Making the Case for Gendered Interactions

Which associations are you designing for?

It’s 2017. Today we know that gender is not simply a binary category (male or female), so easily and often confused with one’s biological sex.

We now know that gender is actually a much more fluid, sociologically-defined trait or identity that is based on a spectrum and is an entangled part our everyday lives, experiences, and expectations.

But did you know that objects and interactions can be gendered, too?

In fact, people who create products and experiences actually architect gender into their designs, most of the time without knowledge of doing so.

It's true. Due to our highly gendered society, pretty much everything that involves an action, interaction, script, or interface - that is, anything that exists to interact within our society and is created by people - can be seen as 'gendered', by design.

Fourteen years ago in my doctoral program I created a simple, subjective tool that enables people to assess the gender of objects and interactions.

It looked something like this:

At first glance this tool appears to be a standard subjective rating scale — and in a way, it is. But there are two key differences:

1) The subject selects the images that anchor each end of the scale (from a library of images depicting figures interacting with various everyday objects)

2) The subject indicates a point on the scale where they believe an interaction falls, effectively evaluating the gender of an interaction

This metric represents the transformative idea of subjectively yet quantitatively measuring elusive, social constructs like gender to understand exactly how much these qualities are integrated into the tools and products we create. And it can easily be applied to other demographics such as age, culture, and ethnicity.

As proud as I am of this tool, I am even prouder of the fact that I defended it when it was wholly unpopular to do so. My advisors and colleagues believed that the concept felt ‘forced’ and unnecessary, and told me to scrap it and start over. Back in 2003 the soft, squishy idea of gender seemed to play no role in the hard, boxy, tangible Palm Pilots we held in our hands. But today we know that when viewed in the context of design and use, our devices and tools are intrinsically linked to our lived experiences and all of its meaningful complexity.

We now understand that constructs like gender, age, and ethnicity are complex and meaningful influences in our lives. But the tools to measure this are antiquated. We know that for many people checking a single, binary box to a demographic question about race or gender is no longer applicable. And we know that age, just a number, is no indicator of openness to technological solutions that can enhance one’s quality of life.

This metric matters because as consumer technologies become more and more ubiquitous, we have no choice but to try using research tools that can help us better understand the complex richness of our users’ lived experiences. Richness that extends beyond our products but surely includes them — from the computers in our pockets, to the cars we drive, the clothes we buy, the entertainment we enjoy, and especially the conversational agents in our home attempting to create a single, personable thread through all of it. Where would Amazon’s Alexa, for example, fall for you on the gender spectrum?

Where would Amazon’s Alexa, for example, fall for you on the gender spectrum?

Rating scales are an established and reliable way to collect evaluative data about an experience. But this particular tool changes the conversation and establishes new understanding. It prompts a richer, more nuanced (i.e. user-centered) discussion that gives us actionable insight into the gendered connections and associations users make with their tools and how they are designed.

Perhaps most importantly, subjective rating scales gauging gender can tell us if we are failing to build experiences that consider and speak to all of our possible users and customers.