In most cases, improvements to website usability benefit all users, even if the intent was to make things easier for only small group. But sometimes, compromising the usability of a site’s features becomes necessary.
Sarah Mei, a programer on the new open-source social networking site Diaspora (now in private alpha) recently made the decision to make gender a text field on the user profile page. This means that there are no checkboxes for male and female; no drop-down list of genders to choose from. When filling out your profile, you are given a blank space in which to write whatever gender you choose.
It may not seem like a big deal, but to some people it is. I have friends who joined Facebook specifically because it was the first social networking site that allowed them to leave the gender field blank. Diaspora is going a step further, welcoming people of all gender presentations rather than merely tolerating them, or not acknowledging their existence. Mei made this decision to be inclusive. The decision was controversial. Another Diaspora contributor quit because of it.
If you’re interested in usability and/or gender, the comments on Mei’s explanatory post are an interesting read. A lot of people congratulated or thanked Mei, but some were annoyed. Arguments against the text field hinged on the usability problems created by the compromised data integrity: the field would be next to useless in the Diaspora database, because the vocabulary isn’t controlled. For instance, people entered a variety of variations for female: woman, girl, feminine, chick, etc. People put in more than one answer. People put in answers meant to be humorous (my favorite was Ada Lovelace). Among other things, this means that:
- Marketers can’t target based on gender. (Disapora has no advertising at this point, but like most social media sites, the creators will have to find ways to sustain operations if it becomes successful.)
- Users can’t segment their searches by gender. (But why do they need to? As many commenters pointed out, Diaspora is not a dating site, nor are these records kept for medical purposes.)
- Gender can’t be translated into the other languages Diaspora supports.
I think it depends on what the intention of having that information available is. If it’s meant to be a way for individuals to express something meaningful about themselves to others, then the back-end usability of the data generated isn’t important. (Marketers will just have to find more creative ways to target their message. I’m tired of getting ads for diets, engagement rings, and baby clothes on Facebook, just because of the gender and age I have listed there.)
What do you think? When is it okay to compromise usability? Are there other examples?