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Advocacy over Apathy in Product Design

Speaking up, not shutting up. TWG's Jas Der on fighting for inclusive product design.

Zeros and ones are the fundamental building blocks of most modern computers. This binary number system serves us well enough in tech, but when it comes to gender diversity and inclusive design, the binary falls short.

This isn’t an article about how to create inclusive forms. This is a story about changing company attitudes and processes when you’re not an executive decision-maker. I did it by making a lot of noise and refusing to back down.

I started at TWG two and a half years ago after leaving the publishing industry, learning to code, and starting a whole new career in tech. I was hired as a junior QA analyst with zero experience in software testing and TWG took a chance on me.

I’d like to think I was hired because TWG saw I had an eye for detail, and that I could think outside the box and explore user flows off the happy path. After fumbling my way along for the first few months, my confidence grew in time, and I found myself making more informed and assertive recommendations.

One such recommendation gripped me more personally than I expected and propelled me into a period of vulnerability – my beliefs and identity became exposed, and I was prompted to compassionately engage, educate, and collaborate with people around me.

Gender Identity within Product Design

Our designers do a pretty good job keeping gender identities in mind when designing products for our clients. But then mockups get in front of clients, and sometimes resistance can set in. I’ve seen a couple of clients push back on the decision to add at least a third gender option in a user registration form, and it’s often hard to glean whether the resistance is ideological, technical, or something else. But as a queer person of colour and former senior QA analyst, it’s my priority and my job to challenge the outdated gender binary norms and make space for all users of our products.

Responding to Push Back

Three of my projects last year required the creation of user registration forms with gender as a data point. At the design phase of each, the designers and I discussed different approaches to include non-binary gender identity options. For one healthcare product, we included a field for “Sex assigned at birth”. For gender, we included a Male/Female/Custom option. “Custom” was an interesting approach because it enabled users to self-identify, and was an act to support them to be their authentic selves while enriching the data gathered by the application. We presented a couple iterations, but ultimately the client rejected them all and decided instead to maintain a binary approach. In a second project for high school students, we took a different approach and asked for the user’s preferred pronoun (He/Him, She/Her, They/Them) along with a “Why are we asking?” tooltip. These clients were very receptive.

Despite the outcomes, I found both options to be decent solutions, though perhaps not perfect. To be honest, I’m not sure I know what a perfect solution looks like, and I recognize that it likely depends, in part, on the product and its users.

Speaking Up through Technical Difficulties

The third and most recent project I worked on was a mobile application that targeted millennials as its primary users. The clients wanted to use Facebook to validate a user’s personal information (in this case, email address, gender, and birthday). In the app’s registration flow, our designer had included Male, Female, and Non-Binary as options for a user to select their gender, and when presented to the client, this decision was met with no resistance. In fact, it wasn’t mentioned at all. But when I returned from a vacation and resumed my testing, I noticed the Non-Binary option had been removed.

It turns out it wasn’t a regression. The client had made the request due to technical incompatibilities with Facebook’s API. For those who want the technical explanation: Selecting a “custom” gender option (i.e. Non-Binary)  and a gendered pronoun (i.e. she/her) results in Facebook’s JSON response returning {gender: “female”} no matter what the user’s selected gender(s) is. Even more ridiculous is that selecting a gender-neutral pronoun (i.e. “they/them/their”) results in the JSON response omitting the gender key entirely.

The decision to delete the Non-Binary option from the application angered me, and this anger surprised me. We had literally erased the gender identity of thousands of potential users. I took a deep breath and opened up the conversation with our team internally.

Fighting for Gender Diversity

I started slow and tamed my knee-jerk anger. I asked questions about the reason behind the removal and proposed janky, technically primitive workarounds. The root of the problem was not ideological, but rather technical, so it required a technical solution.

TWG is an agency that prides itself on solving problems, and letting this slide felt like an insincere and hypocritical approach. It felt lazy. The product manager, designers, developers, and tech leads agreed that removing the non-binary option was a bad move not only for the sake of inclusion, but also for the validity and value of the data for the client.
I didn’t have the technical chops, let alone the time, to draw up a sophisticated solution, so I continued to advocate by foregrounding what motivated me most: my community and the rights we deserve.

With my heart beating a bit faster, I continued to argue my rationale on Slack, citing UX resources that could validate my opinion. Really, I just refused to be quiet about it or accept that this was the final decision.

Eventually, we called an internal meeting to discuss the issue in person and brainstorm a solution. We ended up reinstating the non-binary option for a better, more inclusive user experience. To get around Facebook’s baffling lack of API support, we simply didn’t validate the non-binary option against a user’s Facebook profile. Again, my heart hurt at the prospect, but at least we could change the part we had control over and create a uniform user experience that was inclusive.

During this climactic time, TWG’s director of product and design manager came to me separately to discuss what had happened and assured me that, going forward, this was going to be a policy TWG stands by. This commitment means that our designers will always include at least a third gender option and product managers will support these design decisions.
I also spoke with the QA team about what to be aware of when it comes to inclusive design. I encouraged them to strengthen their abilities to pay attention to and advocate for gender diversity if they notice that it has been overlooked.

Advocacy over Apathy

Truthfully, it didn’t occur to me initially to fight for this to be a company policy. In the moment, I was fuelled by frustration, anger, and hope – hope that my fight for what I believed was right was recognized. I had unintentionally stepped into the spotlight. I felt vulnerable and open to questions or criticism, but I also felt powerful.

I engage in marches, protests, counter-protests, rallies, fundraisers, petitions, and other avenues in support of the queer community: people with diverse sexual orientations, gender identities, and gender expressions. There’s a certain buzz and energy when you attend large-scale activist events.

But I struggle with feeling a bit lost in the crowd. I add to the numbers; I lend my voice to chants, but what tangible outcomes do I see? I was told recently that activism doesn’t only involve group gatherings and initiatives; I can practice activism on a micro level.

That’s what this turned out to be. There are other ways to make a difference besides holding up signs, chanting and marching for what you believe in. I managed to nudge TWG in the right direction simply by speaking up and not shutting up.

But it isn’t easy nor possible for everyone to do this. Members of the queer community often don’t feel safe coming out, speaking up, advocating, and challenging the status quo. This is especially difficult if they are precariously employed or don’t feel they can bring their whole selves to work.

And that’s okay. I would never encourage someone to sacrifice their safety or risk their job security. Instead I implore our allies to speak up when they know decisions are wrong and exclusionary. Speak up whether or not a member of a marginalized community is in the room.

“Ally” is not a title you can give yourself, but one that is earned with action, not apathy.