Toward More Gender-Inclusive Form Design

Graphic image of hand selecting a field on a form

Forms are like icebergs. They’re deceivingly more complicated and troublesome than they appear on the surface. Screw up form design and you can stop users in their tracks, preventing them from meeting their intended goals, your business from collecting valuable data, or both. There are a lot of decisions that should go into determining how a form will be presented, what fields will be included on it, and why. Asking for the standard information you’ve always asked for in the way you’ve always asked doesn’t provide the best user experience for all gender identities.

Gender-inclusive design is a type of inclusive design, which is focused on intentionally including the needs of users who traditionally face exclusion in everyday life because of belonging to an oppressed group or statistical minority. Since being inclusive and respectful of someone’s identity contributes to more positive user emotions which, in turn, creates a better experience, it’s important for UX designers to think through how even the smallest design choices on form fields can be adjusted to help more people feel welcome using a product.

Designing Gender Fields

Asking a person their gender is pretty common on forms, but the first question you need to ask is whether this is necessary. Do you have a good reason for collecting this data? If not, don’t or, at least make the field optional. This goes for user research efforts like surveys as well. For many people, this question isn’t as straightforward as you may assume. It can bring up uncomfortable or conflicting emotions and being forced to disclose it can cause some users to develop a negative opinion of your product or even abandon a form all together.

If you do include a gender field, don’t stick to the binary of male and female options. It might be easy to add an “Other” option to seem inclusive but consider what it feels like to be labeled “Other.” This can further enforce the harmful attitude that some people’s gender identities are more normal than others’. Plus, if you include a text input field after “Other” for users to add their gender identity you’re forcing them to do a little more work than everyone else who just chose a dropdown option or clicked a radio button.

Consider making this a text input field for everyone. It might take a little more organization on the data side to deal with all the variations users could input, but it will offer more equity in the use experience.

Also remember that someone’s legally recorded gender may not always match their gender identity. If you need to collect legal gender for some reason, specify that in the field’s label, but perhaps also allow users to add their true gender identity and pronoun preferences with additional fields. This consideration could not only make a person feel more included but could be important if the data collected is intended for future communication with them or user research.

Designing Name Fields

Like gender, many people’s legal names don’t match the names they identify with and use socially. Often, though, you can’t avoid asking for someone’s name. For some things it’s needed for billing or identity verification. But you can offer users options. If you need legal names as appear on drivers’ licenses don’t assume these are the names users go by, especially if you want to use data to personalize a product. Using the wrong name to greet someone when they open an app or log in to an account can create a wholly wrong emotional experience for a user.

When we started living our lives on Zoom, I found myself being called Kimberly in work meetings by people who didn’t know me because my Zoom account displayed my full legal name. Being called Kimberly instead of Kim makes me feel a little like I’m 5 and in trouble with my mom. Talk about a trigger for my imposter syndrome. When I went to change it, I discovered that that setting had been locked by my employer.

I’m sure there is some way to officially have it changed, but I just haven’t bothered because it’s not a huge deal for me. But for someone else it might be. It’s estimated that well over a million Americans identify as transgender. For someone who’s transgender and has changed their name in every way but legal a situation like this could be uncomfortable or even dangerous.

Deadnaming, or referring to someone by the name they used before transitioning, doesn’t affirm their identity and help them feel accepted. Also, using the wrong name in product personalization or communications that others might see risks revealing that someone is transgender without their permission, which can make that person a target for discrimination and hate.

When designing a form don’t require legal names unless necessary and, if it is necessary, offer a field for users to add their preferred names. This field should be the data source for any personalization efforts. Also, think about adding some information to all name field labels to clarify whether they’re asking for legal names in order to ease user anxiety and confusion. If you’re worried about making all users do more work than necessary, just add shortcuts that let them say that their legal and preferred names are the same like you would for shipping versus billing addresses.

Final Thoughts

Form design has social and emotional power. These 2 field types show just how much a basic question can hijack an otherwise good user experience when the true complexity of gender identity is ignored. Learning about the hurdles that gender throws at people and applying this knowledge to your next form design may be something few users notice or appreciate. For those who do, though, it can have a profound impact, transforming a simple form into the gift of an inclusive, affirming digital space.

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