Can users be given the choice between a man and a woman when seeking product support/services? I would like to ensure that such a UX feature can be provided without the product being thought of in a sexist way.

Men and women are both capable of providing the user with an equal support/service experience. But I sometimes might prefer speaking with a woman, and other times prefer speaking with a man when it involves getting product support or theoretically any type of service.

This is not a sexist preference, but rather a social one - as you'll see, both in the subject of the question and the following two examples, service quality is precisely the same, regardless of the gender chosen.

A simple example:

Just think of choosing between a male and female voice on your GPS; a commonly accepted UX feature. Perhaps when the GPS has been programmed with a list of personality options, that will come into the scope of the user's decision.

Or rather, for a more accurate example, involving human services:

Imagine I own an online styling advice app. Users can get fashion advice from professional stylists at any time. I might match women with women, because women might feel more understood by female designers, even though both our male and female designers receive identical training. Or perhaps certain women might feel more understood or comfortable with a male designer's advice. Perhaps I would give them a choice.

The reason I ask is because I have not yet seen this done in the context of human product support / services and would like to confirm the appropriateness of this UX decision with other enthusiasts before implementing it into a product.

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    I don't think this is a User Experience question because the only way it would impact the usability of your website/services is in how users would make that designation. – elemjay19 Nov 5 '14 at 0:50
  • @norabora a question of whether or not a user should be given the choice to incorporate his/her user preference isn't a user experience question? – J.Todd Nov 5 '14 at 0:53
  • It seems like the user experience you're actually addressing is the experience of getting technical support, rather than the experience of using your services. If the question is "should users be able to set preferences in how they use our services", then yes. But the question of "should users get to pick who they interact with when getting support" seems subjective. – elemjay19 Nov 5 '14 at 0:56
  • @norabora I don't quite think I understand you statement. the only way it would impact the usability .. is in how users would make that designation would seem to imply that the user's experience would only be affected based on the choice that he/she made. On the contrary, his/her support quality would be equal either way. The only change in user experience would be the fact the user was given the choice. – J.Todd Nov 5 '14 at 0:59
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    Yes, I understand. My point is that since it doesn't give the users any benefit to make the selection, then making the selection has no purpose. Does that make sense? – elemjay19 Nov 5 '14 at 1:05

What’s next, though? “I’d like to speak to a woman or a gay man. A straight guy with professional training would also be okay. And please no out-sourced call center in India.”

I believe the most important thing in handling support is that the customer trusts in the experience of the service person. Sex or gender is relevant sometimes, e.g. in a pregnancy forum or a domestic abuse hotline, but usually it is not.

Nevertheless, users may feel more comfortable to communicate with certain personas, but they’ll not necessarily have to match their own bio. That’s the reason for the infamous Indian call center agents who have to pose as Murkins. It’s also a point to consider when designing avatars and user names for moderators and administrators in a chat room or forum etc., and voices in speech synthesis.

It’s usually not sensible to ask directly for a certain attribute the person at the other end should have. In some cases you could instead offer a selection of (possibly fake) names or avatars for the customer to contact.

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    If there's a gay guy option and I'm at a hair salon, I'll request the gay guy. I had an (openly) gay black guy cut my hair once, best haircut (and conversation) I ever had. What I'm getting at is: It's a valid, user preference, some are humorous, some aren't, but the point is, sometimes as humans, we want service from a specific personality. It might be "funny guy" or "chill guy" or "smart girl" on the options list of "what's next", I think that's alright. – J.Todd Nov 5 '14 at 8:39
  • What I'm concerned with is people seeing the product as racist, or sexist, because some users' preferences might be based on the wrong reasons. If the choice is offered, some users are going to misuse it at some point. I'm not sure that this merits avoiding giving personality options altogether though. – J.Todd Nov 5 '14 at 8:39
  • Could you see calling Microsoft and getting "Would you like to speak with a guy or a girl today?" ..? I think I could see it. I take it you would argue against this scenario? (Sorry for the triple-comment, I'm just trying to get a feel for your answer towards gender or personality being a choice outside of where it's necessary.) – J.Todd Nov 5 '14 at 8:49
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    Whatever you do, don’t make it feel like customer segregation. Let them choose whom (name/picture) to speak with and make assertions about the expertise and empathy of that Who, but do not ask them to actively discriminate by selecting features which let you find a proper match. You may use information that’s (passively) stored in their profile, though, especially previous contacts (and satisfaction with those if recorded). – Crissov Nov 5 '14 at 8:49
  • I gotcha. I like that, good point. That's a fantastic approach at this; have some toon-ish avatars made by the company artist for each service agent and let the user pick from who's available or at random. The avatars show off gender and personality in a friendly way. You should add this to your answer. – J.Todd Nov 5 '14 at 8:50

I'm not going to accept my own answer here, but would be interested to see how its received.

After contemplating Crissov's helpful answer, I really like the idea of providing the user with a selection of cartooned (but similar) avatars of the service / support agents that are available. If the avatars do a fair job of capturing the representative's persona, that's all the user needs to select the personality that he decides he'd prefer to speak with at the moment.

Rather than presenting the selection as gender profiles, friendly avatars for service agents offers a simple, harmless approach at meeting the user's preference.

These avatars could be presented in a number of ways (note that the avatar should be less realistic and more cartooned to avoid attractiveness being taken into account):

"There are 5 support agents ready to assist you, select any agent to begin a chat session."

enter image description here


"This agent is ready to assist you, are you ready to begin?" and you're given the option to skip (after which you'll have to wait longer) or begin.

enter image description here

If you skip, great, the person waiting behind you is happy. You're happy to wait until an agent pops up that seems like a good fit for you right now. Or maybe you're busy with the kids and need to wait another minute or so. The support agent is happy to get a customer who preferred to speak with him/her.

If you're like many people and don't care which representative you speak with, the process doesn't really bother you. On the bright side, you chose to speak with the representative, and even if that choice was only a subconscious one, it was still a choice, and people seem to enjoy having the freedom to choose.

In the end, everyone is happy. That sounds like great UX to me.

What about product support / services over the phone?

I think the same principle applies here, except with the service agent's voice.

"I'm Sandy, if you're ready to begin, say 'Begin'. If not, say 'Wait', and another agent will assist you momentarily."

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    What about the experience of the actual service person at the other end? How would you feel if people were always choosing to speak to the slimmer, more attractive person in your office rather than you? – JonW Nov 5 '14 at 9:31
  • @JonW I would only recommend the use in semi-accurate avatars; toon-ish, to display general features and personas in a friendly way, without allowing them to be so accurate at to allow attraction to be taken into account. – J.Todd Nov 5 '14 at 9:41
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    @JonW They’d choose the avatar, not you. There doesn’t have to be a 1:1 mapping between avatars and service personnel. – Crissov Nov 5 '14 at 9:58
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    @Crissov Yes, but that means those service personnel who self-perceive as possibly less attractive, or less desirable a contact may feel pressured to style the avatar unlike how they actually look. Or may be pressured by management to make their avatar better looking if they're not receiving enough traffic compared to other colleagues. It brings a whole new angle to the support query handling - both the caller and the provider know that they have been explicitly chosen against others to handle the query, rather than being randomly assigned to someone equally. – JonW Nov 5 '14 at 10:10
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    @JonW that's a point I'd be happy to discuss in chat, but I think for the specific purpose of UX, the service agent's feelings aren't relevant, at least not as far as being self conscious about a cartooned avatar goes. There are answers to that problem, I just think that perhaps we should go to chat to discussion them. – J.Todd Nov 5 '14 at 10:16

Would gender play as big a factor as wanting to speak with a "helpful", however a customer will define this, representative?

Why do we need to know the gender?

It might be better to display the name/username of the agent so the customer knows they're actually connecting to a person on the other end. Knowing their name also makes it easier to reach out to them again in the future. It'll build better customer relationships if you allow customer to select the same support person. They might remember your last support issue and be able to assist you more effectively this time around.

Of course this is only true if you have a small enough group of support reps that a customer can effectively request a specific rep and they call in often enough to warrant building a good relationship.

  • The whole point of this question is to allow the user to choose a representative based on his/her preference. See my example of the fashion style adviser application. – J.Todd Nov 5 '14 at 21:37
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    @jt0dd is your intention with this question to solve a usability problem or to use UX as a justification for allowing a user to discriminate against a representative based on gender? Your comment indicates you have already drawn a conclusion and you are just fishing for answers that justify it. – Charles Wesley Nov 5 '14 at 23:34
  • @CharlesWesley You clearly didn't read the question. This isn't about discrimination. – J.Todd Nov 5 '14 at 23:41

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