Gender neutrality: The need for inclusive design

While designing a customer facing calculator at Canada Life, I questioned the need for a gender field and pushed back on only providing two options: male and female. From this, a research project began where I was determined to better understand how we as a company handle gender inclusivity across our many products and services.

The majority of our digital tools and products don’t offer alternative options for individuals who identify as non-binary, making our designs unethical and inaccessible. This is a case study of a business model and UX strategy  prepared by myself and a colleague at Canada Life who believed this had to change.

defining project goals and outcomes 

  • Better understand the lived experiences of non-binary individuals in order to design products that include them and are not dismissive of their identities 
  • Incorporate inclusive design into our design culture and use co-design research methodologies to inform our design decisions 
  • Ensure our products and services conform to ethical design standards by using our voice responsibly, and building trust with our customers
  • Consolidate and democratize how we communicate gender on our forms across all departments and lines of business in order to set a standard and create consistency
  • Raise awareness and increase education around gender neutrality, diversity and inclusion as core values to our company, and ones that must be integrated into all our processes, products, and services
  • Implement employee training initiatives for advisors and other customer facing employees can attend to learn how to engage with customers in an inclusive manner

investigating the current state

Once we began to question the consistency of our language and gender input fields, we became even more curious about what other departments have done to address this problem. We reached out to several people to interview them to get a better sense of our forms control process and history. From this, we learned that efforts were being made to tackle gender neutrality, but on a case by case basis, with no strategy in place to tackle the issue company wide. 

From a competitive business standpoint, we realized that we are positioning ourselves as a company that’s unethical, and one that is creating a dichotomy between non-binary ad cisgender individuals, not taking into consideration customer’s need to identify in a way that feels right for them.

We decided to put an ad on Facebook to promote a 3-question survey to understand the experiences of our target audience when using financial services. It was delivered to people in Canada who were 18 years and older and interested in gender neutrality. We received 379 responses. One of the main findings was that our target audience uses many different terms and labels to self identity, shown by the chart below. 

what is inclusive design?

The Inclusive Design Research Centre at OCAD University defines inclusive design as: 

“Design that considers the full range of human diversity with respect to ability, language, culture, gender, age and other forms of human difference.” 

When Microsoft released their principles of Inclusive design, first on the list was: Recognize exclusion. 

We bring biases into everything we do, and if we don’t recognize that, we will create exclusion in everything we build. There are people out there who are different from us, and they won’t be able to use or enjoy the products and services we build because of our biases. Who is that person? What can we do to even the playing field for them?

As Mike Monteiro, design director and co-owner of Mule Design studio and one of the biggest voices in design leadership and ethical design said:

“By choosing to be a designer you are choosing to impact the people who come in contact with your work, you can either help or hurt them with your actions. The effect of what you put into the fabric of society should always be a key consideration in your work.”

Thinking of the impact of our work, we identified four key principles that would guide our overall strategy: 

  1. There is no such thing as an edge case: we cannot make the argument that certain individuals deserve our consideration over others.
  2. Think of who you are excluding: accessibility goes beyond being AODA complaint, we must assess our products to ensure that they are accessible for all.  
  3. Eliminate dichotomy: build trust and ethical standards instead of allowing business limitations and other constraints define the company and brand.  
  4. Standardization: ensure that our designs are consistent across inputs, forms and language.  

our strategic vision 

Our approach for this project was to influence leadership and executive teams from a business standpoint and use that as leverage to execute on a UX strategy that would help us achieve the goals outlined previously. We know that a large portion of our customers feel excluded and are therefore not likely to want to buy our products or revisit our site if they’re not well represented. It is our responsibility to better understand their lived experiences and make changes to accommodate them. Below are three key opportunities we identified to make this happen: 

Our UX strategy includes three phases. They are described in detail below:

  1. Co-design methodology: User research must include those who identify as non-binary to help us understand their experiences and preferences. This includes ongoing engagement with those most affected but least included through a collaborative and inclusive approach, and meaningful and equitable participation. Weekly design critiques and hiring people using these products are two examples of how we can do this. Feedback will then inform our design solutions and iterations.
  2. Create a process: Gender neutrality and inclusion are cornerstones of Canadian society and core to our values as a company. Our aim is to raise awareness and educate other lines of business to share a sense of responsibility, vision and impact. In addition, because multiple teams have touched this project, next we would create a process that democratizes how we communicate gender neutrality across our many forms, digital or not. An example of a deliverable included is a checklist created based on our research to guide internal teams when they are dealing with gender terminology. 
  3. Redesign and implement: Once we have created a process, it’s time to go back to existing products and services and reevaluate and redesign them based on new standards and guidelines. An example of this is our treatment of pronouns.

looking ahead 

Inclusive design is a methodology that should be leveraged when building products and services. It helps us designers recognize diversity and uniqueness and create inclusive processes and tools that help achieve a broader beneficial impact. 

This initiative allowed us to think more strategically about our approach to inclusivity. Looking ahead, our proposal will help increase access, reduce friction and create space for more emotional context.