Sexist by design?

No, no, I don’t mean intentionally sexist. What I’m talking about is when a product completely fails to understand the needs of a segment of it’s users, in this case women, and builds something that simply won’t work for them. It is built into the design. I have three examples, which is an admittedly small sample, I wonder if you have others?

Apple Store Staircase

I recently had to take my Macbook air to the Genius bar to sort out some goblins which were messing up the works. Yeah, ok, so my hard drive got corrupted.

I was sitting on the benches looking down to the first level, and I realized the stairs I had just walked up were quite transparent. Not only that, I could see the faces of people standing below, so I know they could also see up the staircase.

The previous day had actually been hot in San Francisco (a thing that almost never happens), and I had taken advantage of the weather to wear a dress. Had my appointment been that day, I would have had the choice between flashing more skin than I might like and missing my genius bar appointment.

Virtual Reality Makes Women Vomit

Looking at this staircase, I started to make connections. I knew nothing about The Oculus Rift virtual reality headset before I read Danah Boyd’s very interesting piece on how women often become nauseous and vomit in VR. Go read that and then come back. Seriously, she says it much better than I possibly could, and her research is compelling.

The rough idea is that there are two ways of perceiving distance. One is called ‘motion parallax’, the other is ‘shape from shading.’ Which one works for you is very much influenced by your gender and also your hormones.

Although there was variability across the board, biological men were significantly more likely to prioritize motion parallax. Biological women relied more heavily on shape-from-shading. In other words, men are more likely to use the cues that 3D virtual reality systems relied on.

This, if broadly true, would explain why I, being a woman, vomited in the CAVE: My brain simply wasn’t picking up on signals the system was trying to send me about where objects were, and this made me disoriented.

~ Danah Boyd

Motion parallax is probably somewhat familiar to CSS developers. Your brain assumes bigger things are closer and pays attention to how they move against each other. Shape from shading, on the other hand, is something we aren’t used to thinking about. Danah explains that your eyes flickr ever so slightly all the time and calculate microscopic differences in shading on every part of an object as it moves. As you can imagine, shape from shading is much much harder to calculate (but to be fair it also hasn’t seen nearly the resource investment of motion parallax).

Oculus has made a huge investment in a technology that will be very hard for nearly half of the population to use. It might have been easy to conclude that women lack the capacity to participate in VR or that they simply aren’t interested. But it is much more interesting (and challenging!) to ask ourselves in what way our product might be exclusive by design?

Google, Real Names

In 2011, Google made a choice to require people to use their real names on Google+ and other services. In the most innocuous case, in different cultures, your name can be considered something private.

Living in France, I finally noticed that it was unacceptable to ask strangers their name. You had to wait for it to be given. A name was (as best I could determine) private information that should be shared, not taken. You can’t imagine the number of times I committed excruciating cultural faux pas in order to arrive at semi-fitting-in in Paris.

Taken further, it is easy to imagine how victims or witnesses to crimes, political dissidents, or whistle-blowers would not want to have their real names exposed. Google made a business decision which will keep certain kinds of people from using their products. There is a reason dissidents involved in the arab spring used twitter and not Google+ to coordinate their protests. Yeah, ok, two reasons. ;)

I believe that social media is a tool of liberation and empowerment. That may seem fairly audacious when a good portion of the Western world is using Facebook and Twitter to post pictures of what they had for dinner or take quizzes on what TV character they may be. But the freedom to communicate openly and honestly is not something to be taken for granted.

~ Pierre Omidyar

Some people can use their real name and still communicate openly. Others cannot.

Pitchforks, bring out the pitchforks!

Did anyone sit down and say, “I’m going to make it impossible for women (and men in kilts) to get to the Genius Bar?” Of course not. Did someone say, wouldn’t it be rad if we made a virtual reality headset that made women puke? Again, of course not.

But does that change the fact that women may find it much more difficult to get to their Genius Bar appointments (or their job at the genius bar)? No. Will women be able to go through the same army training if simulator sickness makes them vomit. No. And when a technology excludes, how do future developments exclude even further because they cater to the audience they already have?

The architecture firm involved in creating the Apple stores is obviously incredibly talented (as are the genius bar employees who fixed my mac). The architects just didn’t have me in mind when the built the store. This is why I believe it is incredibly important to have diverse teams. We will build the most inclusive products only when we have the most inclusive teams. Otherwise, we may unintentionally exclude an entire audience, simply because we failed to understand their needs.

I was lucky. I wore pants that day. Try not to make your users wear pants.

10 thoughts on “Sexist by design?”

  1. The stairs themselves look like they’re coated (or sandwiched) with a pretty translucent film, blurring any details. At the top of the image, slighly left of center, there’s a lit “window” that becomes completely unrecognizable through the stair (just a slightly lighter blur than all the other blurs around it). Have you tried standing under them and looking up to see if you can see any detail?

    My point is: are these stairs *actually* revealing for a woman in a skirt, or do we just think “glass” and therefore assume they will be?

    1. I think the point is not whether the stairs are *actually* revealing but whether they are perceived as such by the person walking on them. IOW, they are bad because we “think glass” etc.

    2. 1) You can see there are gaps between the steps
      2) the bannister rail is also transparent, allowing diagonal viewing (see the truth of this on your found image)
      3) the atmosphere introduced with “oh maybe they can’t see?” is not welcoming anyway

  2. We also need to take into consideration that most technology is evolutionary, not revolutionary. The next VR system is more likely to be built based on parallax. This is a simple example, but one in which we can see that accidental sexism is institutionalized, and then people stop even considering that things like architecture can show gender bias.

  3. I *hate* the stairs in Apple stores.

    I find it really hard to see clearly the edges of the stairs, so I always feel like I’m about to miss a step and trip. I have to walk on them extra-slowly.

    I can’t imagine they’re good for anyone with fuzzy eyesight or poor depth perception.

  4. I have walked up/down those stairs in a skirt/dress before, and I can tell you from experience: it’s awkward and embarrassing. Yes, they’re coated. But the spacing is far enough that you can see the faces clearly below. I am sure if I can see their faces clearly below, they can see me clearly above. Not that I’ve seen anyone gawking. But it’s definitely a possibility an accidental glance upward can give you more than you intended to see.

    1. Nathan – yeah, I thought it might be applicable to race as well, but I wasn’t comfortable talking about that since it doesn’t stem from my own experiences. Can you share an example?

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