How Tech Giants Design For Transgender Users–Or Don’t

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When Sophie Alpert began living as a woman, she grew out her hair, she changed her name, and she changed how she dressed. But her profile on Airbnb, where she had been a member since 2013, still referred to her with male pronouns and referenced her old name.

At best, it was inconvenient to explain the situation to potential guests. At worst, potential guests might have suspected some kind of scheme. By design, Airbnb mines your history to build your profile, and that’s incredibly problematic for transgender people who’ve established a new life. In this sense, it’s a perfect example of what happens when design isn’t inclusive by default–when a decent solution for 98% of the population can be extremely ostracizing for the remaining 2%.

“The issue here is that the reviews are at the front of my profile on Airbnb and one of the most prominent things about me you see if, say, I applied to stay at your house,” says Alpert. “This was already confusing for one host I talked to, and could facilitate discrimination for others.”

There was no option inside the Airbnb profile that could repair all this history. Alpert couldn’t flip a gender toggle to literally change the words of other people, so she considered deleting her account–and all of her positive reviews–to start fresh. As a last-ditch effort, Alpert wrote Airbnb support about the problem asking them to, at a minimum, delete these old reviews that referenced her gender. Instead, the company just fixed the problem, updating all names and pronouns referring to Alpert across all comments to match her female identity.

Alpert was satisfied, but after she posted about the experience on Twitter, many people were curious: How did Airbnb do it? Was there an automated tool for this? Could the design community learn from it, if so? So we asked Airbnb–and as it turns out, the company already had a policy that it has never shared in place for this request–which it’s fielded several times before. In these cases, Airbnb has an employee go through the user’s history and update all reviews about them by hand.

“Given the volume of these requests, it’s manageable for us,” a spokesperson writes. “Since we don’t change the content, tone, or sentiment in the reviews–just replace any gender pronouns or names with [HOST] or [GUEST], we don’t reach out to let them know the updates were made.”

It’s an interesting fix because it’s both so low-tech and free of anyone agreeing to new terms of service or legalese. In Silicon Valley, where code is the solution for everything, Airbnb’s solution is not built for scale. Instead of adopting the platonic ideal of inclusive design, Airbnb fell back to a decent alternative: inclusive customer service. And in this case, it worked.

We reached out to several other tech companies about what–if any–policies they have in place for trans users. On Facebook, updating your gender on the service will update all the pronouns in an automatic status update, like “Mark updated [his/her] profile image,” for as far back as your page goes. Google allows you to update your name and gender in your public profile, but offers nothing additional for its connected services like YouTube. LinkedIn allows you to change your name on your profile, and its automatic updates about a user are all gender neutral–but historical posts written by other people stay put with this solution. Twitter doesn’t do anything in particular, but it emphasized that its user interface doesn’t require people to select a gender, and any user can update their profile easily. “Twitter also uses usernames in most contexts, which in my case didn’t contain the real-life name I abandoned,” Alpert points out. In the case of Twitter, the service’s inherent anonymity can already blur or mask gender as much as a user prefers.

Alpert didn’t encounter any services that updated past comments of other people, as Airbnb did, but she also didn’t notice any other cases “where it would be appropriate.”

“For most sites, letting you update names, usernames, and gender pronouns as a self-service process is sufficient,” she says. But given that the internet doesn’t forget anything, and that so much of your identity on it is determined by the observations of other people, one could certainly imagine a transgender YouTube influencer or LinkedIn professional making a very similar request to Alpert’s. Indeed, gender and identity are nuanced, and the way they’re designed into platforms should reflect that–which is precisely why designers should be thinking inclusively by default.

After all, we shouldn’t have to erase the past to create a new future. So it’s encouraging to see that, at least in Airbnb’s case, the internet can have a fuzzy memory.

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