Improve User Experience with Gender Neutral Options in Webforms

Form Optimisation

Is it time to end gendered questions in web forms? Are you risking being sexist, homophobic, transphobic or simply allowing room for bias?

We’ve discussed sex and titles on the blog before: Al spoke about sex selectors in webforms and Tom addressed titles in forms. Now, a gender neutral option for Title is gaining popularity; Mx.

Already popular among some LGBT groups, Mx is an alternative to Mr, Mrs, Miss, or Ms. Mx is an important addition for a group of people who are raising their hands to say “We don’t fit in those boxes”. If you don’t identify with any of the options given under ‘Sex’, ‘Gender’ or ‘Title’ in a form how can you proceed?

Mx stands for ‘Mixter’. This isn’t meant to imply a mixture of both sexes but rather a disassociation from either sex. This makes it suitable for several groups of people:

  • Anyone who doesn’t wish to divulge their sex by selecting a gendered title.
  • Women who don’t wish to present their marital status due to potential bias.
  • Anyone undergoing gender reassignment who perhaps finds it more convenient to choose Mx.
  • Anyone who doesn’t identify themselves as male or female.

The ability to self identify, such as with a gender neutral title, does affect web users decision to use services. Facebook’s insistence on the use of legal names is flawed in that it prevents self-identification. Google+ and Ello allow pseudonyms which is an attractive feature for many, “I’m giving Ello a trial run, and I’m waiting to see if Facebook changes their real-name policy. If they don’t, I’m leaving” says Justin Vivian Bond, a queer icon and performer.

Adoption of Mx

The NHS already offer Mx as an option in their title dropdown:

NHS Jobs title dropdown

Mx is an accepted title on NHS forms

Royal Bank of Scotland recently announced that they may add Mx to the list of titles in their forms. This is an attempt to make their forms more compatible with how their customers wish to identify themselves.

RBS Registration form, gender highlighted

Their forms currently make Gender a required field and use radio buttons for Male and Female, a fairly standard practice but a rather exclusionary one. By replacing the question regarding gender with a drop down to select a gendered or gender neutral title, RBS’s forms will become more inclusive.

Sex Vs Gender

In some instances web forms are asking for the wrong identifier i.e. what they seek is gender but what they ask for is sex. Sex is a biological and physiological definition while gender is a social construct.

Understanding the difference between the two should help to reduce alienation that could occur if the wrong term is used.

Why Ask for Sex, Gender or Title?

Many people, whether they identify with a particular classification of gender or not, will be reticent about answering additional personal questions. In some cases this is due to an aversion to demographic profiling.

When creating any form you should always justify each question. Do you really need to ask the question or not?

There are number of reasons you might want to know a person’s sex or gender identity:

  • To associate the respondent with masculine or feminine characteristics.
  • To build up demographics data.
  • To filter users.

If you track your webforms you’ll be able to see if gender, sex or title questions are causing problems.

If you still want to include potentially problematic questions in your form you should explain what you’ll use the information for. One reason to ask for a person’s title is simply in order to address them in the manner they wish to be addressed in. Immediately you can see a problem with this if the list of titles doesn’t include a gender neutral option.

What’s the Right Way to Ask Information on Sex and Gender?

Now you know the right terminology your copywriting will be more accurate and sensitive. The next consideration is what and how to ask the question. Cambridge University’s Student’s Union have compiled a list of recommendations for forms. I’ve summarised their advice below:

  • For the majority of the time what you want to know from the question is the respondent’s gender so this is what you should ask for.
  • Provide a field to free type an answer that’s at least 30 characters long and a final option ‘Prefer not to say’.

You could also make your form easier to complete by making Title only an optional, rather than required, field.

Is There Demand For Gender Neutral Language?

The growing demand for more gender neutral language is evident in these two examples:

Brighton Council

Brighton Council recognised that the options for gender identification they provided failed to reflect how their residents identified themselves. So, in 2013 the council adopted the use of Mx in all its forms.

If you’re not sure in what context a gender neutral label is really necessary here’s an example:

One Brighton resident, who was undergoing gender reassignment, told the Daily Mail, “It can be difficult in GP surgeries – I am not recognised. If I put in female I am not found, if I put in male – which I am not – I am not found.”

The context here is important. Booking an appointment with your GP could be one of the few situations where physiological sex is important. It’s not clear whether there are now more options for answering ‘sex’ but the introduction of the title Mx goes some way to removing connotations sex.

Swedish Pronoun, ‘Hen’

The gender neutral pronoun ‘hen’ was added to Sweden’s national encyclopedia in 2013. It had already been in use since the 60s and re-popularised in 1994. Making hen an official third pronoun is a response to common usage. You can logically assume that common use of a gender neutral pronoun means there’s also demand for other gender neutral labelling.

Improved User Experience

Better forms equal a better user experience. The benefit to you is greater conversion rates due to fewer frustrations and faster completion, reducing form or cart abandonment.

To improve usability further you should question the format of your title drop down too. Is it most appropriate for your site visitors to see Mr, Mrs, Miss, Ms in that order? It could be better to order the list by most to least popular title.

The UX Booth contributor, Kate Roberts, wrote that she changed the order of titles on the Age UK website arranging the list so most frequently selected titles appeared at the top.

Table of most selected titles on Ageuk.org.uk

‘Mrs’ accounts for 48% of titles used on AgeUK

In the six months that followed this change, Roberts carried out a dozen usability tests with the form with no comment or hesitation arising from this dropdown. She also analysed real form submissions to check that all respondents appeared to selecting the appropriate title, which they were.

Your current visitors will provide the data you need to choose the most appropriate titles to include in your form and the most appropriate order to place them in. It doesn’t take much to be inclusive and provide an enhanced user experience.

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