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I believe in keeping a registration form as simple as possible so that we "grease the skids" toward conversion. Every field on our signup form is required, or else we wouldn't ask it. Here's what we have now:

  • First Name (to personalize correspondence)
  • Last Name (to verify identity in person with an ID for in-person offers)
  • Email Address (to communicate, and to serve as user ID)
  • Gender (demographic info)
  • Birthdate (to verify age for COPPA compliance, and demographic info)
  • Password (to authenticate)

I am concerned that by requiring gender, we create friction (a UX concern). I am also concerned that by making gender optional we lose some important data that Sales needs to do their job (a "business" concern), as well as lose credibility among clients and partners who might not understand the UX justification.

We considered a number of options, each with its own foible or two:

  1. Require, but include third option ("decline to state," "other," or something similar): because we send out retail information, we fear people will choose the third option more often to avoid receiving "gendered" content (which would not be the case).
  2. Leave optional, but do not list it as such: without marking fields as required or optional, we simply wouldn't give an error if they left this one unselected, but this seems less than transparent, almost a "dark pattern."
  3. List as optional: how much data will we lose? And will our clients and partners question our intelligence for not making an "obvious" requirement? Fear, uncertainty, and doubt factor largely here.
  4. Move it off registration and collect as a survey question: this guarantees we'll collect much, much less data, but gain a 12.5% simpler form.

So, what to do? Require gender? Make it optional? Something we haven't thought of?

[By the way, the gender field is currently a drop-down defaulted to "select a gender." And we understand there's a difference between sex and gender; we're more interested in how the user identifies than biological stat, hence "gender."]


UPDATE

We decided to include the question on the form, and follow @Morawski's advice and simply use binary radio buttons side-by-side (without a title). We have yet to decide if it will in fact be required in the back end (thereby returning an error if it's blank), but we will not annotate it either way.

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Why do you need the information? If it's just for demographics, why on earth would you require it? Unless you're a dating or medical site I can't imagine why it'd actually NEED gender. –  Ben Brocka Apr 12 '12 at 18:36
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A dropdown? There's your friction. Why not just two radioboxes? And personally I wouldn't even differentiate between "sex" and "gender". I'd just caption these radioboxes "male" and "female", that's it. Not splitting hairs over what users may mean by it. –  Konrad Morawski Apr 12 '12 at 19:01
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@CharlesBoyung it requires two clicks instead of one, for no good reason. It also feels less convenient - while you can actually click anywhere inside the combobox to make it drop down (or that's the way it should be), many users still try hard to position the cursor over its arrow button before clicking (because they don't know they don't have to!). It's a matter of taste of course - personally, I dislike dropdowns in principle. I'd rather use a listbox (for many options) or radioboxes (for few options) any time. What speaks to the advantage of dropdowns? –  Konrad Morawski Apr 12 '12 at 20:07
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@Morawski, if you have a null value that is accepted (such as decline to state), radio buttons make sense; I would set the default to the null value. If, in the case of gender, one decides to require it, you end up with two blank radio buttons (because setting a default is a bad idea). Blank radio buttons are unnerving to me, because I know that as soon as I select one, I can't unselect it. Whereas with a dropdown, it's a little clearer that I can unset my choice by going back and selecting "select a gender." –  tajmo Apr 12 '12 at 21:21
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@Morawski I'm just pointing out that if a null state is not acceptable, radio buttons don't work for the reasons above. –  tajmo Apr 16 '12 at 14:51
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7 Answers 7

up vote 7 down vote accepted

Instead of a dropdown, use three radio buttons. Allow the user to select a third radio button for "Decline to state/Other". Have the last radio button selected by default, and the user can change it. You do not need to mark the field as optional, since there will always be selection.

To diminish your user's potential concerns that this information will be used improperly, you could state at the end of the form (before they submit) that information will not be used for marketing purposes or sent to a third-party.

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Chosen for its simplicity. –  tajmo May 17 '12 at 14:23
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I liked Bagcheck's approach...ask for a possessive pronoun to make it clear why you're asking:

Bagcheck.com gender question

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How would you do that in French (and possibly other Roman languages), where the possessive pronoun's "gender" corresponds to what it being possessed, not to by whom? The question would be impossible to answer. –  Bart Gijssens Apr 16 '12 at 5:39
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@fitzgeraldsteele That is an interesting approach. It's a little too unconventional for our clients and user base, but I like the approach. It requires more thought because it's non-standard, but it adds personality where it didn't exist before. –  tajmo Apr 16 '12 at 19:38
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Don't require gender, don't even ask for gender. Ask for title instead.

Eg:

enter image description here

You can do the work yourselves in translating title into something useful for your demographics and you may actually get more from it than simply asking for gender:

  • The ratio between determinate male and female titles will give your male/female split demographic to a pretty good approximation across the field.

  • You'll find a percentage of each of Mr, Mrs, Ms, Miss, Dr, Herr, Frau etc etc - and the percentage of users who prefer to go unspecified (due to being optional).

  • You'll discover terms you hadn't even thought of catering for.

  • You'll find out what people do like to be called for use in future implementations, and you'll see how many people decline to state a title which you can also use to base future decisions on.

  • You're also giving the user a simple optional field that gives them a chance to say what they want, rather than pigeon holing every user into this either/or box.

  • And since this is not rocket science, you can always change this at a later date and A/B test different options anyway.

Since this is about a business goal - doesn't this give you the most information for demographic analysis purposes? OK, so you have to do a little more work at the back end to make sure that all such manual entries can be analysed, but that's not the issue - it's the user experience.

-- edit --

Considering the question of whether an open ended field requires more thought and might provide more friction than a radio group or drop down box.

It's debatable - there are multiple decision factors interplaying here:

  • The negatives of seeming forced to provide information vs the positives of an optional item
  • The negatives of a narrow set of choices vs the positives of entering what you like
  • The negatives of wondering what to put in an open ended item when trying to cater for all, or the negatives of a minority of people that do not see a radio/dropdown item that suits them.

This is what A/B testing is all about.

I don't see this field as such a showstopper though. It's optional, it's small, does not present an annoyance and I'd be surprised if many users were 'thrown' by entering a title. I'd suggest an adult has pretty much given all the prior consideration as to what they like to be addressed as:

  • Those that have no special title will have little difficulty, and for those that do, well - it's optional!
  • Those that prefer titles such as Ms will be pleased to be able to use that option as they have specific reasons for doing so.
  • Those that have earned a title such as Dr. are always delighted to be given the opportunity to use it, even if they don't always actually use it (depending on the context).
  • Those that have a title that you would not otherwise cater for, will thank you for the freedom to use it.
  • Some might have a sense of humour and enter Lord or King or something equally hilarious. So let them. If it means they are more likely to complete the form, then everyone's a winner.
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Nice idea. I had the thought that a title field would be an option but then I got bogged-down by the 'what if they enter 'Dr' then?' questions. However you're right; if all you need is a rough demographic then this is perfect (plus I love the idea of finding out how your users identify themselves). –  JonW Apr 13 '12 at 10:02
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I find a gender field to be much easier to answer than a blank title field, or even a title list with only four options. That doubles the cognitive load for that field, rather than reduce it (assuming that double the choices makes double the thought). And open-ended requires even more thought, does it not? –  tajmo Apr 13 '12 at 19:37
    
@tajmo I started writing a comment in reply - but it got too long - so I added an edit to the answer –  Roger Attrill Apr 13 '12 at 20:26
    
There is a Data Protection issue to consider. This is the least likely method to fall foul of storing personal data which you don't need -- because you do need this to send out correctly-addressed mail. However, that's the ostensible reason for collecting the "Title" data. There is a risk that processing this data for demographic purposes without saying so falls foul of DP law (it almost certainly would in Europe); and if you start using it for gender-specific offers then it would definitely be unlawful. I don't know which law applies in your case, but it needs at least to be considered. –  Andrew Leach Apr 13 '12 at 20:43
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+1 for an open-ended text field. Some of us are put off when the only choices are male, female, and "other". See sarahmei.com/blog/2010/11/26/disalienation. –  jlstrecker Apr 13 '12 at 20:52
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If you are thinking about making this optional, do you really need this information? Furthermore, if optional, can you extrapolate from the users that entered this information to get to a reasonable statement for your entire user base?

Crazy idea: If the answer is that you are fine with slightly inaccurate data, then you could

  • remove the gender question entirely
  • require users enter their first name (potential problem with abbreviations here)
  • detect the gender automatically by analyzing the first names, store it with the user data and have Sales run queries against the DB if they like
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First name is never a definitive indicator of gender, and I wouldn't even characterize it as "slightly inaccurate". Carol, Jaime, Stacy, Pat, and Alex are common names for both sexes. And what do you do with the Dinakars, Hus, Taos, and other uncommon names not likely to be in a database? –  tajmo Apr 13 '12 at 19:14
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@tajmo What country is your main audience? I agree it's not a perfect indicator but it might be better than 'optional'. At a site with primarily European users this method worked well and matched >95% of the first names to the correct gender. Well, as I said - crazy idea (even though it's very easy to test and verify with your current user base :-) –  greenforest Apr 13 '12 at 20:30
    
United States. We are looking into whether it's acceptable to extrapolate from a sample. That will determine if it's optional or required. The requirement comes from business, not from UX. –  tajmo Apr 16 '12 at 19:26
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Just add it as a Radio button options. You can even select female by default.

It takes very little cognitive overhead and time for everyone to select the correct value!

Keep selecting the correct gender only one click away.

If you're afraid that there would be some serious exceptions in you're target demographic or a lot of people that don't want to add the information you can add a third option unspecified and set that as the default value.

Asking for a Title adds a big overhead to the one selecting the correct value.

I would also add what the information is actually used for. (or what its not used for eg. no gender targeted advertisment)

You can also add other ways to detect gender. Adding it as a survey question or simply letting sales representatives update the information after phone calls chould fill out the blanks pretty fast.

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Saying what it's for is a possible idea to help things along. Setting a default gender value is a bad idea: ux.stackexchange.com/questions/13413/…. –  tajmo Apr 13 '12 at 19:10
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Among other problems, this presumes everyone has a gender and wants to disclose it. See that linked-to question... –  Alex Feinman Apr 13 '12 at 21:05
    
@AlexFeinman We do assume our users have a gender. While perhaps some people are androgynous, the vast majority claim some gender or another, even if it doesn't match their biological sex. This referenced survey says 0.3% of Americans are transgender: thenewcivilrightsmovement.com/… –  tajmo Apr 16 '12 at 19:34
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Do a bit more research. Intergender and asexual folks exist. And people for whom disclosing gender can cause serious societal problems, or simply discomfort. The world is not as simple as a pair of radio buttons, one of them 'correct' and one 'incorrect'. –  Alex Feinman Apr 17 '12 at 13:16
    
@AlexFeinman, I know all this, but it doesn't fit in the form. It's a sad fact. We're not willing to add options for edge cases, and open-ended answers don't give us the data structure we need. –  tajmo Apr 18 '12 at 21:01
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Personally I'd make gender completely optional and remove it completely from the sign up process. There's no reason why it matters what gender your users are. Asking for this information creates friction in the sign up process - even if it's clearly marked as "for demographic purposes only". People are suspicious of requests for this type of information.

If your marketing department really needs the demographic information have a specific opt in page where your users can fill in this (and any other information marketing might need).

The quality of information you get will be much higher as people who fill it in have less reason to give you fictional data just to get through the sign up process.

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+1 For mentioning that people enter fictional data to get through a sign up process. I know people who do this - some who are concerned about privacy, others purely to throw off the demographics for fun. –  Bevan Apr 14 '12 at 3:53
    
Fictional data doesn't sound likely with gender, since it's (ostensibly) binary. Throwing off demographics on purpose sounds like an edge case. We're not worried about that. –  tajmo Apr 16 '12 at 19:25
    
@tajmo - I was more thinking that everyone selects the default (e.g. male). –  ChrisF Apr 16 '12 at 20:59
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I agree that asking for the user's gender or sex does create some friction. For some reason it feels strange and only appropriate when filling in a medical application form for enlisting in the army or something.

How about circumventing the problem by using something a little more subtle and friendly but that does allow you to derive the same information?

How would you like to be addressed by us:

enter image description here

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Ah - but what if someone is a Phd or Professor (or some other gender neutral title), and wants to be addresses as such? –  ChrisF Apr 13 '12 at 8:29
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This is asking for gender + (if female) marital status.. –  Joe Dreimann Apr 13 '12 at 8:30
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@ChrisF: Hm, good point. In Germany a female Phd would be addressed "Frau Doktor", which would literally translate into "Ms Phd". I guess this is not the case in all languages. Is it required though to have that option? If we start with that we also need to offer options such as "Her Magnificence", "Your Worship", "Her Imperial and Royal Highness", "His Ducal Serene Highness",... The list is endless. –  Bart Gijssens Apr 13 '12 at 8:38
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@BartGijssens - I do know how far this can go! –  ChrisF Apr 13 '12 at 8:41
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@Joe Dreimann: actually no, the English language offers "Ms" precisely not to reveal the marital status. I can't help it that English language has 3 different options to address a female. –  Bart Gijssens Apr 13 '12 at 8:41
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