applications as gender neutral as possible goes a long way in creating an inclusive experience. For example, if your application does period tracking, entering data in the tracker should not cause the assumption that the user identifies as a woman. Additionally, many applications created to track cycles have been designed to have a traditionally “feminine” aesthetic. This is problematic as not everyone who has a period identifies as a woman. By leaning into a more gender neutral design and using gender neutral language, your application becomes more welcoming to all users.

Inclusivity shouldn’t stop at registration

Below are Rease’s thoughts and experiences with rigid design: 

Think about inclusivity beyond registration. I went through a legal name change two years ago and to this day there are still several accounts that I simply cannot update my name on and I have to constantly explain myself to customer service representatives. While many — but not all — applications have a process designed for when people change their last name due to marriage, they rarely have a process for anything beyond that style of name change. Even fewer apps have an established workflow for updating sex, gender, or pronouns.

Marketing-based gendering is also problematic. While Netflix has denied using information like gender and race to determine which suggestions and even thumbnails are shown to users, a quick look at their application makes you wonder. Here’s a look at the same category on the same Netflix account, but the top is under a “female” user and the bottom is under a “male” user.

Screenshots of two "new on Netflix" views. Top: Love is Blind shows a couple and Dexter features a woman and man. Bottom: Dexter features a man only and Love is Blind shows an illustration rather than a photo of a couple

Don’t stop at app design

All of the inclusive practices I’ve suggested lose their value if your broader systems aren’t inclusive. For instance, if your application is for a banking system and the call center is not able to see a caller's gender and pronouns it’s likely that your users will be misgendered and have a poor experience with your organization. The same is true if the process for a user changing their gender and/or name is overly complex or does not exist. Some of the most important things you can do as an advocate for inclusion is ask questions, make suggestions, and listen to the feedback of your users. And as the old adage goes — if you see something, say something! 

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