Doing UX: Doing Gender

Recently, I felt that I had been disrespected by a web form asking for my title. As a social psychologist I should know that input fields in web forms that ask for personal information are a touchy subject. These forms operate close to the core of a person’s identity and this means there is a large potential to hit the bull’s eye in a sense never intended.

I am somewhat embarrassed to tell you why this upset me so. Yet at the same time, I know this feeling of embarrassment is part of an overall dynamic: the feeling that it’s not legitimate to be upset about it.

The problem is that I am a female professor in Germany. To understand why these web forms are an issue for me, I have to provide a little bit of background information: Germans use last names unless they have a close relationship.

While filling out the web form, I found a dropdown menu letting me choose between being addressed as a female, a male, a doctor, or a professor. In English, males and females can be addressed as “Professor So-and-so;” in German, this will not work because you have to add “Herr” for males or “Frau” for females when addressing someone with an academic title or it will sound odd.

While I have no problem being addressed without my academic title, I have a problem if my academic title is used without the title signifying whether I am male or female. I have received just one too many emails addressing me as a male—simply assuming that since I am a professor, I must be male.

Minority UX Report

I could just laugh it off. After all, I am an elite minority. Yet this experience provided me with disturbing insight into designing web interactions for others. In other words, to the designers, I am considered irrelevant.

Being left out based on gender is something that people experience every day, and it’s not just the dichotomy of male versus female. Some people might not want to provide their gender at all. Others might not want to choose between “Ms.” and “Mr.” since they prefer being addressed as “Mrs.” or “Miss” or something else.

Selecting titles in a web form is an element of user experience that obviously incorporates sex and gender. While the choice I make—or do not make—regarding my title most likely has something to do with my biological sex, there is more to it. How I would like to be addressed has something to do with social practice, and social practice is what gender is all about. People constantly redefine and negotiate gender through their interactions, and thus contribute to the construction of gender itself. Therefore, creating user experiences is actually a way of “doing gender.”

Gendered Web Forms for Newsletters and Online Shops

As part of my research, I reviewed the top 100 German online stores. In signing up to shop on their websites, about half of them did not ask for any title. The other half of the online stores usually gave me the choice between “Herr” (Mr.) and “Frau.” Frau is equivalent to both “Ms.” and “Mrs.” (the German title “Fräulein” for unmarried women has virtually disappeared, although I did find it in one of the top 100 German online shops.)

Of the sites that asked for a title, one-third placed the female title first and two-thirds have the male title first—even though in Germany, like the U.S., most ecommerce revenue comes from women. Nearly all of these websites allowed me to make a selection regarding the gendered title, but around 20 percent had already set the gender at a default—almost always the male title—and they offered no option that did not include gender.

Another survey that randomly sampled 800 German sites that let you subscribe to a newsletter yielded similar results. In this larger sample, one-third of the input fields for the title had a pre-selection; twice as many pre-selected the male title over the female;

These examples show a bias toward presenting the male as the default and the female as the “other” in designing web forms. I am sure this is not done intentionally, but rather demonstrates the kind of thoughtlessness that guides all biases and stereotypes.

These biases are so deep that we rarely stop to question them. And when we do, the reaction is often hostile. In an article on the website UXBooth, “Women on Top: Inappropriate Dropdowns,” Kate Roberts discusses the sexism in dropdowns for selecting titles. One comment in response to the article said, “In the meantime, the men here at the office were getting work done without crying over every little perceived slight. If your self-esteem is so low that you must write an article to justify your position in life, maybe girls shouldn’t be in the work force.”

This is a perfect illustration of Lewis’ Law that states, “Comments on any article about feminism justify feminism.” It also provides an answer to the question of why we might not think out of the box to create the optimal user experience. It seems taking a different perspective might not be perceived as helpful, but rather be perceived as hostile and generate hostility.

Gender Matters in UX

Gender-related fields in web forms are, of course, just the tip of the iceberg. Taking a gender perspective on user experience goes much deeper. But the web form example highlights the issues dealt with by “feminist HCI” (human computer interaction) in a nutshell. It demonstrates the point that there might be cases where gender is irrelevant for HCI, but more likely gender’s relevance is simply overlooked.

Like it or not, UX designers do create “gendered interfaces” when we fall prey to our own blind spots or stereotypes. By trusting our intuition about which colors, shapes, or options might be attractive for males or females or by designing for a perceived need, we are creating gendered interfaces. And there are numerous examples of how UX can offer affordances that work differently than our preconceived notions of gender might suggest:

In a 2013 study, researchers at California State University found that males have more friends on Facebook than females. This might be a result of the way the term “friend” has been redefined and how the number of friends is presented in Facebook.

In another study of interaction via social network sites, Yi-Chia Wang, Moira Burke, and Robert Kraut found that on Facebook, women receive more likes and comments than males, while studies of face-to-face situations often show that statements by men get more attention.

I was surprised to see my preconceptions challenged by Sarah Pedersen’s study showing that male web users were less safety-aware than female users, although more male than female users were subjected to some sort of online harassment.

There is a name for the approach in which designers build on their own assumptions, knowledge, and norms: the “I-methodology.” Rather than exploring alternative and different positions, the designers perceive their own world suppositions, experiences, and values as a basis for everyone and everywhere.

My experience with selecting titles can be viewed in this light: I have found it is quite hard to get people to understand why selecting “Prof. Dr.” without the marker that I am female is a problem for me. And I conclude that the designer of this site was using the I-methodology and simply did not realize the exclusions that were (unintentionally) created by the form.

Mental Shortcuts: 
Personas and Scenarios

Even user-centered design methods like personas can embody stereotypes. Susan and Phil Turner argue that in trying to create a clear and easily recognized image, personas inevitably include stereotyping, including gender stereotypes. Although personas are intended to create a picture of the kind of people for whom we design, they can also keep us from engaging with the characteristics of real users.

However, the characteristics of real users necessarily depends on what you are looking for. Researchers studying UX and usability usually check their data for gender differences—and frequently do not find any. From that, we could conclude that gender differences do not exist, or we can conclude that other factors are playing a role and affect outcomes.

For one thing, UX researchers might not be employing the right methods or looking at the right variables. In one study, the sex of the experimenter had an influence on usability evaluations. I am currently conducting a study about whether the sex of the designer of the website has any effect on perceived attractiveness and usability.

On the other hand, users might be acting in line with stereotypes, not because it is an expression of their personal identity, but because all of us self-stereotype and act according to our perception of societal expectations.

Taking Responsibility for the Gender We Create

Design and gender emerge simultaneously in the creation of UX. When we design gaming-like applications, the core game mechanics such as points, badges, levels, challenges, and leaderboards bear masculine connotations. There are feminine connotations when you are creating a calendar for the life of a working parent struggling with children’s schedules, babysitters, and carpools. For these considerations to be relevant, the resulting application does not have to be specifically geared toward men or women. Rather, it is important to consciously consider and decide who you are including and who you are excluding in every phase of the design process so both gender and design emerge simultaneously.

Designing for gender is not about maximizing the differences between women and men and focusing on the contrasting experiences. There is no simple checklist because users are so diverse. And because the designer of user expereinces always walks a fine line between:

  • The intuitiveness of relying on proven patterns versus the creation of surprise
  • Imitating the physical world versus making use of the options online experience offers
  • Recreating gender stereotypes by targeting a certain audience versus going beyond the cultural stereotypes of gender and creating better and new experiences for all users.

Trying to determine the ways gender in the user experience can be managed requires designers to understand complex social settings. This involves reconsidering the process of UX design in regard to how one perceives themself and how one perceives others. Users are not one-dimensional creatures, but they are active and opinionated individuals with a wide variety of gendered experiences and expectations.

More Reading

Women On Top: Inappropriate Dropdowns by Kate Roberts on UX Booth.

The Media and Technology Usage and Attitudes Scale: An Empirical Investigation by L.D. Rosen, K. Whaling, L.M. Carrier, N.A. Cheever, and J. Rokkum in Computers in Human Behavior

Gender, Topic, and Audience Response: An Analysis of User-generated Content on Facebook by Yi-Chia Wang, Moira Burke, and Robert E.Kraut, in a paper presented at the Proceedings of the SIGCHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems.

UK Young Adults’ Safety Awareness Online – Is it a ‘Girl Thing’? by Sarah Pedersen in Journal of Youth Studies.

Is Stereotyping Inevitable When Designing with Personas? by Phil Turner and Susan Turner, in Design Studies.

Marsden, N. (2014). Doing UX: Doing Gender. User Experience Magazine, 14(1).
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