Thoughtful Forms and Interfaces [link]

After last week’s post about sexism in the technology field, I thought I would follow up with another post about ways technology can marginalize people. This week, here are two articles about form fields.

When making something on the web, designers and developers frequently use sets of components or “design patterns” that are familiar to all web users. For example, a drop down “select” menu or a “tabbed” interface. This saves time in the design and development phases—you don’t have to invent an interface for someone to select between three options and you can copy code from a previous project—and means our interfaces are familiar to someone who has never visited our site.

There are lots of benefits to that type of interface design, but some of the interfaces we reuse didn’t get enough thought the first time they were designed or show the implicit biases of the people who designed them. Here are two examples of form fields—”Gender” and “Select Language” [for translation]—that could use some work.

First is this excellent article about the “Gender” drop down that is common in web forms.

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.

After grappling with this problem on a few other projects…I’d like to now offer my suggested alternatives.

Note: Related to this, Facebook recently added the option to select a “custom” gender. ((Though really Facebook’s custom gender options are limited to 51 or 58 or 56 options (it depends who you ask).)) It’s interesting to read this after reading Sarah Dopp’s article first as Facebook didn’t follow some of the recommendations in that article.

Next is a short article about why we shouldn’t use flags when offering users a choice for what language to view a page in.

Flags are symbols that represent countries or nations.

Flags are symbols that represent countries or nations. Languages represent a shared method of communication between people.

In addition to all the reasons listed in this article, keep in mind that the use of flags tied to languages has a strong implicit connection to colonial histories in countries throughout the developing world. ((Interestingly, an American flag is frequently used to represent English. This isn’t surprising considering how many of these sites are built in the U.S., but it also shows that the tying of flags to languages is about power even more than history.)) There’s no reason for your website to bring that up.

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