The digital rights of LGBTQ+ communities: Five steps towards an inclusive design process

September 11, 2020

Read time 8 min

When it comes to diversity, equity, and inclusion, we at Reaktor have our work cut out in two fields: strengthening our own community and designing future-proof services with our customers.

As consultants, we are not activists driving our own agendas – yet we are agents of change. Thus it is our responsibility to understand the changing world and help our clients navigate societal shifts that affect each and every one of us. A group of Reaktor’s designers has specialized in inclusivity and accessibility, learning how to make a difference with user-centered design processes. Since the first step towards change is raising awareness, we want to share some of our realizations with you.

There is no silver bullet to inclusive design, and we, too, are continually evolving. Yet you don’t need to be thoroughly trained in order to take inclusivity into account: everyone has the power to stop, think, and make conscious decisions.

We gathered five steps you can take to ensure you hear the voices of those your service or product impacts. For the sake of focus, the practical examples address the LGBTQ+ community, yet these principles apply to all kinds of inclusivity.

Step 1: Educate yourself

Start by recognizing your own position in society, the privileges you hold, and biases that may prevent you from seeing different points of view. What is normal and commonplace for you can feel different to someone else. There are multiple training sessions available to help you see through the unconscious biases your brain uses to save energy and make the world easier to understand.

If you are not familiar with LGBTQ+ communities and the struggles they face in their daily lives, you can start by hopping to, for instance,  The Human Rights Campaign or Inklusiiv to study the vocabulary and stories. When looking into the subject, you will begin to recognize repeating patterns of how people of underrepresented gender or sexual identities face discrimination in everyday life.

There are many organizations dedicated to sharing knowledge, so try to research any existing resources first. Even if you know people identifying as LGBTQ+, do not expect them to share their highly personal experiences with you lightly. It is not their responsibility to educate others.

Step 2: Discuss the need for inclusivity with your team and client

Today’s consumers increasingly prioritize social responsibility and expect companies to take a stance in matters that earlier were not conceived as part of the business. As consultants, we have the power to increase understanding and help our clients carry out their diversity, equity, and inclusion strategies throughout their services.

“As consultants, we are not activists driving our own agendas – yet we are agents of change.”

There are multiple levels in paying attention to LGBTQ+ rights, and different things are expected in different industries. The very minimum is not to discriminate or exclude anyone. Still, the more thought you put into building an inclusive design process, the more likely you are to actually make a difference. The diversity, equity, and inclusion objectives should be discussed and defined at the beginning of a project to enable open discussion throughout the process. It requires psychological safety and trust, and luckily there are coaching methods and training for this as well.

These discussions should include the voices of those that the decisions impact. A conversation about underrepresented groups without them in the room can sometimes be necessary for self-education, but any decision affecting these people should include their voices as central decision-makers. Ideally, your team would be as diverse as the end target group is, but since that is rarely possible, read further.

Step 3: Make the user-centered design process more inclusive

In user-centered design, we can take a step back and rethink the definition of the term user. Even when called “human-centered design”, the definition of ‘human’ may exclude most of the world’s population. Our designers recommend using lists of different traits that may put people in a disadvantaged position in our society. Check the list in the context of the case at hand, and collect a test group, including all necessary parties.

As mentioned before, avoid contacting someone just because they belong to an underrepresented group. Many organizations are dedicated to promoting the rights and wellbeing of the people they represent. Turn to them to reach a diverse group of user testers and reward their participation by ensuring it benefits both parties of the collaboration. Even when people are happy to participate and get their voices heard, be respectful of their time and effort.

Share the power you hold: use open-ended methods and pay attention to what kinds of assumptions are made beforehand. Strive for practices that support participants’ agency and autonomy, and make an extra effort to listen to what they have to say.

Step 4: Define and strengthen the new standards

Today, accessibility guidelines are already widely accepted and even required as part of services. Why not apply the same principles to LGBTQ+ rights as well? By paying attention to a couple of basic visible and non-visible decisions, we can embrace diversity as an integrated part of services, digital interfaces, and data handling.

Imagery and icons. When choosing photos and icons, pay attention to the representation of families, expressions of gender, and traditionally gendered professions. Avoiding outdated stereotypes and using real people in photos help all kinds of users relate to the imagery. Finding fresh alternatives for nuclear family icons depicting a household, a tie symbolizing management, or a high heel embodying shopping, allow new interpretations of how different genders and their abilities are perceived in general.

Language and words. Words shape our reality, so conscious choices with wording make a difference. Incorporating gender-neutral language by default helps to avoid making assumptions about gender and sexual orientation in most cases. Using they/them as a personal pronoun and choosing gender-neutral words such as partner, sibling, or parent go a long way when discussing personal affairs. In some languages, words for gendered professions require more updating than in others, but it is essential for gender minorities to find neutral alternatives.

Note that gender neutrality and diversity of gender are different strategies. By mentioning, for instance, transgender or gender nonconforming in addition to men and women, you are sending a message for them that they are seen and accepted. The words and definitions vary in different languages, and preferred terms may change over time as understanding increases, so look for support in LGBTQ+ organizations and communities for the most appropriate ones in each case.

“Accessibility guidelines are already widely accepted and even required as part of services. Why not apply the same principles to LGBTQ+ rights as well?”

Data collection and handling. When collecting data about our users, it is common to categorize them in groups. However, it is essential to question and, when possible, communicate why the data is relevant and what is done with it. Do we need to collect all the data we are collecting? When there is a legitimate reason for the information to be collected, preferably benefiting the user, make it as inclusive as possible by offering enough options to choose from.

For LGBTQ+ identifying people, data fields such as name, gender, and relationship information can be most at risk of causing unnecessary harm – imagine having to fill out a form that excludes your identity. Detaching name and gender information from the social security number (when used) gives the user autonomy in countries, such as Finland, where the government only recognizes binary genders. If information about relationship status, family, or sexual orientation is needed, offering alternative options alongside heteronormative monogamous relationships and families shows respect. Adding an open option for all choices and an option not to respond can be even better, as it adds the feeling of individual respect and provides a learning opportunity for the team behind the service. Ideally, gender information could be edited later by the user to reflect on how it can change over time.

Teamwork and kanban. Visualize the tasks on your kanban board to make sure they get done. These choices are not resolved in UI alone – they require changes in the background systems as well, which is why the whole team must be on board. For example, what happens when the user chooses an option other than binary? The lifecycle of a background system is a lot longer than the UI’s, and changes require more resources and planning.

This year, we had a case where the backend divided users into two gender categories, and it wasn’t due for an update anytime soon. We made it possible for people to choose which group they’d rather belong to. The solution wasn’t perfect, but it solved a tricky situation for transgender people who identify as male or female and whose Finnish, binary social security number doesn’t match their gender. Adding the additional gender option was put on the backlog to be done once the background system is renewed.

Step 5: Be persistent

While there aren’t any quick fixes to these issues, the key is to keep evolving. Mistakes will happen, and when they do, acknowledge them. It allows you to grow and also extends that growth to others who can learn from your mistakes. Stay open to feedback, be grateful for it, and try to do better next time.

At this point, there are more questions than answers, but it is our job to look for solutions that make people feel seen, heard, and welcome. We are so used to checking our grammar and spelling, so I believe that we can also create habits for using inclusive language and checking our biases.

We need to be sensitive and empathetic and make an effort for those not sitting at the table. And most importantly, it is up to us to invite everyone to the table and work together for a more inclusive future.

Maria is a designer who challenges businesses to think deeper. Ever since joining Reaktor, she has been educating us about critical design and diversity. In her master’s thesis, she studied participatory design from the point of view of intersectional feminism.

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