Off the Hoof

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Responsibility for What You Bring into the World


Part 2 in a 2 part series about the use of female bodies in media and design and preventing problematic design decisions.

In part one of this series, I laid out the real and troubling issues with the use of female body parts in design, specifically with the product name Vagisoft to describe a fabric the mens clothing company Betabrand uses to line blankets, hats, and an odd snuggie-like item designed by a fan.

We’ve already discussed the root of the problem of using one part of a woman’s body to sell things, but the same scrutiny should apply to a variety of marketing and design choices, regardless of whether you plan on using a name or concept that could be questionable. And I think we can nip the stuff in the bud, so let’s talk about preventing new design choices and new products from reinforcing old problems. As I mentioned in the previous piece, I put it to Chris Lindland, Betabrand’s founder and director, that the Vagisoft name seemed potentially offensive and unnecessary, and his response was four-fold. Let’s review:

He told me that he “owed a [product] release” to his business partner, intimating the name was not his idea. Secondly, because of the potential he saw of the name being problematic, he wanted to make this “faux science meter” to justify it. Third, they asked people, women even, if the name was offensive and people said, “No, why would it be offensive?” And finally, after there were “some questions” about the name, they offered another name and asked customers and the internet to vote on what was better. The name that was offered was “the Wooly Wooby”, and it did not win the vote.

I want to break down these four responses to examine how research and some dedicated forethought can prevent problematic design decisions from hitting the public.

While there will be no test for whether something is actually funny, or whether a campaign will really resonate with people, the fact that this team decided to ask people specifically if it was “offensive”, demonstrates that they knew they were contemplating a potentially problematic name. I have some ideas of how Chris and his team could have researched this better—and which anyone who makes things for people can also take.

“Faux science” does not override the meaning of a product.

Dropping scientific language or concepts does not mean that your process is scientific or irrefutable. The scientific method, for our applied purposes here, is based on the creation of a hypothesis, testing, creation of a theorem or a new hypothesis—and the acceptance of that science is based on peer review and repeatability. You don’t need to submit your idea about your site or issue to a peer-reviewed journal, but you should actively try to ask and answer questions about how people will use what you are making. And in this instance, having “beta” in your name (however cheeky/lighthearted) or appended to your product name does not mean that you can ignore the effects of your work on the people who use it because you have claimed it is some sort of experiment. In fact, when you are a company in “beta”, you should follow a scientific method better than anyone. Can you explain, defend, and repeat your results? Are you the least defensive and most responsive to criticism and feedback? Companies should be taking ownership of and criticism for the decisions (whether the designers thought of them as design decisions at the time or not) they have made: that is the point of testing. That is what a good beta should be. Research is not a label or a “set it and forget it” part of your work. You have to continually and actively investigate how and why people think and use what you are making if you want to claim to be scientific or at least research-driven.

“Why would this be offensive?”: Talk to users, and think about the pool of users first.

Chris Lindland wrote that his friends and people he asked said to him, “Why would that be offensive” in response to what could only be a question of “Is this offensive?” Your mom loves you so much no matter what; your friends from college “know you”, and won’t want to think you are a misogynist or racist or dog-hater or whatever line you are walking. Before doing any sort of research or testing, think about avoiding the “yes bias” of friends, family, and people who are fans or feel indebted to you. Asking people who love you and who only want to support you what they think does not cover your ass nor does it help you really understand how the product or idea will be received by the majority of people who will use what you are making.

Even if you are talking to people who do not have your chromosomes or matching tattoos, you need to think about how your questions will prime them to answer. If you lead a question with “Is this a problem?” or “Do I have to worry about this?”, people naturally will want to allay fears or explain things away. They want to help solve the problem with the least amount of work or figure out a way they could be okay with things. Even people who don’t know you very well often want to allay fears or make sense of things for you. I see it all the time when I’m testing a site. People take responsibility for not understanding a site or try to figure out and and then tell me why it could work, even when I’m just asking them what they might do next.

So instead of asking people leading questions or questions with a value judgement built-in, ask people what they think about a name or a feature, how they might use it, how it might affect how they might use something else (for instance, if it’s a website that leads with a video, but your users can’t watch video at work, it won’t get used during the day. Or if the name contains a part of female anatomy, people won’t buy the item as presents for anyone without a puerile sense of humor).

Think about the potential possibility for misuse—the world will own it as soon as you bring it into the world.

No one is as witty as that nameless snark-bomber from the liberal arts college, so a designer or filmmaker or strategist may not see how the internet will twist something—fair enough. But why not think during the design process about how this could reinforce stereotypes, make people feel uncomfortable, or affect potential customers?

I am in no way asserting that you can predict or divine all the meanings or cultural significance of everything; it is both impossible and not your job. But I think because you can never know everything, sometimes people don’t take the time to test anything. Because sometimes you will take effort to ensure that what you’re designing is usable and friendly, and it will still be in the color palette of the wrong team or a past totalitarian regime from a country your site becomes popular in. Those situations are the minority, and plenty of simple mistakes or missteps can be caught by taking the time to think through how your work will be received. Good intentions are not the language that the internet, with trolls et al, speaks in. If it can be taken wrong it will, and you should acknowledge that and not be shocked or in denial about it.

Putting something to a vote or asking users to make marketing and design decisions is a cop out.

The people at Betabrand claim to have put their name to a vote (albeit a rather straw man vote between a recognizable and shocking word, “Vagisoft”, and a pair of nonsense words, “Wooly Wooby”). There was a big conflagration when Gap tried to crowdsource its new logo. Putting things to a vote or trying to crowdsource important parts of a company or group’s mission or brand belies the role of the creator and designer in the meaning of an item. Letting the crowd decide doesn’t acknowledge or make plain the purpose in the creation of the project or product. Especially when the name or campaign a designer or research is “testing” does not affect the utility of the product or website, any vote is going to be biased toward the most outlandish or the most recognizable.

I want to be incredibly clear about this: you, as the creator or the designer, should be asking these questions about everything you make. You made it, you own it. In this particular case, if you claim that the general audience (read: the INTERNET where Betabrand has been inordinately successful in promoting first their sideways cords and then other products all online) finds sexualized or transgressive things funny, and if you then want that to be the face of your company, you state that. But be able to justify it. Don’t throw your hands up and say, “Eh, we give the people what they want.” You decided to make the product and had reasons for making a choice.

Fix the Mistake, Don’t Stop Making Them

Internal drive, investors, fans, and financial needs often encourage people making things to launch NOW, go live, push a product or version, but I would change the old adage to: If you can’t make anything nice, just keep it in your head until you think of a better way to do it. Taking the time to think through and really address any potential problems does not have to prevent launching a product or site, especially if it happens early on in the research or the development. And if you have thought it through and are willing to stand by your decisions, then nothing need be delayed.

And when you make something to sell, yes, you can say your customers own the thing, that they have to choose to buy it. However, you have the control over how you talk about it, how you frame it, and the values you espouse in releasing that thing into the world. In part one, we looked at how a name could be problematic and negative for some people in the public, and the strange fluidity of accountability on the internet should never be a shield behind which product and interaction designers, game developers, or videographers can stand.

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Mule creates delightful interfaces, strong identities, and clear voices for useful systems and nice people.
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