Heads up, this content is 11 years old. Please keep its age in mind while reading.

A year ago, I wrote an open letter to Silicon Valley, asking people to stop and think about how they’re handling gender (and race, for that matter) in their community websites.  The short version is that if you’re requiring users to select their gender from a drop-down menu that has two options in it, you’re alienating some people. I didn’t offer alternative solutions at the time — it was just a request for everyone to think about it.

(Note: if you’re not clear on why gender is a complicated issue in data collection, please stop right now and go read that other post before continuing. This will make a lot more sense after you do so.)

After grappling with this problem on a few other projects, and talking about it in a session last week at She’s Geeky (I called it “My gender broke your drop-down menu…”), I’d like to now offer my suggested alternatives.

Alternatives to asking for a user’s gender in a required two-option drop-down menu…

Option 1: Make it Optional

Baby steps.  If the idea of getting fancy with your data collection method gives you nightmares, just remove the red asterisk.  Stop making it required! Most people will still answer the question, and those who don’t want to will select not to.  Put a plan in place for how to treat and account for those who don’t want to declare their genders, and you’re done.  It’s not the most celebratory or inclusive measure, but it is a very clean way to resolve a lot of problems.

Option 2: Don’t Ask At All

Instead of asking for gender, ask for what you actually want to know.

Is it what honorific should precede the person’s name?  Well, then gender’s not going to tell you if they’re a doctor or a reverend, is it? Give them a comprehensive list of options, and allow them to select none, if they wish. (And really, why do we use these again?  My preference is to drop them entirely.)

Is it what marketing you think they’ll respond best to?  Newsflash: not every woman likes baking, and not every man likes cars.  Ask them about their interests and market to them on that basis, instead.

Is gender not actually relevant at all, except that you think it makes for an interesting statistic? Meh. I’d like to convince you that you really shouldn’t touch it, but if I’m not going to win that argument, please see Option 1.

Option 3: Have a Third Option

Your drop-down menus can have more than two options.  Some people are trying three.

I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about this, and here’s my current position:

  • “Other” is a poor choice for a third option.  Why? Because gender-nonconforming people are othered enough as it is.
  • A more useful choice would be “Decline to State” (or something similar) — then it’s not about non-conformity, it’s about privacy.
  • But taking this a bit further, I’d like to submit “It’s Complicated” for consideration as the new third option.  Most gender-nonconforming types will smile at you for it.  It tells them you understand.

I’ve seen some people try to implement a “lots of options” dropdown menu, but I don’t really recommend this route, for two reasons:

  1. What if someone looks at the list and doesn’t identify with any of the words?  You just alienated them much further than your male/female dropdown menu was doing before.
  2. What if someone identifies as more than one thing on the list?  Take, for example, a transsexual woman who is proud to identify as a woman.  Are you really going to make her choose between “trans” and “woman”?  Come on now.  That’s insulting.

If you change it from a drop-down menu (“pick only one”) to a checkbox menu (“select all that apply”), you solve issue #2, but you still have issue #1 to grapple with.  And let me tell you: if you think you can come up with a finite list of all the possible gender identities in the world, you’re wrong.

Option 4: Redesign the System

So you’re convinced that “male/female” is a deeply flawed data breakdown for the purpose of your website, but you want people to assert their identities, and you want them to get personal about it.  Okay, then!  Time to scrap the dropdowns and do something new.  Here are some ideas…

A “gender spectrum” slider bar. Take a look at how Blackbox Republic is structuring their sexual identity data:

blackbox

I could see a similar thing done with “masculine” and “feminine” at each end, and letting people self-identify.

Note: one huge problem with the spectrum model is that it’s too flat.  I believe there are people who have “a lot of gender” (i.e. dripping both masculinity and femininity all over the place) and “not a lot of gender” (i.e. minimizing signals of any gender whatsoever), and on the spectrum, they might look the same.  But that brings up my next idea, which is…

A second dropdown that asks how important gender is to them. Take a look at how OkCupid handles religion.  You get one dropdown menu for how you identify, and a second dropdown menu for how important it is to you.  For some people, their gender is a strongly identifying factor in their lives.  For others, it’s nearly irrelevant.  What if we just started asking that question?

okcupid-dropdown

You could also…

Get fancy and use Kreative Korp’s SGOSelect menu (or some variation on it), which basically says: if you have a traditional identity, you can use the simple form.  And if you want to get more specific, you can switch over to the Advanced form:

sgoselect… but it still runs into the “finite number of options” problem, even in the Advanced view.

And that brings me to my last suggestion, which so far seems to be my holy grail. I worked this out with my co-founder team at Boffery while we were strategizing the user interface… with some outside input from Kirrily Robert of Freebase:

An open-ended tagging field that suggests words as you type. I want to be able to define my gender as “female, androgynous, genderqueer.”  And I believe that if we were all encouraged to, we would come up with a great rich vocabulary that uniquely characterizes ourselves in all the ways a two-option gender set is trying to do, but failing at.  If the tagging system were set up to automatically suggest words as you typed, you could either loop in to what others are saying and be associated with that group, or create your own words and add them to the lexicon. The result would be a rich mix of groupable/categorizable labels (marketers: this is far more meaningful than what you’re currently working with), along with the ability for us to self-identify however we want.

I don’t have a picture for you ‘cuz it hasn’t been built yet.  But if anyone understands what I’m talking about and wants to test it out, let me know.

I want in.

Love,
Sarah

ETA: immediately after I posted this, a designer took a stab at the open-ended tagging field idea and sent me early concept mockups.  Check ’em out!

Heads up, this content is 12 years old. Please keep its age in mind while reading.

Somewhere in the middle of running the “Hacking, Mashups, and Other Rebel Coding” session in the BlogHer 09 Geek Lab yesterday, I remembered that I never told the Internet how I solved the “Twitter to Facebook Pages” problem. It turned out to be an impressively convoluted daisy chain of a hack, and I’ll lay it all out below. But first: what am I talking about?

The Twitter to Facebook Pages Problem

A number of people (including myself) live on Twitter these days, and keep Facebook around as a secondary home. Personally, I’ve found it helpful to auto-broadcast my twitter updates as facebook status updates, so my Facebook friends know what I’m up to. There’s a very simple facebook app called “Twitter” that will manage this connection, and it’s super-easy to set up. (Note: If you want to start doing this, please do it with care. If you tweet a LOT, you could seriously annoy your facebook friends with this connection).

Meanwhile, Facebook launched their new and improved “Pages” functionality a year or so ago, which means that non-people (companies, projects, organizations, websites, okay and people too) can have facebook profiles that look and act like normal profiles, except that folks become “Fans” instead of “Friends.” This is awesome… except that the Twitter app FAILS MISERABLY when it tries to connect a twitter stream to a facebook page. It just doesn’t work right. A bug somewhere. They say they’re working on it, but it’s been a year now, and I don’t think we should hold our breaths.

So… I started a Facebook page for Genderfork, and wanted the Genderfork Twitter updates (which are AWESOME, thanks to the fantastic work of Bird of Paradox’s Helen) to show up as status updates on that page. This would be helpful and relevant, and it would make a lot of people happy. But, of course, it can’t be done. At least, not the easy way.

It’s also worth noting that we schedule our tweets for this account in advance using TweetLater.com. This means that any solution that requires us to tweet from X application probably won’t work for us, because it would mean we’d lose our scheduling abilities. It’s also worth noting that TweetLater does have a paid solution that would cut out some of the steps below… but Genderfork has no money, so we kept looking.

The Daisy Chain Hack

Ready for the answer? Here it is:

TweetLater.com -> Twitter.com -> Yahoo Pipes -> Twitterfeed.com -> Ping.fm -> Facebook Pages

Didja get all that?

Lemme break it down…

TweetLater.com -> Twitter.com: This is how we normally do things. I won’t go into those details here.

Twitter.com -> Yahoo Pipes: You’ll need to use your Twitter RSS feed, and this includes your username before every tweet, which gets annoying quickly on Facebook. So we’re going to run your feed through a hack someone set up on Yahoo Pipes that will remove your username from it. Go to this page, enter your Twitter username, wait for it to generate a feed, and click the “Get as RSS” menu option. When you end up at a funny-looking text-based page that shows your tweets on it, copy that URL. You’ll need it for the next step.

Yahoo Pipes -> Twitterfeed.com: So you copied the URL to your RSS feed, right? Cool. Now go to Twitterfeed.com and create an account. The go to “Create New Feed” and set the dropdown box to Ping.fm. Give your feed a name (doesn’t matter much what it is) and enter that RSS URL you grabbed. You’ll want to make a few changes under Advanced Settings on this page, too: (1) Change posting frequency to 30 minutes, (2) Change Post Content to include “title only,” and (3) turn off “Post Link.” Now wait here a minute.

Twitterfeed.com -> Ping.fm: In another window, browse to Ping.fm, create an account, and make sure you’re logged into it. Then jump back over to your Twitterfeed window and click the “Application Key” link (it’s a section header) on the page. It will launch another page that will give you a long secret key. Put that into your Twitterfeed window under Key to complete the process. It will ask how you want to post to ping… via microblogs, status updates, etc. It doesn’t really matter what you choose as long as you remember it and pick the same method when you get to Ping. Now submit that page. You’re done here.

Ping.fm -> Facebook Pages: This part’s a little confusing. You need to follow Ping’s instructions to set up a connection between your Ping account and your Facebook Page. This involves first creating a link to your profile, then adding the Ping app to your Facebook page, and manuevering buttons and switches until everything is set to the right thing. When you think you’re done TEST it by posting via the Ping.fm interface to microblogs or status updates or whatever you set in your Twitterfeed setting. It should show up on your Facebook Page and NOT on your Facebook Profile. If any of that’s not perfect, keep clicking and poking.

If all of that went as planned, you’re done now, but have no instant-gratification way of checking your work. So just sit back and wait for your next tweet to fully propogate, and see if it ends up on Facebook. You’ll need to give it an extra hour or so of wait time to be sure… there are some delays built into this process. (If you run into problems, go back and check to see that Twitterfeed.com is recognizing new posts.) Mine didn’t start working for three days because Twitterfeed was blocking Yahoo Pipes URLs (they seem to have fixed that now). But now it works beautifully.

Lemme know if it works for you.

Heads up, this content is 13 years old. Please keep its age in mind while reading.

jiffy lube (by Joe Dunckley) http://flickr.com/photos/steinsky/193395157/I’ll strategize it, architect it, and design it.  I’ll help market it.  I’ll direct the team that’s assembling it.  I’ll even tweak the engine and apply the paint job if we’re short on staff.  But if doing all this also makes me responsible for changing its oil every three thousand miles and providing roadside assistance when it has a flat tire, then suddenly I stop being good at my job.

Websites are like cars. I’ve used the metaphor and I’ve heard it from others as well.  Even the prices are comparable — do you want a $500 clunker?  Something that’s either reliable or sexy (but probably not both) for $5000?  Or are you putting down 25 grand for your new baby?

We’ve got website mass-manufacturers. Website mom-and-pop mechanics.  Website fuel (hosting?).  We sell services that make your website stand out in a crowd.  We even give them vanity plates with the special character “.com” on them, and hand out free bling for your sidebars.  Let’s keep going with this.

Where are the Jiffy Lubes?  Where are the reliable, bonded, high-profile, maintenance shops that you can feel confident handing your hosting passwords to every six months or so for a good, honest, and slightly-overpriced assessment of how things look under the hood?  They should be able to upgrade things like WordPress, edit that homepage content you only care to change every once in awhile, advise you about any larger issues, apply some Spam Guard, and send you on your way before dinnertime.

And while we’re at it, where are the website loans for new businesses?  And where is the website insurance against hacking, hosting failure, and freeway Digg collisions?  How can you upgrade the sound system that is your website copy?  Where can you get all that bird shit washed off your outside user-generated content surface?  Where can you have your server space vacuumed?  How are you supposed to know when it’s time to get your timing belt replaced? Where are you supposed to go to do that?  And how can we hold mechanics reliable for doing what we ask without ripping us off?  (I suppose that last problem still hasn’t been solved with cars, so maybe I’m asking too much.)

Rusty Car Storage (by Dave_7) http://flickr.com/photos/daveseven/2522577075/I hate watching people’s transmissions die after driving 100,000 miles without a tuneup.  And I’m even less fond of being handed that panicked problem while I’m right in the middle of designing a beautiful new car.   But I don’t blame them for it — they don’t have much of a choice.  The resources aren’t out there on the side of the road, reminding them to come in for a checkup.  Where’s the freaking Jiffy Lube?

If it’s getting to the point where “married couple” is just another way of saying, “two-website household,” it’s time to scale the industry to address the needs of consumers.  Too many people assume that whoever built a website is going to be responsible for it forever — even if there’s no maintenance retainer plan in the contract.  And true, we — as web developers — created that assumption because we wanted to hold on to our clients.  But how many unloved, unmaintained websites are out there now, rusting and creating an eye sore on someone’s front yard because “maintenance” was an assumption instead of a plan?  Drop your pride and get real for a second.  You’re not happy about it but you don’t want to do the work to fix the situation, do you.

I no longer work on projects where the “designer” and the “programmer” are the same person.  I find that — even if someone can do both — their work will be much better if they only have to do one.  Having two separate bodies engaged in that arm-wrestling match makes for a better website.  And a less crazy team.  Even though I used to try to do both of them myself.

I’m adding maintenance to the pile now.  I don’t think the manufacturers should be the maintainers.  I think it’s a conflict of interest, a disservice to the consumer, and a white lie that’s tainted with an extra layer of fear and pride.

It’s time for the Jiffy Lubes to start popping up on the suburban street corners of the Internet.  We’re ready now.  And please, do it well.

photo credits: “jiffy lube” by joe dunckley and “rusty car storage” by dave_7 — thanks, guys!