The multiplayer survival game Rust recently made waves with their decision to randomize each player’s character’s skin color–dark or light– and body shape–feminine or masculine– with no recourse for the player to alter it. While the earlier version of the game only had masculine bodies with light skin, the update suddenly randomized masculine and feminine bodies, as well as skin tone. The backlash was swift and severe, with a flood of racist and sexist rants; mainly from white male players who didn’t want to play feminine or dark-skinned characters.
The most insightful observation about the whole controversy came from a joint statement from Garry Newman and Taylor Reynolds, the game’s developers, in their video game development blog.
Personally, it took me a minute to process what they were saying. Before the change, all women (or people with nonbinary genders) and people with darker skin had been playing a body shape or skin tone that didn’t match them. But it wasn’t until white men had to play a mismatched character that there was an outcry.
Some users are used to having their identities always represented online. Others have learned not to expect to be able to customize their experience to match their identity.
More Flexible Identities
To be clear, Rust made an intentional choice to randomize skin tone and body shape in a way that was unlikely to correlate with their player’s identity. But most of the time organizations are looking create experiences that are more personalized, not less. By looking at some of the limitations in current online experiences and exploring how a variety of people understand their gender and race, designers can expand the welcome that users feel in the end product.
Most people are used to their online options—from gender markers to avatars—matching up with how they see themselves. But for people who have unique or undervalued identities, the disconnect between their identity and how they’re able to present themselves online is a source of deep frustration. The anger and resentment that so many white male gamers felt in the first moment they couldn’t identify the way they wanted online is a taste of the daily experience for some users. But unlike the white male gamers, were simply given random identifies, hundreds of users see many options for personalization, and not a single one that they connect to.
Imagine the dead-end frustration you would feel, as an American gamer, having to choose between “European, Asian, or Australian?” Or as a man, filling out a form that only offered “Mrs., Ms., or Miss.” How could you not think to yourself, clearly I’m not supposed to be here.
Some organizations have been leading the way in making room for outliers. In 2014 Facebook responded to mounting pressure from users to expand their gender markers beyond “male,” “female,” and “no comment.” In a dramatic change they added 58 options for users to choose from. While most Facebook users were unaffected, satisfied with the choice between “male,” and “female,” the LGBTQ community responded with enthusiastic accolades. The move was called “a huge step forward,” and Facebook was labeled “a leader in its commitment to respecting and protecting LGBT users.” The tradeoff for delighting a segment of their users was a cost of next-to-nothing. Outside of some disgruntled grumbling from folks who actively oppose the diversity of the LGBTQ community, Facebook’s shift cost their average user—happy to identify was male or female—nothing.
Designing for the Edges
“Designing for the edges” is a design wisdom that recommends designers plan for the most challenging scenario first, then let their work breathe and expand into easier scenarios. By starting with the exceptions to existing checkboxes, designers can craft experiences that are truly inclusive.
One low-hanging fruit is the realization that a great multitude of frustration is covered by simply adding the category, “other.” Most organizations can’t afford the sociological research Facebook put into establishing 50+ gender identity terms for users to choose between. But every form builder can toss “other” into their drop-down box.
On the other hand, when an organization does have the bandwidth to get nuanced, there can be clear benefits from it. The US Census Bureau was frustrated when the 2010 census came back with “some other race” as the third most frequently selected race, following white and black. The “other” option had provided an outlet that prevented people from choosing a box that was inaccurate. But it also left the Census Bureau with a giant blank spot as to the racial identity of a huge number of Americans. By doing research on how people identify racially, and incorporating many more choices into future censuses, they hope to gather far more detailed data which will drive policy decisions and sociological decisions for the next decade.
The Eye Roll Factor
It seems that the human tendency when chided for overlooking the needs of a certain demographic is to be defensive. It wasn’t too long ago that I would have rolled my eyes at the suggestion that any website needed nonbinary or gender-neutral options in registration forms. But once one, then two, nonbinary people worked their way into my circle of close friends, the issue suddenly had a human face and seemed less frivolous. Their frustration and sense of being unwelcome began to make sense to me.
The battle cry of user-centered design is that user experiences are designed around the needs of the user, not the assumptions of the client or designer. But often a designer’s unconscious assumption that their experiences are a good gauge for other’s experiences undermines the final user experience.
Take the case of gender in Hollywood. The film industry has long justified the dearth of movies featuring female leads with the chicken-and-egg logic that people aren’t interested in movies with women in the lead. Therefore, it’s just good business sense to write movies with male protagonists. The only problem with this logic is that films starring women make 20% more money than their male-lead counterparts. It might be that Hollywood churns out more films centered around male characters because the vast majority of producers, studio heads, directors, and scriptwriters are male. Creating experiences that they are familiar with is easier than stretching themselves to tell more expansive stories, even when they lose money in the process.
The ”common sense” explanations people have for why they do things the way they do are often just excuses for unexplored and untested options. Maybe female leads do generate more profit. Maybe welcoming gender nonbinary people will have ripple effects around all users feeling at home when using the next app to hit the market.
In his widely-watched TED talk, Harvard professor L. Todd Rose confronts “the Myth of Average.” He argues that the average of a group of people often ends up representing none of their identities. And even when UX designers use specific personas, rather than general groups, to help us get outside our own experiences we have to keep an eye out for the ways we oversimplify our users.
Increasingly, experiences and services that are personalized to the end user are what the public expects. Personalized medicine, personalized movie recommendations, and personalized junk mail are all the norm. In this emerging world, organizations can’t afford to rebuff potential users and viewers with run-of-the-mill assumptions about who they are or how they want to identify themselves. Organizations roll their eyes at those with identities outside the bell curve at their own risk.
With any luck, broadening race, gender, and other identity options online will turn out to be a slippery slope towards exploring more ways UX designers can provide the right fit between experiences and users. Here are a few ways to start taking responsibility for inclusivity, as designers.
- For an in-depth look at gender identities in forms, take a look at How You Can Make the Gender Question on an Application Form More Inclusive by Sam Killermann (and in this case, read the comments).
- Miriam Webster and the Oxford English Dictionary have both added Mx. as a gender-neutral honorific. Do your forms allow for it?
- Nine million Americans identify as mixed race. For a look at how those people relate to questions about race, see When You’re Mixed Race, One Box is Not Enough, from NPR.
- Kate Roberts’ great article here on UX Booth looks at the bias for Mr. as the first honorific in dropdown menus.
- Heilbronn University professor Nicola Marsden has observed that when an honorific is pre-selected, “Mr.” is the pre-selected option, two-to-one, even on websites that have significantly more female users. How is the ordering of your dropdowns doing?
- The American Association of Retired people has discussed the ways wheelchair ramps benefit us all. What unintended benefits of being more inclusive can you imagine?