At Betterment, we’re embarking on a journey to discover what designing products that are truly for everyone might look like. We’re learning lessons: some we knew, some we didn’t. We learned how complicated asking a customer’s name can be. How to display data in a way for folks with different visual abilities, and what questions we should be asking in our product development processes.
My name is Crys, I’m a product design manager on Betterment for Advisors. I’m also a non-binary person with a penchant for the radical and unconventional. Here’s a walk through of one of my first ‘inclusive design’ successes and my learnings along the way.
TL;DR – Gender: Never, ever, ever, a radio button. It will create friction in your flows and it’s exclusionary.
But if you’re interested in getting into the weeds with me of how fraught asking this question is, read on!
First, a thought experiment. When you put this in your experience, what are you really asking?
The answer is probably more complicated than you think.
Gender is not binary, nor is it limited to male and female. Male and Female are social constructions of masculinity and femininity and can vary across cultures. So when you ask whether or not your customer is male or female, are you asking about whether or not they are masculine or feminine? Is there an implied meaning for how that individual performs that role and is that important to your organization? What might that look like if our radios had that context?
That’s maybe not what you are looking for in your original question.
You probably are thinking in terms of their biological sex. Male and female makes sense in that context right?
Nope. Sex is not binary nor is it limited to male and female. Biological sex has to do with genetics and chromosomes. I won’t get into the specifics, as I am not a geneticist, but sex can vary from what we typically think of as XX and XY, into other options such as X (Turner’s syndrome), XXY (Klinefelter), XYY, and XXXY. There are even more chromosomal variations beyond these six.
So should our question look something more like:
This would definitely create friction in our flows.
Ok, so hyperbole and facetiousness aside, how do we move forward? How do we begin to challenge what’s likely common practice for most businesses?
Ask yourself, your stakeholders, their stakeholders, and a few more people why you need to ask a customer their gender. Eventually, you will find the answer. Once you know the answer, you can solve the problem.
Early in my career, I was told to ask a ton of questions as part of my design process. My last design mentor told me to ask five questions in response to a point or feature. Up to this point, I’d tried that out, but found it really uncomfortable. I didn’t want to seem like a trouble maker or hard to get along with. And also, they were way more knowledgeable than me, so I’d better trust them. Right?
At Betterment, we asked that frought gender question to anyone signing up for an account. I work on the Betterment for Advisors business line, the 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 streamline the sign up process for their clients. Our intent here was to reduce friction for our clients, but the actual impact meant that our advisors were put in the awkward position of identifying someone’s gender—possibly misgendering them.
So I started asking around about why we ask this question. I asked product folk, other designers, engineers, my General Manager and my VP. I became what felt like a squeaky wheel, because I was passionate about it. I’m a nonbinary person myself and had seen the feedback from our trans and nonbinary customers who couldn’t advance past this part of the flow. This question created so much friction for them, they dropped out and went to another business.
After digging, we did have a reason for wanting to know this information. Our human advice team has intentions of using demographic data to personalize the algorithms that give financial advice, but we weren’t there yet. This meant we were alienating potential customers without even having a business benefit for it. Ultimately, we removed the gender question and tabled it until we knew what exactly we wanted to do with it. Seeing the PR that removed that 11 lines of code might have been the highlight of my career as a product designer.
But what if you really really need to ask a customer’s gender or sex? This question has already been answered several times over. My favorite response is from the “UX Collective” blog.
This small feature was my first exploration into inclusive design. It has been an Aha! moment for me, unifying my passions for craft and social justice. I’ve learned from this, and subsequent projects that there are repeatable moments or questions you can ask yourself as a designer in order to build inclusive products. I’ve read a lot about inclusive design, but it’s only in retrospect where I can see those principles put into place. Here’s how you can be more intentional about inclusive design from the start:
- Think critically. Regardless of the intent, what’s the actual impact and on whom? To take it a step further, what’s the worst case scenario? (Credit: Project Inkblot)
- Ask questions. I belaboured this point above, but asking questions is the sign of a healthy culture and be skeptical of quick or vague answers.
- Get specific. Making your questions specific will help with the first two suggestions. It will also move you toward articulating the problem with clarity and persuasiveness. Humans have a tendency to take mental shortcuts. It’s been an enormous survival strategy but it can very often lead to bias.
- Slow down. As a startup, we move quickly to bring value and viability to the business. Take a pause, make some space for questions, and be open to what you may uncover.
- Solve for one, extend to many. (Credit: Microsoft Inclusive Design) By considering the experience of your most adversely impacted customer, all of your users will reap the benefits. By taking out gender radios to allow non-binary folks to sign up for our product, we reduced friction for the rest of our customers.
These are just a few things that I’ve started to incorporate into my design practice. I hope that you find them helpful or a place for you to start thinking about your own work through this lens. If you are on this journey with us, keep trudging friends! We’d love to hear from you. If you are new in inclusive and equitable design, then a warm welcome and a word of encouragement: Be kind to yourself and others. Do your best and start somewhere. Just make sure you start!
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