The (frustrating) User Experience of defining your own ethnicity

The current standards for ethnicity categorization were created in 1977 by a US government agency, and last updated almost 20 years ago. The world has changed a lot since then: societies have become more global and diverse, and people have shifted the way they think about ethnicity or identify their own. So why are we still accepting the same standards – and designing experiences that force people to pick from a limited number of options?

Well, where should I start?

Maybe with this survey I had to fill out a couple weeks ago:

It wasn’t fair.

The form I had to fill out to inform my ethnicity was definitely not fair.

It just didn’t give me any option I was fully comfortable with, yet it still forced me to pick one of the options to be able to proceed.

A little background information about me: I was born and raised in São Paulo, Brazil, where I lived more than 20 years of my life. My skin color is scarily close to white (friends often times make fun of me for living in sunny California and yet being so pale), I consider myself to be bilingual (I speak Portuguese and English), and I’ve been living in the US for the last 6 years.

Needless to say, the process of adapting to a different language and culture affects a lot the way you see yourself in the world, how you identify your ethnicity, and which cultural mindset relates more closely to your personal principles and beliefs.

Let’s look back at the form I had to fill out:

As a user, here are some thoughts that go through my head when I’m presented with an interface like that:

I was born in Brazil, a very miscegenated country, and my skin tone is lighter than the average in my country. I’ve spent many years of my life filling out ethnicity surveys containing the following three options: white, brown, or black. I would always pick “white” to describe myself.

People born in Brazil are defined as “Latinos” according to the US Standards for the Classification of Federal Data on Race and Ethnicity — but, surprisingly, the form didn’t give me that option.

Even if it did, there would still be a subtle cultural flaw worth noting: Brazilians, in particular, rarely identify themselves as “Latinos”, althoughgeographically the country is located in what the United States name “Latin America”. Because we speak a different language than the rest of Latin America (Portuguese as opposed to Spanish), we see ourselves as the outlier in our continent.

I don’t speak Spanish well enough to be comfortable identifying myself as Hispanic. I grew up watching American movies, and in many cases I feel more comfortable expressing what I am thinking and feeling in English than in Portuguese. Babel brain.

To add a bit more complexity to the equation: my grandparents are Italian and Portuguese, countries categorized as “white” according to how the US define the term (“having origins in any of the original peoples of Europe, the Middle East, or North Africa”).

I stared at those radio buttons for several minutes.

My mind had gone to all these different places because of an online form.

There are two fundamental problems with the ethnicity survey I had to fill.

First, it compares apples to oranges.

“White”, based on my cultural background and understanding of the world, refers to skin color. “Hispanic” relates to Spain or to Spanish-speaking countries, especially those of Latin America (which is not the case of Brazil, where people speak Portuguese and very rarely learn Spanish in school). Finally, “Asian” and “African-American” refer to origin – and are options I do not identify with.

Second, the form doesn’t give me option to NOT pick one of the labelsprovided. I am forced to select something before I proceed. There’s no “Other” button either.

The problem is more common that one would think. The Standards for the Classification of Federal Data on Race and Ethnicity were created in 1977 and last updated in 1997, when the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) issued some revisions to it.

In the United States, these standards are commonly used for federal data collection purposes, not only in the decennial census, but also in household surveys, on administrative forms (e.g., school registration and mortgage lending applications), and in medical and clinical research.

I couldn’t pick an option.

I closed the browser window and kept thinking about it.

The next day I talked to a friend who had gone through the same issue while filling out his employer’s ethnicity questionnaire.

The same day I read an article about how NextDoor made a few design improvements to its product UI that allowed them to reduce racist posts on their platform by 75%.

I’m a firm believer Design can solve a lot of issues in the world we live in, so I couldn’t help but think that was also the case for the problem I had right in front of me.

Learning from the gender definition gap

Let’s look at the process of defining gender today.

“Western culture has come to view gender as a binary concept, with two rigidly fixed options: male or female, both grounded in a person’s physical anatomy. When a child is born, a quick glance between the legs determines the gender label that the child will carry for life. But even if gender is to be restricted to basic biology, a binary concept still fails to capture the rich variation that exists.” (Source)

This is another example of an old standard, created centuries ago, that does not reflect the reality we live in today.

When you look at the problem more closely and start to break down all the aspects of gender and sexuality definition, you quickly realize that binary options such as “male” and “female” create unrealistic constraints for people.

There is:

The biological sex you’re born with (male, female, or intersex).

The gender you identify with (e.g. Cisgender refers to a person who identifies with the gender assigned to them at birth, Transgender refers to a person who identifies as a different gender than the one assigned at birth; this relates to social and cultural norms, expectations, values, attitudes, and behaviors, and there are at least 12 known variations within this group).

The gender you’re sexually attracted to (e.g. Heterosexual means a person experiences sexual attraction to genders different than their own, Pansexual means a person experiences sexual attraction to all genders – and there are 21 known variations within this category).

The gender you choose to express yourself to society (e.g. some people might see themselves as a man, but feel socially coerced to dress as a woman).

Think about how many variations and identities arise when you start combining the four categories above.

The city of New York lets you choose from 31 different gender definitions. And businesses that don’t respect and accommodate an individual’s chosen gender identity risk incurring six-figure fines under rules implemented by the city’s Commission on Human Rights. All of the listed identities are protected by the city’s anti-discrimination laws, and employees from the CHR acknowledge that the list they currently use is still not exhaustive.

The system for gender categorization accounts for exceptions as well:

A “gender bender” is someone “who bends, changes, mixes, or combines society’s gender conventions by expressing elements of masculinity and femininity together”.

Similarly, someone who is “gender fluid” is a person “whose gender identification and presentation shifts, whether within or outside of societal, gender-based expectations”.

If someone self-identifies as “androgynous”, it means they are “appearing and/or identifying as neither man nor woman, presenting a gender either mixed or neutral”.

This is also a User Experience problem.

Every day we design digital products and interfaces that prompt users to identify themselves using pre-defined categories provided by the system. It ispart of our responsibility as designers to create mechanisms and design solutions that enable less binary, more flexible, and more inclusive denominations.

Companies like Facebook have started to adapt their user interface to accommodate for this new reality and to offer users a wider range of options. 58 options when it comes to gender identity, to be more specific.

What can we learn from gender definition, and when are we going to start looking at ethnicity with the same depth and nuance?

Breaking down the meaning of ethnicity

Let’s take a similar approach of breaking down the different aspects people use to describe how they ethnically fit in the world.

More specifically:

The region of the world you were born in (e.g. a country, a continent).

Your biological traits (e.g. the color of your skin, your physiognomy, the texture of your hair, the shape of your body).

Your native language and all the languages you speak.

The culture you identify with the most (e.g. immigrants living in a new country for decades might relate more closely to that culture than to their original one).

Similar to gender definition, when we start to combine all the possible responses for the four categories above we end up with a huge range of scenarios and stories that are incredibly challenging to organize.

Still, we’re asking people to label themselves in a very constrained fashion.

What does ethnicity really mean today? defines ethnicity as “an ethnic group; a social group that shares a common and distinctive culture, religion, language, or the like; ethnic traits, background, allegiance, or association”.

Notice that many aspects are listed — aside from biological traits –, and that culture plays an important role on how one’s ethnicity is defined.

“We asked 67 people from all over the world to take a DNA test, and it turns out they have much more in common with other nationalities than they would ever have thought.”

The UX of ethnicity definition

We live in a world where there are too many stories like mine. I’m sure a lot of readers here can relate to it. Most of these stories are incredibly complex — and the amalgamation of people’s nationalities, biological traits, cultural references and languages spoken creates a wildly nuanced range of options that is hard to capture with a single form input field.

Here are some other stories I hear about every day:

A friend who was born in Korea but moved to Brazil at a very early age, has a hard time choosing between the white/brown/black options offered by Brazil’s ethnicity forms.

A friend who was born in the US, whose parents are Japanese, has been asked several times “but wait, where are you REALLY from?” when people hear him say he’s American.

A friend who was born in the US has lived so many years in France that prefers to identify herself as French — the culture she more closely connects with.

I’m definitely not the first person to raise a flag on how ethnicity questions are treated in online forms. Different entities have started to play with the phrasing of the question, but in some instances there is no distinction between race and ethnicity.

Ask the Expert: Classifying Race and Ethnicity

A. In today'smulti-ethnic society, classifying people into racial and ethnic categories is increasingly difficult, yet…

As User Experience Designers, it’s our responsibility to make sure we’re creating the best possible experience for our users. Unnecessary constraints lead to confusion and frustration — two of the worst nightmares UX Designers need to fight every day.

How can good design help this issue?

Let’s investigate a couple different approaches to mitigate those concerns.

1. Explore different ways to frame the question

Words are incredibly powerful when it comes to creating the best possible user experience. When you ask someone “What is your ethnicity?”, you are implying that there is a universal set of categories that they need to acknowledge and follow when answering that question.

But where are those rules documented? Why do we expect people to understand all the implicit meaning carried by the ethnic labels we use?

A couple alternatives that might work better depending on the context:

“To which racial or ethnic group(s) do you most identify?”

“Would you describe yourself as…”

“How would you classify yourself?”

Make sure that the copy is working as hard as possible to make users more comfortable in this situation. If your categorization does follow more specific rules defined by a certain entity, educate users about the meaning of each term — either with contextual help or external links to learn more about where that nomenclature is coming from.

2. Explain the reason why the question is being asked

Another important aspect to take into consideration is the reason why you’re asking that question, and the context in which users are seeing it.The same question can carry very different meanings whether the user is registering for a medical application, filling out a government-related online form, or setting up their profile on a dating app.

Although there are specific guidelines and best practices for common use cases, they still do not reflect the most human and comprehensive approach to defining someone’s ethnicity.

That’s where transparency comes into play – another pretty foundational concept in UX.

Telling users why you are collecting that information and how it is going to be used can help them feel more confident about which option to choose. In the medical application example, you can explain that “This information is optional and used for medical purposes only. Some medical conditions are more common in certain ethnic groups.

A bit more clarity means a bit more confidence in the user’s decision.

3. Consider expanding the number of options available

Radio buttons imply (and force) users to select only one option to proceed.A potential solve is to allow for multiple selections — with checkboxes instead –, or to increase the number of options available and accommodate for a wider range of use cases.

This is the approach Facebook has been using to allow users to customize the way they define their gender on the social network. Keep in mind that there is a fine line between giving more options and being overwhelming.

4. Break down of the different aspects of ethnicity

Some online forms have started to break down that topic into multiple, more specific questions:

What is your nationality?

To which ethnic group(s) do you most identify?

To which cultural group(s) do you most identify?

What is your native language and what languages do you use everyday?

While this option makes the form a little longer, it makes sense in situations where a more accurate ethnicity definition is crucial to a better or more personalized experience.

5. Design for clarity and comfort

Pixels can also be pretty powerful when it comes to shaping the perception people have about the experiences they are engaging with. Ethnicity forms require extra attention in that sense: you are not only asking users to give you data about themselves, but also touching on a quite sensitive topic for some people.

There are two ways your visual design language can help in this case: by providing clarity and comfort. The clearer the instructions are, and the more comfortable your design makes users feel, higher the chances they will succeed in that task.

Let’s rethink this experience together

This is a quite extensive topic and there are many other cases to consider.The suggestions above are just initial explorations on how design can be used to improve the user’s experience of defining their own ethnicity – and it’s impossible to expect to solve for all scenarios with just one article.

Also, the user interface is just the tip of the iceberg. The interfaces we design are often times connected to legacy back-end systems from government or medical entities, and promoting any change to just one of those legacy systems can easily become a 5-year project in itself.

But big changes start small, and with people who are willing to challenge the status quo to have an impact in the world.

If you want to join me on this challenge and share any thoughts on potential solutions and initiatives to start the change, feel free to shoot me a note:

If you’re just curious what the output of this silly idea will be, follow me.

July 3, 2017
by Fabricio Teixeira
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