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I am administering a web application that has male and female users.

Currently, the default user photo is:

enter image description here

I don't like this because it seems rather masculine and gives me the impression that the database has me recorded as a male.

I think changing the default to this makes sense:

enter image description here

This is more of a gender neutral avatar.

Questions:

  • Would the first image be considered inconsiderate by a typical (female) user?
  • Does the second image rectify the problem created by the first image?

Note that the application does not know whether the user is male or female and so having two separate default photos, one male and the other female, is not possible.


Edit: I have been asked to define the characteristics that make an avatar gender neutral. I am not sure I can do this objectively and that is why I choose to pick an avatar that has a very slight representation of a human head and shoulders. In other words, I prefer to solve the problem by not having a man-like or woman-like shadow at all.

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I think u r right with the idea of using neutral face icon but ur image doesn't feel better. –  keshav May 28 at 18:16
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An alternative quite a few sites use is a question mark icon instead of a silhouette. –  Lawton May 28 at 19:06
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@karancan I like the idea of gender neutral avatars, however, why did you use an Asgardian avatar? Try making the next a bit wider and adding ears. –  Danny Varod May 28 at 19:36
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Consider an identicon, which StackExchange uses as its default. Has some pretty big advantages over a single stock image, depending on what sort of web app you have. (e.g. great for SE where pseudonymity is common and real-life identities are largely irrelevant, but a negative IMO for Facebook, where everyone should have their own real image) –  Tim S. May 28 at 20:29
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Your gender neutral avatar doesn't look like a person to me...it looks more like this guy: defensetech.org/2008/07/25/nasa-naut-claims-alien-coverup –  Grant May 30 at 2:21

2 Answers 2

up vote 25 down vote accepted

Another alternative to consider is the initials of the user. This is done by the collaborative card site Trello.com.

So if your name was John Smith, you would see for example a gray square like you had for that first image, with the two centered letters 'JS'. A font like Helvetica would be perfect for that.

For example:

Basic Avatar

That would be the easiest catch-all solution. But to answer your two questions:

  1. Quite possibly. If you (I'm assuming you're male) made an account on a website for social purposes, would you want your first avatar to be a female, with all your friends seeing it? Probably not. There are people who wouldn't care either way. But there are enough that it's something to take into account.
  2. Yes, your second image would fix the issue of gender. However, the image itself would need some work, as it's not that visually appealing/engaging (that's another topic/question to ask here: http://graphicdesign.stackexchange.com).
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7  
The user initials is a great idea. It's used in a ton of places now e.g. Gmail. It makes it easier to distinguish between users who haven't uploaded their avatar. –  nightning May 28 at 20:09
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iOS 7 also does that ! :) –  Trevör Anne Denise May 29 at 6:08
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May be worth taking a look at Gravatar as a fallback if they've not added their own photo? They offer all sorts of defaults including the geometry ones here. –  Liath May 29 at 10:18
    
I think your suggestion of using initials is a solid approach. However, you seem to be asserting that men would mind being represented as a female avatar, but that women wouldn't mind the reverse. Is this what you actually want to convey? If not, I suggest rephrasing your first point. –  Phil Calvin May 29 at 16:25
    
@PhilCalvin That's not quite what I was trying to convey. Thank you for pointing that out, the original post has been edited to be more general. –  Andrew May 29 at 17:05

You can certainly objectively define the characteristics that would make an avatar male or female. Take a look here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Secondary_sex_characteristic (there are other lists that might work better, but this one was easy to find; cultural aspects of "gender display" should also be considered)

There are some characteristics that would be visible in a outline based avatar. In your example, the heavier bone structure of the skull is apparent, as is overall squareness (as well as the cultural bias of short hair). To define an avatar as neutral it should have no aspects of "gender display".

As to your specific questions:

  1. No idea, and I would venture to say no one does. You would need to ask your female users to learn this lesson. However if you can avoid the problem of gender all together you probably should. Lets not forget about Facebook's ever growing list of identities, do you really want to address these issues?

  2. The second image does have near zero secondary sexual characteristics. But it does have some feminine traits, like a rounder skull structure, and thinner neck.

I did a quick search on the noun project for "user": http://thenounproject.com/search/?q=user These seem to be the most non-gendered to me personally:

However you could just use text that also informs as to the state of the system, for example:

No Photo Uploaded

As long as area that will contain an avatar image, is clear as to its intent as a avatar image, you should be fine with an avoidance of the gender issue. You could even follow Gravatar's lead and use a pattern:

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That's not Stack Exchange's lead. That's gravatar's lead. For example, mine is gravatar.com/avatar/… –  corsiKa May 28 at 20:30
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Why not use unicorns! They should be gender-neutral enough. Example –  SztupY May 28 at 21:34
    
@corsiKa updated. –  Fresheyeball May 29 at 4:50
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Neither of the images in your bullet points work. They both give us access denied errors. Please upload those images to Stack Exchange hosting, rather than hotlinking off another site. That has the added benefit that we don't have to worry about those images disappearing next week whenever those hosts don't need them any longer. –  Jonathan Hobbs May 29 at 8:50
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I like the idea of throwing away the problem of gender all together. One could just remove any gender-related stuff and call everybody "they" by default. –  Morwenn May 29 at 18:47

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