How to Make Your Forms More Inclusive
9th January 2017 | Business
Ok, I know, forms aren’t the most exciting part of the web. Meh, they’re probably not the most exciting part of anywhere. But there’s no escaping them and they can be pretty crucial. Getting people to complete your forms can be tricky and communication can be difficult even in real life (see the marvellous David Brent below), let alone online. So when you do finally persuade someone to complete your form, let’s make sure it’s nice and inclusive.
I’d hope that this thought would apply regardless of whether it’s useful for your business or not, but if you do still need a strategic reason (maybe you have some horrible zombie board to convince), how about this…
The more welcome people feel, the more likely they are to interact positively with you.
There are two common form questions where this applies the most; “Title” and “Gender”.
Did you know that social titles (ie, Mr and Mrs) hold no actual legal meaning? They’re not on your passport and you can refer to yourself however you’d like. If these are mainly just for courtesy then, all the more reason to ask yourself two things; do I need to know this data and, if so, what fields should I offer?
Do I need this data?
The general rule is that the shorter the form, the higher the conversion rate, which means that you should only add fields that are necessary. Consider, does this data add to a positive user experience of your service? If you’re shipping customers a product, then you may decide a title is a good idea, but if it’s a digital service, you may never need it.
Quick anecdote; A friend was telling me about a company they came across whose systems were deciding whether people were men or women based on their title. Rather ridiculously, they were assuming that “Drs” were women (I know, right! If you’re going to use such lazy stereotyping you’d assume the lazy stereotype would lead to Drs being men). Anyway, aside from this obvious problem it also assumes all people still identify as either male or female in gender. Errr no.
What fields should I offer then?
The traditional ones are obviously Mr, Mrs, Miss and Ms. They’re all pretty established.
Make sure that Ms is listed and, if you have a default for women, think about using this as the direct equivalent to Mr. A friend who prefers Ms had to argue back and forth with the bank just to get them to accept it on documents, even though Ms has been used as a neutral alternative to Mrs or Miss since as early as 1901. 115 years on it should at least be a common option by now.
Obviously there are also things like Dr, Rev, Sir, Dame, Capt etc, which may or may not be useful for your requirements, but the crucial one that perhaps you are missing is Mx.
The Deed Poll Office states that, “Mx is a gender-neutral title used by people who do not identify themselves as male or female, and is an alternative to Mr, Mrs, Miss, and Ms.”. This is usually considered to be for transgender people, which is the obvious use case, but actually it can be used by anyone that simply doesn’t feel they identify with either male (Mr) or female (Ms, Mrs or Miss).
Big topic, obvs, but an important one to at least touch upon. There aren’t too many situations where we have to as explicitly list our gender as we do on forms.
Sex and Gender
It’s worth starting by mentioning that there is a difference between sex and gender. Sex tends to refer to the biological differences between men and women and, unless perhaps for medical reasons or something, in most cases I imagine you won’t need to know. Gender is trickier to define and is a whole conversation in itself, but generally it tends to refer to the role society places upon someone, or an individual’s subjective concept of themselves. A 2015 study showed that half of young people, aged 18-34, believe gender isn’t limited to male or female. If you’re specifically targeting “Mellennials” (whatever range that rather ambiguous term covers), then the gender question certainly becomes something worth thinking about.
Do you need it?
As with Titles, it’s worth thinking if you even need it. Is the product or service you’re delivering actually going to change depending on the gender of the user? In most cases, I don’t imagine it would (and perhaps even shouldn’t, depending on your business of course). I do appreciate it can be useful to know from an analytics point of view though, and can show some interesting trends.
What fields should you offer?
This is tricky. There’s a long list and, in all honesty, as hard as you try you may still not cover them all. Furthermore, covering loads, but not the particular term the user identifies with, might actually make them feel more excluded than if you hadn’t tried at all. Fair play to Facebook for giving it a go though! So, how about just having “other” as an option?
This is a bit of a ‘get out of jail free’ card, and allowing users to then also write in their own answer is even better. It’s not ideal, but is much better than nothing and probably the easiest way for you to start collecting this extra data.
But I think we can do better wording wise – who really wants to be labelled as the “other”. Using language such as, “I identify myself as …”, or, “I prefer to be referred to as …”, is much more empowering for the user and allows them to be reassured you’re not just trying to fit them into a column on your spreadsheet. It shows you care who they are, not just that they’re buying a product or a service from you.
What pronoun should you use throughout your communication with users? Harvard University, for example, now allow students to indicate which pronoun they prefer. That’s a discussion for another day, but one worth being aware of.
You won’t be on your own following some of these guidelines by the way. As of 2014 Facebook has 71 gender options for UK users, last year Oxford City Council introduced the title Mx on their paperwork and Mx is now accepted in the House of Commons too.
I’m really only just scratching the surface of this topic and I’m sure there’s things I’ve missed out. Of course I appreciate there’s a balance to be struck between an open ended form and your business/system needs/resources, but when it comes down to the personal subject of how people identify themselves, we need to try to make sure we allow everyone to do so however they’d like.