Women On Top: Inappropriate Dropdowns

It’s mercifully rare these days that I abandon an online form in righteous fury because the “Title” dropdown doesn’t include “Ms.” Even so, there’s often an element of sexism in these lists. Have a look at any of them, and who comes first? Men. The first option in a title dropdown is almost always “Mr”, followed by Mrs, then Miss, and finally Ms.

Although I don’t suspect companies of deliberately putting titles in order of the respect they consider due to each (well, except perhaps the Daily Mail, an organization famed for its misogyny) this is one of those conventions that makes me question it. In Forms that work: Designing web forms for usability, Caroline Jarrett writes of dropdown lists:

Order the options in a way that will make sense to the users. There may be a natural order to the options, for example, months of the year. In many other cases, sorting the options alphabetically makes it easy for the user to scan the list.

Alphabetical order wouldn’t be very helpful in a list of items that all begin with the same letter. And I don’t accept that there is any “natural order” to the categories of men, married women, unmarried women, and women-who-don’t-think-it’s-any-of-your-business-thank-you-very-much. So on what other basis might one order the list?

Survey the merchandise

Looking at a wide variety of online forms, it’s clear that most organizations provide options beyond the “four M’s”. Some allow the selection of “Other” and a free text input field:

Further, Doctor, Reverend and Professor are common additions (as with Aviva):

A few forms, including this one from confused.com, insist that doctors reveal their gender by selecting from the options “Dr (Male)” and “Dr (Female)”. Personally, I wouldn’t buy from a company who did this. One of the main reasons I considered doing a PhD was so that I could have a non-gender-specific title!

Barclays obviously hopes to count aristocrats and soldiers amongst its customers.

Boots, too, welcomes the lords and ladies, but also expects clergy to register (I suppose they need toiletries just like the rest of us – cleanliness is, after all, next to godliness).

British Airways, with its international clientele, has a good reason for including foreign titles such as Herr, Contessa and Tan Sri (a Malaysian dignitary). And there’s no reason that senators and ambassadors shouldn’t want to earn air miles.

Other organizations, like Boden, are less realistic in their listing of every possible title from Wing Commander to Marquis. How many Barons do they think are going to purchase their linen cargo shorts?

It’s precisely this (in)frequency that often seems to influence list order: start with the standard Mr, Mrs, Miss and Ms, and put the less common options at the end. And that’s as it should be – the further down the list an option is, the further the user has to move their mouse, scroll their wheel, or move their viewport on their mobile device.

Fitts’ Law states that the acquisition of a target is a function of the size of the target and its distance from the starting point. The starting point for all users will be the top of the dropdown, and all the targets are the same size; thus the lower down the list an option is, the harder it will be to select. So why not apply that principle to the full list, and order it by the frequency with which each item is likely to be selected?

Theoretically, this would increase the overall usability of the title dropdown.

Numbers don’t lie

Before we continue, it’s worth noting that I work for Age UK, a large non-profit that has data from thousands of people who’ve donated, signed petitions, bought products from, and/ or joined our online community.

I queried our members by title, and the results were as follows:

Title Incidence (%)
Mrs 48
Mr 39
Miss 6
Ms 3
Dr 1
Rev 1
Other/Missing 2

In following with Fitt’s aforementioned Law, I could change the dropdowns on our site to mirror the current title-frequency. This, in theory, would make it easier to select the most common title, “Mrs.”

Seeing as I was due to carry out usability tests on a prototype for a new form for our website, I included the new title dropdown to test my hypothesis. None of the five participants (two men and three women) appeared to notice anything unusual, and everyone selected their title without any hesitation.

The new dropdown was then implemented across all the forms on our website. We also updated the brand guidelines to advise that titles should be ordered by the frequency with which each is expected to occur among the audience.

It has been six months since we made this change and the results have been positive. I have analyzed the name data collected since the change, to test whether it was causing problems for our users. There are no obviously male names associated with the title “Mrs,” which would indicate that a man had automatically chosen the first option in the dropdown because that’s what he was used to doing. Neither have there been any complaints to Customer Relations that we had someone’s title wrong. I’ve also carried out dozens of usability tests on forms with the new list order since then, and no-one has commented or hesitated.

On improvisational improvements

A word of caution before you go off and change all of the dropdowns on your website: this is not an approach that should be taken to all dropdown lists. Where there is a “natural order,” for example in age ranges, this should be preserved; and alphabetical order can help people scan for known items, especially in long lists.

But analytics can and should be used to improve the user experience of forms in other ways – for example to set “smart defaults” for radio button sets, if you have data that proves one option is considerably more likely to be selected than the other(s). It may not be an improvement to women’s lives on the scale of the Pill or maternity leave, but interaction with our forms is now a little easier for those who want to select “Mrs.”

What otherwise mundane elements interest or infuriate you with regards to online forms?

About the Author

Kate Roberts

Kate found her way into user experience via a Masters degree in good, old-fashioned librarianship, during the course of which she realised that computers were more fun than books. She's the 'UX team of one' at Age UK and a freelance information architect.

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Comments

  1. Petar Subotic June 12, 2012

    I never understood the need for title fields, what’s the idea? Benefits personalized communication?

    If you absolutely need to ask for gender do so transparently (i.e. do you have a penis or vagina(listed alphabetically)) requiring marital status for conducting business I thought was illegal.

    French (oddly enough) dealt with this by eliminating marital status titles.

    http://www.upi.com/Top_News/World-News/2012/02/22/French-forms-bid-adieu-to-mademoiselle/UPI-42431329920733/

    • “If you absolutely need to ask for gender do so transparently (i.e. do you have a penis or vagina(listed alphabetically)”

      Gender is not the same as sex. It is possible for someone to have neither penis nor vagina, to be neither a man or a woman, and for a woman to have a penis or a man to have a vagina.

    • S.P.Zeidler June 23, 2012

      FWIW, German in effect also did. If someone is being called Fräulein, the speaker likely assumes the addressed are younger than ~twelve.
      Makes articles about “German Fräuleins” a bit jarring, btw.

  2. Very interesting article. Not something I have given much thought to before but …

  3. I agree with Petar,its completely obsolete. I would never have filled them out if I had time (which I usually dont) if choosing from the drop-down is required or not.

  4. Carol Aubin June 12, 2012

    How a bout a blank field with a choice of whether I want my “title” to be included? Unless I’m doing a survey why does it matter to me? If it matters to me, the user, then supply a blank space for me to type my important self in there!

  5. Tesmond June 12, 2012

    1. I hate it when the title is a required field.
    2. I would prefer the field to be excluded entirely adding it is just another source for bugs etc. and adds little end user benefit and mostly wastes their time.
    3. If you are ordering just a small number of titles eg 5 I would consider alphabetically perfectly acceptable. I feel ordering by frequency might create self inducing bias and could create unnecessary cognitive work. Ordering by frequency seems only beneficial in terms of work effort bug testing etc in longer lists and in those instances a secondary alphabetic list is often required, think font choices in word for an example of this.
    5. In dealing in multi lingual websites the maintenance requirements for frequency of terms over using an alphabetic sort seems to lead to much too high a cost.

    In summation get rid of the title field to save cost and not cause upset by missing out Ms. or Baroness…

  6. The majority of those forms probably didn’t *need* the title field. It’s most likely either a relic from a bygone era or added at the insistance of an overzealous accounts or marketing team.

    As a rule, I generally just have an open name field in which people can put whatever they want. I don’t really care if my customers are male or female – they all get the same great service.

  7. Out of interest – did you establish whether there were any negative outcomes before you changed the order? Were there lots of obviously female names that had mistakenly selected Mr?

    My gut would say that the (genuinely valuable) finding here is that people that are filling in forms on AgeUK are diligent at reading what option they’ve selected.

    For those that are saying ‘it’s irrelevant’ – remember there are still people that dislike being addressed informally by unknown organisations. Therefore it’s important to get the title right (even if titles, per se, are wrong).

  8. Everything’s a nail when you have a hammer (or femcred points to score)? It couldn’t possibly be that Mr, Mrs, Ms is a century old traditional order based on popularity of the choice (male of household was most likely to complete government, banking etc forms)? And that changing this convention reduces predictability?

    Mr, Mrs is even in alphabetical order – Male, Female is a better base for making hand wavy assertions of global sexist conspiracy by form designers.

  9. How interesting! It also makes me wonder about how couples are often introduced as Mr and Mrs, never Mrs and Mr. The Mr always comes first, as in your example.

    I’m personally not a fan of title fields or indeed being referred to as Miss or Ms. I did consider doing a phd as I thought Dr Duddington had a nice ring to it but decided on a Masters instead ;)

    • Surely the order of mr and mrs is plain old legacy lingo, culturally derived. It is however easier to say without twisting your tongue compared to the other way around.

  10. Whilst the habit of offering male titles first is regrettable, it *is* the pattern users see whenever they interact either with other websites, or paper forms. I’m still not convinced that won’t add some unnecessary cognitive friction. That might not engender hesitation in a user test, but it’s still probably not ideal practice.

    That said, there is a more interesting question behind this post, which is: should design be conscience orientated? Is it appropriate to let our political and moral qualms shape our designs for clients?

    For example, our web forms should probably allow for gender selection outside binary male / female choices. There is a small number of people who don’t identify as either. But how many designers would want to broach this subject with their clients? Do we have personal obligations in this regard, or can we only act within the constraints of an obvious business case?

  11. Uh, “Mr” comes before “Ms” alphabetically. If the first letter is the same you keep moving down the word.

  12. I think this is a hang up from database managers with the desire to limit the number of options for this particular field – why else would there be the options for Captain, Colonel, etc. ?

    As an aside, your Adsense is way off base. Must be coming from an element of the title but it is showing “MILF dating” for me – might be the “women on top” element?

  13. Mr. Rob June 12, 2012

    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. Evidence such as this I see more and more every day.

  14. Unless marital status matters, why not limit the list to “Ms, Mr, Other?”

    Perhaps the biggest change would be to make that form element not mandatory on most forms?

  15. Hi Kate,

    Why does Age UK require titles? It seems like the title field is growing increasingly obsolete, and most UX professionals will tell you to cut the cruft from forms in order to increase response rates.

    I know there are some arguments for including it (including implicitly being able to pull data about customer gender), but I’ve never been convinced the returns are worth the additional form field. I’m interested to hear your reasons.

  16. Intestingly enough from user experience perspective putting most used choice first is NOT a good idea. The point is that to avoid potential future embarrassament people ALWAYS scan through the title list, from first to last. They make decision once they reach to the last entry and to select the first entry they have to backtrack all the way to the top. Sometimes they decide that it’s not worth the effort and select Other (which is usually last entry).

    So basically my recommendation is that it’s actually makes sense to put most used title LAST to avoid (mostly) unneccessary backtracking.

    • Sounds like odd behaviour to me. I can imagine they may select Other if they’ve had to go through a long list but Title lists are mostly short. Are you sure they’re not just selecting Other because they prefer to not disclose this information?

    • Majority of title fields contain around 6-8 items. Anything less than that boils down to Male/Female/Other selection. For iPads/iPhones 6 could be already a “long list”. By the way to test the theory we did some eye tracking and heat map clearly shows that users almost always scanned through all the items to find most appropriate when choosing a title.

    • Thanks Tanel that’s interesting. I’m just curious as to why the user chose ‘Other’. Could it be they’re selecting ‘Other’ because they prefer to not disclose this information?

  17. I agree with some commenters that, from an expert review of usability standpoint, I’d have to recommend sticking with convention. (This is said with full knowledge of the inherent weakness of expert review.)

    From a complete user experience view, I don’t think a re-ordered “Title” dropdown is going to make or break a form submission. (It sounds like your data so far supports this?) Deviating from the convention — whether that means putting feminine titles first, adding lots of fun alternate titles, or both — is something I would embrace to convey a little more personality from a form and the organization it belongs to.

  18. It is clearly not sexism, but grouping by type and relevance. Without getting into the debate of whether titles are required to group alphabetically would mean:

    Miss
    Mr
    Mrs
    Ms

    Instead we group to make life easier for the user as they are usually either male or female and not a bit of both (usually):

    Mr
    Mrs
    Miss
    Ms

    Why the female section is not in alphabetical order I do not know, but I am not about to burn my bra over it (men can have boobs too). As to who should come first, I guess that should be driven by the target user group of the service, if it is driven by gender.

  19. lol_whocares June 15, 2012

    If this what you are concerned about, you are doing it wrong.

  20. There is a crucial point missing here by only considering the ‘grouping’. By this argument the following also satisfies the grouping requirement:
    Mrs
    Miss
    Ms
    Mr
    So why is it not done? The Author has clearly pointed out the concern is with the *ordering*.

    Saying ‘without getting into the debate…’ seems dismissive of the whole issue being raised (I believe that is a false argument called a straw-man). Saying ‘I don’t know [why]‘ when a sexist (albeit unintentional convention) reason has been proposed seems to suggest the point has not been understood so perhaps the article is worth another read through, Michael?

  21. “One of the main reasons I considered doing a PhD was so that I could have a non-gender-specific title!”

    That’s a bit sad :)

    Also you wouldn’t buy from a website that had Dr male/female in the drop down forms? You really need more important things to concern yourself with IMHO.

  22. Nice to see some real thought put into this – Age UK are lucky to have you.

  23. Rambo the almighty form maker June 16, 2012

    Here use this dropdown list and everyone will be happy: https://gist.github.com/2941115

  24. Mr. has always been listed first. Why would we confuse people and change the paradigm now? Because of the social climate? In addition, people expect alphabetically ordered lists and Mr. comes before Mrs. This article seems a bit trivial.

  25. Wow.

    For sites that have an even male to female ratio, Mr will be the majority as the female users will be split between Miss, Ms and Mrs.

    Paying any attention to this at all though seems bizarre. It’s our job to improve products for our users. If you haven’t got any genuine, unprompted feedback that this is a problem aren’t you just doing this for yourself?

  26. uimike June 20, 2012

    Interesting. I can see you’re annoyed with the (very) long-standing convention that males are listed first – I too find it irritating, but it’s one of those difficult to deal with cases.

    A convention is still useful to users, right – as they go from site to site. Customizing the dropdown would only be really useful, IMO, if it were the only site they used, or the one they used by far most extensively.

    I am not convinced that you got positive results. First, what was the occurrence of mismatches (a male having selected Ms., etc.) _before_ the change? Then, because there were no complaints, you cannot assume there were no efficiency issues. Users often under-report, or even are not aware of them. Famous case of the secretaries and their typewriter keyboards…

  27. I hate it when forms miss out the Miss option. I am proud to be a Miss, Ms just seems outdated to me. Yes I am a Miss and I live with a Mr get over it.

    As for the order of items, remember the Branjolina film Mrs and Mr Smith?

    A simple solution would be to let users type in their title as it is such a short field it is quicker to tab and type rather than move to the mouse, move the mouse, click the menu etc.

  28. Kate Roberts June 23, 2012

    ToyChicken – yes, I did look for mistakes (female first names who’d accidentally chosen ‘Mr’) during the 6 months before the change, and didn’t find any. You’re probably right: our users are more careful filling in forms than the average internet user – older people do tend to worry more about ‘getting things right’. However I have observed in usability tests that this close attention to detail can really slow someone down, especially if an interaction doesn’t work quite as they expect.

    To everyone who says title should be irrelevant – I agree, personally; but most of our users feel strongly that they prefer to be addressed with their title. It’s partly a generational thing but quite a few younger people also dislike being addressed by their first name by an organisation. I guess it depends on the organisation’s brand/personality etc, and what they are communicating when they address you…

    BJ and David- yes, there is certainly an argument that ‘Mr, Mrs, Miss’ is just the traditional order, and that to mess with it would reduce predictability. That’s why I checked the quality of the data coming through after the change, and continue to keep a close eye on people when they complete the Title field during all the usability tests I moderate. It seems to be working OK so far.

    Jimmy – that is an interesting question. My organisation has an audience that is less likely to include users who are trans or otherwise genderqueer, and probably quite a few who would be confused or even offended by the notion, so we wouldn’t offer the ‘Neither’ or ‘Other’ option as well as ‘Male’ and ‘Female’; but I absolutely believe that, if you can do it without compromising the user experience, you should design with your conscience.

    Michel V – would have loved to change it to “Ms, Mr or Other” but not allowed :(

    BJ and Mr Rob – the principle could’ve just as well been applied to another set of dropdown options, but the gender issue provided a hook for the article. I don’t go around looking for things to work on just because they relate to gender politics :)

    And Kyle, that was tongue in cheek. The main reason I considered doing a PhD was so I could continue not having to start work until I’d watched Loose Women on ITV.

  29. I agree with some commenters that, from an expert review of usability standpoint, I’d have to recommend sticking with convention.

  30. WHAT!? :) You think title is the problem? LOL. The whole form is wrong (I’m being deliberately harsh). What do you need to know, and why? If it’s gender, ask for that. If it’s marital status, ask for that! Title is neither, it has no demographic value.

    You want to know how they prefer to be addressed? If I was going to have that form, there would not be title, first name and surname, this is 2012! Just ask for their name. Whatever they put, call them that. Don’t make it hard work. (Any body who addresses me ‘Mr Kowalkowski’ I usually respond with ‘Lee’ because most people don’t know how to say it – only this weekend the garage called me Mr Kawasaki – “but it’s a Toyota!” I joked.)

    There aren’t many (any!) situations where you need to have these attributes separately. I mean you visit your dentist or doctor, they may still file everyone under their surname on pieces of paper – it takes them ages to find me :( even after asking how it’s spelt. I suspect people with common surnames have a problem with duplicates. I think they usually start with postcode these days at places like that.

    For online, you usually ask people for their email address or username. Soo… why do you need their title? In its own field? I don’t think you do, you can tell your client/boss that they ought to be gender-neutral these days, they might like the sound of that.

  31. I agree, and know from my own experience, that some users prefer to be addressed by their title if a company contacts them. They prefer a more formal approach, especially true in certain situations and areas. Gender is also necessary for some organisations.

    For example this year I worked on a project for a company that manages gym registrations for thousands of gyms and local authorities, and millions of gym members. Gender, amongst other demographics, is important to know for many reasons in those gyms and leisure centres e.g. for changing room provision, classes to run etc.

    In that project we had a legacy database with a title list required. In that case the user selected their gender first, which would then populate the title dropdown accordingly.

    Another possible solution, if a title is required and you do not want to show overall bias as an organisation, would be to populate the dropdown in a random order on each form load. So for one user the titles could show female first – for the next user male first etc. The titles could still be grouped (e.g. Ms and Mrs together) – but the title groups could be shown in a different order each time (still keeping the least used groups last if you wish) – relatively easy to do programming wise.

    A third solution would be just to change the form label from ‘Title’ to something like ‘ How would you like to be addressed if we contact you?’ This would inform the user why they would like this ‘title’ information and also demonstrates some consideration by the organisation for their users. For users like Lee above, they could just keep a default option such as ‘No preference’ or maybe ‘First name’ for example. For others who prefer a more formal approach they could positively select, for example, ‘Mrs’ or ‘Dr’.

    Just my thoughts :)

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