Jessica Ivins is a UX designer and faculty member at Center Centre, the UX design school in Chattanooga, TN. Before joining Center Centre, she worked as a senior experience designer at Happy Cog and the lead UX designer at AWeber.
She dedicates much of her time to the local, national, and international UX community. Jessica taught classes for Girl Develop It, led UX Book Club, and served on the board of Philadelphia’s UX community, PhillyCHI. She founded the Chattanooga UX Design Meetup. She speaks internationally at conferences such as SXSWi, Midwest UX, IA Summit, UX Camp Ottawa, and UX Cambridge (UK). She’s also a voracious reader of design books and business books.
IA Summit 2015 Main Conference Talk
Topic(s): diversity and user research
Time magazine recently proclaimed that the transgender movement is “the next civil rights frontier.” If you’re unsure of what it means to be transgender, you’re not alone.
As designers, we rarely consider gender in our design process. Yet gender profoundly influences our customers’ behaviors. Gender influences the way our customers present themselves to the world. Gender determines how customers choose to interact—or not interact—with our products. We make design decisions for customers whose gender identity affects their lives, every day, both offline and online.
A new civil rights movement is teaching us that gender identity goes beyond the conventional definition of male or female. As designers, what do we need to understand about gender identity? How do we design experiences that are inclusive for everyone?
We’ll explore gender identity, what we as designers need to know about gender identity, and why an understanding of gender identity will help us make effective designs even stronger.
Jessica Ivins: Good morning, everybody. Thank you so much for joining me today. My name is Jessica Ivins. I’m going to be talking about designing for gendered audiences.
This is me back in 2012. I was giving a presentation on designing for a female audience. This presentation earned the nickname “The Shrink It and Pink It” talk. I gave this presentation at the IA Summit in 2011, I believe it was. I gave this presentation at various conferences and MeetUps. I really researched the intersection of gender and design. It was a passion of mine.
I thought of all people, I was really prepared to handle the intersection of gender and design. I was prepared to handle any kind of curveball that came my way when it came to designing with gender in mind.
This wasn’t necessarily the case. I’d run into trouble with the gender question. This is what I mean by the gender question. I am female or male. I’m sure you’ve all seen a variation of this question. We’ve all had to fill out forms with this question before. Maybe you’ve even designed a form where you had to ask this question.
At the time, I was writing a customer-facing survey. I thought to myself, “How am I going to ask this question?” It seems like a really simple and straightforward question. That’s actually not the case. At the time, I was working for AWeber. AWeber is an email marketing company.
If you’re not familiar with AWeber, you’re probably familiar with MailChimp or Constant Contact. Like MailChimp and Constant Contact, AWeber is an email marketing provider. Their customers use AWeber to send emails to their subscribers.
I was the first dedicated user experience designer at AWeber. I conducted lots of user research with the help of the team at AWeber. This is some of the data that we collected in our initial research study where we interviewed 22 customers.
After a while, I wanted to supplement the qualitative data findings that we had gathered through this research. I wanted to supplement that with quantitative data through a customer survey just to get a better holistic sense of who are audience was.
One of the things that I wanted to know was how many men and how many women were using our product. It seemed like it was about 50/50 give or take just from all the recruiting that I had done and from all the interviews that I had done. I wanted to be sure. The way to find out was really to gather this information quantitatively.
Again, this question looks really simple and straightforward. It’s not a question that most people really question or think about. I started to think about people like Laverne Cox. Is anybody here familiar with Laverne Cox or recognize her? I see quite a few hands go up.
Laverne Cox is an actor, an activist, and a speaker. She also happens to be a transgender woman. She plays the role of a transgender woman on TV. It’s a TV show called “Orange is the New Black.” It’s a TV show about women prisoners. Her character happens to be transgender as well.
Laverne Cox herself was assigned the gender male at birth and became a woman. Therefore, she’s a trans woman. I thought to myself, “How would Laverne Cox answer the gender question, male or female? Would that really work for somebody like Laverne Cox?”
Traditionally, we think of gender as a binary, but some people say that it’s more of a spectrum. In addition to folks like Laverne Cox, I’ve been reading a lot about people like Skylar Crownover. Skylar Crownover was mentioned in the New York Times about a year or two ago.
Skylar at that time was a 19-year-old college student that’s in an all-women’s college in Oakland, California. Skylar is gender-nonconforming. Skylar doesn’t consider themselves a man or a woman. Skylar prefers the pronouns they or he when Skylar’s being referred to.
This is somebody that doesn’t even consider themselves a part of the binary. How would somebody like Skylar answer the gender question? I realized that this question wasn’t working in all scenarios anymore. I wanted to write a customer-facing survey. I wanted to include this question among other questions.
I thought and thought, how am I going to write this survey question? I spun my wheels. Finally, this is what I came up with and this is what we launched. The question was, “How do you identify?” The first two options are female and male. Most people walking around on the planet today are cisgender men or cisgender women.
Cisgender means that you identify with the gender that you are assigned at birth. I’m a cisgender woman. Most folks, like I said, are cisgender. Most folks are perfectly happy with the gender that they’ve been assigned since birth. Most folks therefore would pick one of the two options and then call it a day.
I thought somebody like Laverne Cox could pick the third option because she’s a transgender woman. I thought somebody like Skylar Crownover could pick the fourth option. Something else, please indicate, where we require you to self-identify.
We launched the survey. I was really curious to see what responses were rolling in. As hundreds of responses started to roll in, I noticed that a very small percentage of people were picking the fourth option, something else, please indicate, where they had to write in responses.
I took a look at the responses that gathered. We were gathering responses but those responses were not what I was expecting. Here’s what I saw.
Vote for octopus. What? Bad ass. According to the US IRS, I am an alien. The one at the bottom right is original. You have to admit that. This is what I saw rolling in on our customer-facing survey. I also saw some really inappropriate and offensive things roll in which I did not share here.
I realized, “Oh, shit.” We’re not gathering anything useful from this question. This question is actually distracting the survey responders. That’s when I realized despite all the research I had done and reading I had done about gender and design, I had no idea what I was doing. I had a lot more to learn.
I rolled up my sleeves and I got to work. I conducted research on what it means to be gender-nonconforming, what it means to be trans. As a designer, I wanted to know what do I need to know about people who are trans or gender-nonconforming.
I looked at social media. I thought when folks engage with social media, they’re presenting themselves online to the world. Gender must have a role in that. I found that with Facebook, gender actually plays a very significant role in how people use the platform.
Facebook for years and years only allowed you to identify as a man or a woman. It might have said male or female, but it was that binary option where you can only pick one or the other. This was a problem for Facebook’s audience because Facebook, as you probably know, has a lot of users. As of Q4 2014, they had almost 1.4 billion with a B users. That’s a lot of people. Among those people, there are certainly going to be people who are trans or people who are gender-nonconforming.
Facebook was getting a lot of pressure to allow people to express their gender in a way other than male or female. Interestingly enough, if you look at how Facebook communicates information about you, it talks about you in the third person. This up here says, “Hunter Boyle changed his cover photo.” It’s using the gendered pronoun his. Facebook needs to know how to talk about you appropriately so that it can communicate things about you to your Facebook friends.
I took a look at my profile. I went into the about section to see what my gender settings were. These are my gender settings. It’s pretty simple. It just says “Female.” I also added the pronoun she just for kicks because I was playing around with the UI just to see how that worked. You can actually express what pronoun you want to go with.
I have some transgender friends on Facebook. I took a look at their gender settings. Now, this particular woman, she’s a trans woman. You can see she’s got a lot of stuff listed under gender. It says, “Female, gender queer, trans person, trans woman, trans, trans feminine, and transgender female.”
She also happens to list the pronoun they, though she goes by the pronouns she or they. I know her personally and I refer to her with the pronoun she. She’s very out about the fact that she’s trans. I would consider her a trans activist. She’s very comfortable with expressing herself this way on Facebook.
Not every person, however, expresses themselves this way. I have another trans woman friend on Facebook. All it says here is female. When I talked to this trans friend, she said, “I’m not necessarily out to everybody on Facebook. I’m very private about the fact that I’m trans in certain circles. Not everybody knows that I’m trans.” All she lists here is female. She doesn’t take advantage of all the other ways to express her gender. You can see how it varies from person to person.
I’m also friends with a particular transgender guy on Facebook. He doesn’t list his gender at all. It’s just not there. Now, he’s an LGBTQ program coordinator at a university. He works with students. He consults in academic circles about how academia can be more friendly to the LGBTQ folks.
He’s pretty out about the fact that he’s trans, but it’s interesting how he doesn’t list his gender. I interviewed him. He told some other things about how he uses Facebook. He said, “I started making Facebook friends with people who didn’t know me as birth name.” I knew him before he transitioned. Now, that he’s a trans guy, he’s meeting people in real life and becoming Facebook friends with people who didn’t know him prior to his transition.
I keep in mind he’s pretty out about who he is. He’s pretty open. He untagged and removed all of his pre-transition Facebook photos. You can’t see any photos of him prior to his transition. I asked him why he did that. He said, “I don’t need folks being curious about me in that kind of way. I don’t want to be somebody’s sideshow.”
Even though he is a leader in the LGBTQ community and he’s very out about who he is, and he told me he considers himself a role model for students who are trans, coming out as trans, coming out as gender-nonconforming, he’s still very sensitive about how he’s portrayed in social media.
Facebook has all sorts of gender settings. If you go into your Facebook profile, you’ll see all sorts of options. These are things that I just started typing in. You can see at the end, I put in unicorn just to be silly. You can actually type in any word. It’s essentially an open text field that allows you to put in multiple options.
You can also set what pronoun you want Facebook to refer to you with and what pronoun you want other people to refer to you with. Lastly, you can set who gets to see your gender settings. Maybe you want all of your Facebook friends to see it. Maybe you want it to be public to people who are on Facebook but who aren’t friends with you, or maybe you only want specific circles to be able to see your gender expression.
Facebook has to provide expansive gender options because Facebook is a very personal place and gender can be very personal. I give Facebook a lot of credit. They did a pretty good job with allowing folks who are trans and gender-nonconforming to express their identities on the platform.
In my research, I found that going to the doctor for somebody who’s trans or gender-nonconforming can be a pretty unpleasant experience. Some people fear being misunderstood, being humiliated, being misgendered. When you’re misgendered, that means that somebody refers to you as a gender that you’re not.
This can happen because sometimes, staff at the doctor’s office or the health care provider, they might not know how to treat a patient who’s trans or gender-nonconforming. They might not even know how to interact with somebody who’s trans or gender-conforming.
I spoke with a trans woman who told me about hilarious gray areas that she experiences at the doctor. She’s got a sarcastic and funny view on these things. She told me about how she went to a doctor appointment once. The nurse asked her, “When was your last menstrual period?” She said, “I don’t have menstrual periods.”
Now, remember she’s a trans woman. She was assigned the gender male at birth. She became a woman at some point in her life. She doesn’t have reproductive organs like a uterus and ovaries and a cervix. She’s never going to have menstrual periods, but she’s a woman, she’s a trans woman.
You can see how this conversation would be awkward for the patient and the provider. Sometimes, this happens because the providers just don’t know to collect the proper information from their patients.
I assume we’ve all been to the doctor. We’ve all filled out forms like this where we have to give our name, our address, our medical history and so on and so forth and prescriptions and all that stuff. At some point, it will ask you your gender or your sex. Like most forms, it just gives you a binary option. It’s not collecting a lot of information from you, information that it needs to collect if you’re trans or gender-nonconforming.
The health care provider needs to know your medical history. Some folks who are trans, they have facial surgeries. They have genital reassignment surgeries, hormone replacement therapy. Not all trans folks do, but some do. Those are really important things for your provider to know.
They also need to know how to address you, what’s your preferred name, what’s your preferred pronoun. They need to know how to interact with you so that you’re comfortable and so that they’re comfortable.
The trans guy friend that I told you about, he told me about Fenway Health Center in Boston. Fenway Health Center specializes with working with LGBTQ patients. They say on their website, “We provide medical care, mental health care, and supportive services that are sensitive to the needs of people on the trans spectrum.”
This is Fenway Health intake form. This is what all patients fill out, new patients, probably a yearly thing. If you’ve been to the doctor, every now and then, every year, you fill out these forms just so they have the most up-to-date information.
They ask some smart questions. They ask you your preferred pronouns. He, she, they, you can write in whatever you want. They ask you your preferred name. The reason they ask this is because sometimes the name on your legal documentation, your first name, does not match your preferred first name.
If you’re a trans woman and your name is Jennifer, previously maybe your name was Jonathan. All of your legal documentation, driver’s license, birth certificate might say Jonathan, but your preferred name might be Jennifer. If the form doesn’t allow you to indicate that, the staff doesn’t know how to address you.
They also explain how they need to gather your legal sex. They need to know legally what your biological sex is because health insurance companies, they don’t have a way of handling folks who are trans or gender-nonconforming very well. They have to see the same exact sex that’s on their documentation with the forms that the health care provider is submitting or they might deny the claim or it might run into problems.
This form does a good job of collecting the right information and explaining to the audience why they’re collecting the information that they collect.
My trans guy friend, he told me about Fenway Health Center. He said how this was an amazing experience for the LGBTQ community. It was a great way for them to get health care. He said, “When you’re seeking medical care, that’s huge. It removes a barrier of care between you and your doctor.” Some smart design decisions went into crafting the patient experience, and particularly with creating this patient intake form.
I’m a faculty member at Center Centre, the user experience design school in Chattanooga, Tennessee. Now, we’re not a health care provider. We’re not a giant social media platform like Facebook. Even we find ourselves addressing the gender question. We want to be inclusive to everybody. We want to be inclusive to our student applicants, to our visitors, to our industry experts, to our partners.
This is one of the application forms that we’re working on for our students. These are the kinds of things that students will have to fill out after they’re accepted like you would with any school that you go to. The questions that we’re asking ourselves now are, what are we legally required to collect? We’re an authorized school so we have to comply with Tennessee’s state laws and state policies. There are certain information that we have to collect and have on file by law.
How do we balance collecting that information by collecting what we need to know to address students? What if some of our students are trans and some of our students are gender-nonconforming. They’re going to have to give us a lot of information for legal reasons and also for interpersonal day-to-day reasons.
Right now, gender is an open text field which is a good start because we don’t force people to comply with the male, female binary. We also have preferred name if not first name. This works well for people who maybe have a nickname. Maybe your first name is Jonathan but you go by John. It could be on paper, your first name is Jonathan but you actually go by your middle name which is Michael.
These forms, you can see how these fields like when we make things accessible, and accessible experiences work well for everybody, not just people with disabilities. When we make our forms work well for folks who are transgender or gender-nonconforming, we make the forms easier to use for other folks as well.
I’m always asking myself, “What can designers do?” I ask myself this question a lot. I pay attention a lot to news from the transgender community, from the LGBTQ community. Even when I was in college, I was an ally in the gay student union. It’s always been something that’s been really important to me.
I see articles like this a lot with the title, “An Epidemic of Deadly Anti-Trans Violence.” Folks who were trans or gender-nonconforming constantly experience depression and anxiety. They risk losing their jobs proving who they are. They risk being discerned by their families for being who they are.
Their suicide rate is nine times higher than that of the general population. They’re often the target of hate crimes. They’re more likely to die from violence than people who are not transgender or people who are not gender-nonconforming.
As designers, we’re building the front lines of the customer relationship always. I’m always asking myself whether it’s a small question on a form field or if it’s a broader project, what can I do to make life a little less painful for trans people and for gender-nonconforming people?