Radio buttons define us. Let’s make better tech

Northampton, Mass is the most gender-diverse community I have ever lived in. It is also a small city with a big and diverse live music scene. The surrounding Pioneer Valley has been home to bands and musicians like Arlo Guthrie, Dinosaur Jr, and Erin McKeown. I recently attended a performance by the Young@Heart Chorus, Green Sisters, and Jésus Pagán y su Orquesta that included a multi-generational mash-up of Oye Cómo Va.

Given this context, I was really not expecting to encounter a binary gender selector when signing up for “IHEG Insider,” a newsletter from the Iron Horse Entertainment Group, owner of many Northampton venues, including the Calvin Theater, Iron Horse Music Hall, and Pearl Street Nightclub.

Screenshot of radio button control labeled “Gender” with “Male” and “Female” options.
Radio button controls are the most insistent of all user interface patterns. They force us to choose one from a set of options, on the premise that we will not have more than one answer or that our answer is not “It depends.” Radio buttons are a mutually exclusive input control that user interface designers reserve for cases where the system needs to ask a question that can have only one answer.

When signing up to be an “IHEG Insider,” the question “What is your gender?” is asked using a radio button control. The control is presented with two options: “Male” and “Female.” The question is listed as “Required Information” on the signup form.

Screenshot of sign-up form labeled “Required information” with text inputs for email, password, first name, last name, and zip or country code, and a radio button control labeled “Gender” with “Male” and “Female” options.
First off, I don’t see how gender factors into my relationship with Iron Horse Entertainment Group. Do they have different newsletter designs for different genders? Will they only send me shows that appeal to females? Do they have female-only and male-only shows? Do they not have shows of interest to people who identify outside of binary genders? When I go to a show, will the staff at the bar use the right pronoun when filling my order? Do they adjust the staffing and stocks based on gender distribution at different shows?

I also don’t understand why I’m required to provide gender information just to receive a newsletter. Is the venue obligated to consider gender before sending out newsletters? Are there health, safety, and security concerns they must address? Do they collect and report gender data as evidence of compliance with non-discrimination laws? All I can do is speculate since the form doesn’t offer contextual help, for example, with a “Why we ask your gender” link.

And how can they offer only two answer options — “Male” and “Female” — for a question as complex and nuanced as “What is your gender?”

Another thing about radio buttons controls: once you select a radio button option, you can’t choose not to respond. You can select another from the same set, but you can’t clear your selection and leave the question unanswered. In the case of the gender question, you can’t select “Female” and then deselect it. If “Female” is not the correct response, the only option is to choose another radio button option — in this case, “Male.”

Technology that collects personal information is like a mirror. Through its labels, controls, and options, the interface reflects back assumptions about who we collectively are. We can provide an interface that brings us together by respecting and reflecting our diversity or we can reinforce the kind of narrow, reductive thinking that denies and divides us.

Here are six steps to making better technology for collecting gender information:

  1. First ask, Do I need information about gender? If not, don’t ask the question.
    If there is a real need for gender information, ask, Do I need a response to the question? If not, don’t present it as a required control.
  2. Learn about designing forms for gender diversity and inclusion and decide which best fits the context.
  3. Include an “Other” option with a text input so that people who wish to respond but whose answer is not among the radio button options can provide the correct answer.
  4. Provide an “I prefer not to say” radio button option. Don’t put people in a position where they are forced to respond.
  5. Explain the purpose of collecting gender information, including details of how the information will be used and protected.

More reading

Two inspiring pieces on how technology defines us from Fabricio Teixeira Your fingerprints are all over the screens you design and The (frustrating) user experience of defining your own ethnicity — and an in-depth look at how to ask for gender by Sabrina Fonseca, Designing forms for gender diversity and inclusion, all from the UX Collective.

The #1 must-read for making better tech: Design for Real Life by Eric Meyer and Sara Wachter-Boettcher. Follow that up with Sara’s latest, Technically Wrong: Sexist Apps, Biased Algorithms, and Other Threats of Toxic Tech.

Special thanks to Nico Gómez-Horton, editor.

Originally published on Medium, November 2, 2018.