I hate the UK ethnicity questions. I find them confusing. They ask “what is your ethnic group?” without any definition and then give a range of suggestions of which I’m to choose exactly one. Do they mean by blood or by identification? As someone of Kiwi-Pacific mixed race but who primarily identifies as New Zealand European, depending on the definition that is never given, I could be “Any other White background, please describe”, “Any other Mixed/Multiple ethnic background, please describe”, or “Any other ethnic group, please describe”.

I deeply miss more nuanced New Zealand version (which well be more well thought through given the nation’s history as a mixed race immigrant country). Since 2006, the New Zealand census has instead started with the question “Which ethnic group do you belong to?” .

Note the use of belong, citing the note in the census report that ‘identity is chosen’ – in more informal surveys it’s also phrased as ‘what ethnic groups do you identify with?’)

It then has multiple choice options: New Zealand European, Mäori, Samoan, and more, with a generously spaced final option for ‘other’.

The UK version reminds me that I’m not really ‘normal’ here. (And don’t get me started on ‘ex-pat’!)

How ethnicity is handled in the 2011 censuses: UK (left) vs NZ (right)

How ethnicity is handled in the 2011 censuses: UK (left) vs NZ (right)

My example is, on the whole, fairly benign. However, this nuance and understanding of context was taken far further in Sara Wachter-Boettcher’s candid and compelling talk about content with kindness. She uses examples of discordant and unsettling phrases in a standard doctors’ visit form (why do they need to know if you’ve been sexually assaulted? What next?), how period apps assume that you’re straight and oriented towards or away from pregnancy, and how the internet makes people with odd or long names feel like invalid people.

Be it my experiences as a foreigner, or hers with a long name,

Everyone has a personal history.

I was also reminded of a great talk by Claire Gower at Talk UX (based on a blog post) about how you should be careful about asking for pronouns to consider those who are gender fluid.

The Facebook saga of the “algorithmic cruelty” of people seeing memorials and the like in their end of year review preview is well documented. However, she also gave examples of more subtle ones: basically, “fun facts” inserted into any form of user-generated content could go horribly wrong. Medium has removed theirs based on this. And more interestingly, Mailchimp (who have a history of both doing and documenting great copy) have toned down the use of their iconic Freddie and his humour based on the insight that people could be in any state of emotion while they’re using the service.

She found some more web related ones too: from her own work at a editor as the esteemed online magazine A List Apart. She had wondered why people were so reluctant at times to write for the site, citing not being good enough, or not having anything to say. When she reviewed the “write for us” copy, she realised it read like trying to get into a super important club.

They’ve since changed this to be more welcoming and inclusive. This is something that I think meetup organisers have learnt to do as well (OH HAI NUX chapters) – people often think they have nothing to share, but they do, and organisers will help them. Still, we’ll be taking the copy on board.

Wachter-Boettcher recommended always questioning what data you need from people and when writing copy, using the question protocol to challenge what you’re asking for. She recommends Caroline Jarrett’s and Gerry Gaffney’s Web Forms That Work as a useful reference.

Above all, she called for compassion – a phrase heard far too rarely these days – when it comes do designing. Don’t think of edge-cases, think of people. As she quoted from designer Paul Ford (known on the web as @ftrain) “Use your users’ heartbeats wisely.”

Personally, I have a suspicion that areas like this are where the web could benefit from the rigor and attention to ethics demanded in social sciences – experiments have to be considered for potential risks and knock on effects. Just as ignoring those with cognitive and physical disabilities is unacceptable today, so we must consider our users as whole, emotional, potentially damaged people.

Wachter-Boettcher’s notes and a video of an earlier version of the talk are available on her website.

Vicky Teinaki is a user experience designer at Newcastle upon Tyne agency Orange Bus. She is also working on a PhD at Northumbria University about better ways of communicating design methods within the design industry.