Words by Jess Mons and Lindsey Brinkworth, Images by Thumy Phan
User research pushes tech forward. But in some ways, it’s fallen behind.
Exhibit A: gender identity. How does your company recruit, classify, and categorize your participants?
For most organizations, the answer is “within a gender binary.” Recruits are grouped by sex into strict male and female categories, and demographic quotas are set based on this black-and-white set of criteria.
But research emphatically proves that gender falls along a spectrum—and the public increasingly agrees. The way most of us classify our users has become divorced from how users see and express themselves.
At dscout, we’d been messing this up. And the way our product was structured helped perpetuate gender-identity exclusion. Research participants using our platform have to complete a profile to participate in research, and to complete a profile they have to select their gender. Their only options were male or female.
Through continued employee advocacy and in-depth qualitative research, we took tangible steps towards inclusivity. What resulted was a series of design principles that would guide real changes on our platform—and can serve as a touchstone for gender-inclusive best practices across research and tech.
Below, we’ll outline our findings, and debrief the internal discussions that moved these changes over the line. Hopefully, it’ll provide some guidance into how we can all conduct more gender-identity inclusive research, build more gender-identity inclusive products, and get internal buy-in to make changes that move us beyond the gender binary.
4 key principles for gender-identity inclusive design
1. Question the Question.
Before you ask about gender data, ask yourself, “Do I really need this information?” Many times, gender is asked for just because it's a standard practice; it's data that "everybody collects." If you do have a concrete reason to require gender data, explain it to your users or participants. If you’re not willing to part with the question completely, consider adding an opt-out option. It communicates “your comfort is more important than my data.”
2. Use language with care.
Make sure that if you're asking for gender you're giving options for gender (man and woman), and if you're asking for sex you're giving options for sex (male and female). If you’re allowing for additional options, be careful with how you phrase these categories. For our participants Other and Custom implied that these options were “outside of something” or left out. Prefer to Self Identify and Add Your Own were seen as empowering.
3. Don’t try to guess your users’ identity. Allow space for expression.
The language around identity is constantly evolving. Attempting to include all possible options can overwhelm your audience, and border on invasive. When we asked participants to co-design their ideal intake form, 72% included a write-in option. Instead of trying to guess what language users prefer, including a write-in option puts the agency in the participant’s hands.
4. Consider the bigger picture.
Go beyond the form and think about how gender-classifications impact your entire experience. For us, that meant allowing participants to select their pronouns, so they could be referred to correctly throughout their experiences with the app. We were also concerned that participants who identified themselves outside of the gender binary would be unduly excluded from potential projects. We removed a key feature to our platform that allows researchers to pre-filter recruits based on gender.
How we did it: Getting stakeholder buy-in for inclusive redesigns
A redesign requires resources. Rethinking how we classify participants takes a big shift. Below Jess Mons (they/them) and Lindsey Brinkworth (she/her) discuss the “wheels in motion” pushing change at dscout.
How the project got off the ground:
Jess: I’ve been with dscout for four years, and I originally noticed the problem testing our app my first week. It was something that directly contradicted the way I moved through the world. I brought it up formally a few times in product feedback meetings over the years, but no traction was made. As a non-binary, trans person, it was uncomfortable to keep bringing it up because it repeatedly drew attention to how personal of an issue it was for me.
Lindsey: I wasn’t originally aware of the problem. I’m a cis-gender woman, which means my gender matches the sex I was assigned at birth, so being asked “male, or female?” in my dscout profile didn’t ring any alarm bells for me. Then, I became close friends with another dscout employee who identifies as non-binary. Speaking to them about their experience creating a profile on our app, as all our employees are required to, was the first time I was made aware of how upsetting the moment of selecting a gender option can be if your gender identity isn’t binary. After attending an event about queer representation in tech, I started to learn about how to be an ally in more specific ways. That means taking concrete steps to take the weight off the shoulders of the people who this impacting. I also became aware over the years that it was impacting scouts (participants). Our platform was actively excluding individuals who didn’t fit into this binary, making them feel unwelcome and essentially removing our ability to recruit and do research with those folks.
Barriers to getting a redesign implemented:
Jess: We starting taking steps internally to celebrate and accommodate non-binary employees by making our bathrooms gender-neutral and raising company awareness of how to talk about pronouns. While progress was being made internally, this external contradiction was directly in contrast with the inclusive culture we were trying to grow. The main barrier was education. Not only here at dscout, educating our coworkers and leadership team on how big of a problem this is, but also outside of the company. Gender identity learnings started to become more present in discourse.
Lindsey: The first handful of times that we raised this issue in meetings or using our platform feedback system, the responses we received were “it’s tied to resourcing,” “that will be a huge impact and require a large engineering effort,” etc. Essentially the complexity of the issue made it hard to find an easy answer.
Additionally, the worry of exposing folks who were non-binary or gender non-conforming to discrimination via exclusion from participation in studies using our platforms was real. We were aware that the research industry, in general, is behind on this issue, and many of our clients think of gender as binary when recruiting their samples. For example, every project we do on the Studio starts with an expectation that we will recruit 50% male, 50% female; those are the parameters given to us. We knew moving forward that making this change would be more than just a form redesign, it would be essentially a statement about recruiting beyond gender demographics, and would challenge existing assumptions and structures that we use every day.
We knew moving forward that making this change would be more than just a form redesign, it would be essentially a statement about recruiting beyond gender demographics, and would challenge existing assumptions and structures that we use every day.
Lindsey Brinkworth, Research Analyst
Making gender-identity inclusion a product priority:
Jess: Internal and external pressures moved the push to fix our problem over the line. The disconnect between internal inclusivity and platform functionality needed to be addressed. The company instituted new anonymous forums for addressing issues to leadership. And we started to hear from clients, like Google, Amazon, and a handful of smaller consultancies, that they were looking for us to use more inclusive language. There was a recognition that we can't recruit and work with participants whose identity is erased or silenced on our platform.
Lindsey: After anonymous inquiries opened, I saw a chance to push more aggressively. I only had to raise the issue twice in this anonymous forum before it was addressed. It was a new form of accountability for the company, and getting the question in front of leadership solidified the issue and need for action. Once you’ve made a promise in front of the entire company, you have to follow through.
Setting the wheels in motion:
Lindsey: It became immediately obvious that turning to the two non-binary employees in the office and asking them to solve the problem was not at all the right solution. We needed to go do the research ourselves, and get in touch directly with people who can help inform this redesign effort, specifically gender non-conforming and non-binary folks. We decided to run a research project using dscout, and we hit the ground running.
Jess: It was really uplifting to see core members of teams across the company step forward and lend their bandwidth to get this done. In a way, this has had a cyclical effect, because we’re not just tackling the problem of our platform, we’re also reinforcing our own company values, and I’m seeing how people across this company are dedicated to making space for people like me. This took a lot of hours from a lot of folks across the company. People got involved and stayed involved.
In a way, this has had a cyclical effect, because we’re not just tackling the problem of our platform, we’re also reinforcing our own company values, and I’m seeing how people across this company are dedicated to making space for people like me.
Jess Mons, Director of Business Intelligence
Jess: During this whole process, it was amazing to see empathy being built-in action. By using dscout to do this research, we were able to ask scouts to share some of their most emotional and vulnerable moments in detail with us, and sharing those within the company, you could see the learning happening in the moment. dscout provided the tool, but this project would have been impossible without the incredible stories and feedback from our participants and their willingness to open up to us. We can’t emphasize enough how grateful we are to have had the chance to hear and hold their stories.
Lindsey: This wasn’t an easy or comfortable process—but every second of it was amazing. So many people put themselves in situations where they were forced to learn, set their knowledge aside, and listen to very personal experiences drastically different from theirs. At times, it was a little funny to witness people struggle with their words or worry about not “saying the right thing.” I have been in the ally space for a while now and I still struggle with my words on occasion. But every day, everyone showed up and put in more work. How often can you say that you’ve seen people come together to put themselves outside their comfort zones in a way this big?
During this whole process, it was amazing to see empathy being built-in action. By using dscout to do this research, we were able to ask scouts to share some of their most emotional and vulnerable moments in detail with us, and sharing those within the company, you could see the learning happening in the moment.
Jess Mons, Director of Business Intelligence
Summing it up: what we’ve learned, and what’s next
At dscout, we’re making concrete changes to our platform—gender options, pronouns, removal of pre-filtered gender screening questions. We’ve distilled our findings into larger design principles to guide us in research and product design, and that we’re sharing more broadly with others hoping to design more inclusively.
We’ve noticed a paradigm shift that needs to happen in the research industry itself—moving beyond gender as a way of balancing a recruit and towards human behaviors. Consumer behaviors are much better indicators (what are you doing vs what you are)—and it’s our job to help educate researchers on how to use these new gender options for inclusion.
Mac Hasley is a writer and content strategist at dscout. She likes writing words about words, making marketing less like “marketing,” and unashamedly monopolizing the office’s Clif Bar supply.