Designing for Humans, Not Databases

November 30, 2010

Developer Sarah Mei's most significant contribution to the Diaspora project: changing the "Gender" dropdown to a text field. It pissed off at least one person, who argues the text field is less usable than the dropdown, causes inconvenience to the majority to accomodate the minority, and will make it harder for the software to figure out whether to refer to its users as "he" or "she." Programmer-me sees these points, but human-me knows how alienating it can be when software doesn't allow you to accurately describe yourself. (I often still have to put my name in the "husband" field when filling out forms for married couples.) This is all to say, once more: nice work, Sarah.

I’m actually not sure that that’s completely better from an interface choice. Wouldn’t you want a drop down with male/female/editable choice and if editable choice is chosen, display a textbox with a focused cursor. Assuming, of course, that the whole form has a different path for online accessiblity issues (audio or braille readers and such)…

Can’t disagree with the alienation that can come from experiencing those attempting to enforce their own rigid social reality but I’m not sure the textbox alone rises as the best response!

…and it doesn’t make it harder for the software, but it does mean the programmer has to work a little harder!

Tim Torgenrud [+1]
Nov 30 10 at 3:11 pm

As a data point of this in action, we’ve had an open gender field at MetaFilter for over 9 years now, and some simple analysis showed that we could still predict how a user wanted to be referred to themselves over 3/4 of the time if we wanted to (about 15-20% are completely unique).

That’s not a perfect 100% if we stuck to a he/she binary option, but given an open field and a user preferences page that tells users anything goes in that space, only 22% of users wrote something unique and non-predictable, and even among those there are obvious keywords we could grep out.

mathowie [+1]
Nov 30 10 at 3:12 pm


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