The Pronoun Project




March 4, 2018

By Chelsea Hostetter (Goodpatch & Queery)



Before I begin, I would like to acknowledge my privilege. I am writing from the perspective as a designer who is a white cisgender woman who identifies as queer. Though I have spoken to many folks across the gender spectrum, this is filtered through my own bias. Because we’re all individuals, I cannot speak for every person in the transgender, non-binary and gender-fluid community, but only from my experience and what I’ve heard and interpreted from others. Thank you to the community for your continued honesty with me.

As an effort to promote diversity and inclusivity, recent talks have turned to the transgender, non-binary and the gender-fluid communities and how to design for them. We’ve noticed that the tech community is not as diverse as we want it to be, and in the push for more diversity, we’re also looking for gender diversity—and not just in the form of cisgender white women.

One of the basic tenets of human-centered design is to understand your customer’s needs and desires, and create products and services for those baseline needs. The problem is that this approach too often identifies “the average person” in any given group.

I’ve turned to my own queer community to try to discover the most important principles in designing for transgender, non-binary and gender-fluid folks, and even then the temptation is to label an average “type.” I think we can go further. I’d like to see the industry recognize each person’s gender identity and design for them instead of relying of stereotypes. If we can do that, we can build more trusted relationships, glean more descriptive data, and do more intentional research and design to make our products and services stand out and shine.  

The principles to designing for all genders

One could be forgiven after reading this and thinking, “that’s easier said than done.” That’s fair. It takes work to change norms.

Here are the key principles to consider when designing for all genders:

  1. Engage in goals and ambitions rather than labels

  2. Encourage equivalent exchange

  3. Respect your users’ names

  4. Give your users agency

Use these principles as a way to guide your design and ask questions. Use them as a way of challenging the status quo and shaking up the way things are “always done.” Use them to hold yourself, your team and your company accountable. Remember: designing for averages makes average design.


Principle 1: Engage in goals and ambitions rather than labels

Selling and engaging a user’s goals, ambitions and dreams should be at the forefront of design and marketing, not identified gender. Gender—or the perceived assumption of gender—causes systems to inadvertently box people into a label that they may or may not have signed up for. For example, if I know someone who:

  • has a daughter

  • is a jiu-jitsu instructor

  • wears pink workout shorts

  • loves swinging heavy kettlebells

Let’s say that this hypothetical person signs up on a sports and lifestyle website. If they told the site they were “male,” the site’s algorithms that determine what content to serve would almost certainly not surface pink shorts, making it close to impossible for our hypothetical person to find their favorite workout clothes. By the same token, if they told the site they were “female,” then the 25kg kettlebells they love to swing around automatically gets replaced with lighter weights. Either way, they’re getting a sub-optimal experience because they don’t conform to the strictly gendered assumptions that a sports website has made about a man or a woman.

Assuming someone is or is not based on a singular dropdown menu is short-sighted and doesn’t gain any meaningful data beyond society’s assumptions. Since we program data to equate certain preferences to certain labels, we’re inadvertently porting our own biases into machine learning and trying to pass it off as unbiased data. This issue will only become more prominent as artificial intelligence and smart systems become more sophisticated. As Cenydd Bowles, a prominent design ethicist states, “AI inherits bias.” When you ask machines to make correlations based on labels, you are asking them to inherit the same assumptions you have about the world. Saying that someone is a certain gender or even a certain age doesn’t predict what they like or do not like. Asking what a person prefers, however, does.

Ways to live by this principle:

  • Remove gender dropdown boxes and replace them with questions aimed at a person’s preference around your product or service.

  • Even if you absolutely feel you need a gender marker for data purposes, you probably don’t.

  • To focus more on what users are trying to accomplish from your product or service, ask them directly, either through surveys or through user testing.

  • Create personas and customer profiles that focus on a customer’s needs and preferences, not their gender.

  • Ask pronouns instead of gender if you need to format natural language sentences.

A note about Male/Female/Other dropdown boxes. Think for a moment whether or not you, personally, would choose the dropdown option “Other.” “Other” generally means “not X” but it also carries with it a weight of distance and inhumanness. Are we really trying to suggest that people outside the labels of male and female are “others”? They also deserve to have a name, whatever they prefer that to be.


Principle 2: Encourage equivalent exchange

There’s a law in alchemy called Equivalent Exchange. It states that, ”[we] cannot gain anything without first giving something in return. To obtain, something of equal value must be lost.”

Regardless of whether or not you believe in alchemy, the tenet of Equivalent Exchange works as a rule for most things in life—you exchange a currency for a slice of pizza that’s equal to your perceived value of that pizza. If the currency cost doesn’t match your perceived value of the pizza, you won’t buy it. If you’re a pizzeria, you’ll look at the current market and try to price your pizza according to how much people are willing to pay.

So, why are we not doing this with data on the Internet? If you can’t see the clear values that people are getting when they provide their data to you, then stop what you’re doing. Right now we are living in a world of inequivalent exchange, and it has given companies like Amazon and Google an unbalanced amount of power. Thankfully, the age of inequivalent exchange is coming to an end. Users are at the point where they lie or don’t sign up in order to protect their data.

Yes, users lie. Especially users who know what the easiest way is to get what they want. According to Dan Ariely, behavioral economist, lying usually occurs when there is a conflict of interest—the user knows that a service will not give them what they want if they don’t provide data, so they provide bogus data.

I recently spoke with Shane Whalley, owner of Daring Dialogues Consulting and adjunct faculty member at The University of Texas, Austin Steve Hicks School of Social Work, and ze told me about a recent experience signing up for a Groupon.

“When I chose ‘female,’” Shane said, “it started trying to give me coupons for makeup. I’m not going to use your service if I’m going to get a bunch of girly shit. I ended up switching my gender to ‘male’ to get things more of what I preferred…but I knew I was missing out on deals that I thought I might’ve liked.”

People—especially folks in the LGBTQ community—are wary about not getting as much value from their data compared to the company collecting the data. Couple that with the multiple security breaches from Google, Sony, etc., and there’s a higher incentive now, more than ever, to be less forthcoming with personal information.

Ways to live by this principle:

  • When adding input fields for collecting users’ data, ask yourself: What’s the reason I need to collect this data? Can I track the data the user has given to me into something that directly benefits users?

  • Embrace radical transparency. Let people know exactly why you are collecting the information and what that information will be used for to provide value back to them.

  • Offer guest checkout services that allow users to not have to log in to purchase an item.


Principle 3: Respect your users’ names

Contrary to popular belief, forcing people to use real names online (as Facebook and OKCupid have done) as opposed to anonymous ones can increase online discrimination, not abate it. Consider these real-life situations from transgender and non-binary folks:

“I live in the suburbia of Texas with my conservative parents. I want to be able to explore gender on my own terms online, to understand who I am before I come out. I can’t imagine what my family would do to me if I was accidentally outed as trans. Some of my friends told me that they’ve seen kids go homeless because their parents kicked them out."

"I’m NB (non-binary) in a state of flux. My birth name doesn’t fit me, but I’m in the process of choosing a new identity that better matches how I feel about myself. Facebook has flagged or deleted my account dozens of times for having a ‘fake’ name. What the hell? The name I choose is my real name."

“I recently came out to my friends and family as Emily, but I’m still not out at my work. I put my hair up in a ponytail and go into ‘boy mode’ at work. Eventually, I know I’ll have to come out, but I might lose my job. I’d like to keep in touch with my friends who know me as Emily online and still be able to work.”

Names are important to people, and it’s important to people to have control over their names. A name that was assigned at birth—and that the government has on record—is commonly considered by people to be one’s “real” name, but this is one of the many myths about names. Names can be changed, they are flexible based on context and the only indicator for what is a “real” name or not is whether or not we say it is.

When designers choose to force people to use their “real” name they are making two dangerous assumptions:

  1. People have only one “real” name, which is their birth name

  2. No harm will come from disclosing this “real” name to the larger public

For those of us who go by our birth names and who also are not subject to discrimination based on our names, these may seem like perfectly safe assumptions. But to those who have had to deal with harassment and consequences of their name, birth or chosen, online and offline, these have dangerous repercussions. Bias affects all our lives, and real names simply exacerbate this.

Ways to live by this principle:

  • If they prefer, allow users to go by a pseudonym or choose their name. Unless you are a government website or a financial institution, a “real name” policy can hurt your users, rather than help them.

  • Allow users to change their name, if they so choose.

  • Be on the lookout for false assumptions about names (Patrick McKenzie has an excellent list of these assumptions).

  • Allow users to link multiple accounts together seamlessly, so that if they are switching contexts, they can switch names as well.


Principle 4: Give your users agency

Binary computing systems have difficulty handling ambiguity in people. They also have difficulty handling various levels of disclosure. That’s why many social networks such as Twitter or Instagram simply publish to the entire world by default, and there are no other choices. However, as these networks become the way in which we do business, get our news, and stay in touch with people, we expect them to provide us with the same amount of agency we feel in real life.

By agency, I mean, “the ability to make choices or to control one’s own experience.” This includes choosing privacy, but it also includes the ability to choose to disclose your status as queer. For instance, I would like to be able to choose to come out as queer in groups that are first queer-friendly, and then work my way into more difficult or unforgiving groups, or not.

Those transitioning from being binary do not get to make this choice. There is something we call “passing privilege” which is the privilege that one gets (and sometimes never gets) when they successfully “read” to common society as a singular gender. This is not a choice that they get to make; it is one that is made by the general society at large. The privilege comes with some basic safety assurances that most of us don’t even realize is a privilege we hold, such as being able to use the bathroom without being harassed.

In the digital world, there are many services and spaces where everyone can see everything, and this removes users’ agency to disclose different parts of themselves to different groups. This is an unacceptable option for many because there can be dangerous outcomes. Designers of digital spaces should imagine a lived experience in which they must navigate multiple strata of conversation. There are many people who behave as a different gender at home than they do out in the world. danah boyd writes about Facebook in particular causing a chain of events to happen when introducing their News Feed in 2006, which laid bare all of users’ activity in one convenient feed—and altered the way we interact with social networks.

I see an opportunity for us in design, and especially digital design, to give agency back to our users. Let’s keep ambiguity alive in digital systems. If you use dropdowns, because you want to force data into a particular structure, you might be missing the point on what data on real people is. Data about real people is messy because people are not easily structured. To do data right, avoid imparting your own biases as much as possible.

Ways to live by this principle:

  • Put your privacy policies front and center when introducing a user to a social network for the first time.

  • Make invite-only groups in a social network for safe exploration of gender.

  • Create open fields or more specific personality questions rather than a dropdown menu or set choices.

  • Learn how to synthesize both quantitative and qualitative data together for deeper and more meaningful insights (there are many fantastic books in the ethnographic and anthropological communities on synthesizing qualitative data).

These principles are not easy to follow; they also are ones that companies cannot neatly map to an ROI. They’re ones that promote long-term benefits, not fast and sexy short-term gains. However, in the design field and beyond, it’s time for us to look beyond the average user and to innovate by questioning the biases and norms we hold as evident facts.

In short, by engaging in goals and ambitions rather than labels, encouraging equivalent exchange between your service and customers, respecting your users’ names and giving your users agency, you won’t just be building something average for your users. You’ll be making something that respects their time, effort and humanity. And that’s good for design and for people.



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