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How would our words change if we were writing for someone in crisis? Would our language soften? Would we ask for less?

Sara Wachter-Boettcher

If you don’t know Sara’s work, go read a copy of Technically Wrong – one of the best tech books I’ve read.

Personal Histories is an older post on a similar topic, linked in the web archive, but still worth your time – a reminder that the personal questions we ask in a web interface are personal questions:

How many children do you have? might sound like the simplest question, until it brings a grieving parent to their knees. When is your anniversary? might create a moment of pause for someone who’s recently separated. Even What’s your hometown? or Where did you go on vacation as a child? might feel painful for kids who grew up without that kind of stability or privilege.

At the end of the post Sara suggests a few principles for form design. I was particularly struck by principle #4 – communicate what happens next.

I recently bought a membership for Denver Parks & Recreation facilities. The registration form includes a required ‘gender’ select input with the options:

There are many issues with that list, but in the moment I needed to know: why are you asking, and what will you do with this info? If they need to know what it says on my ID, or what changing room I’ll use, the answer is female. If they just need demographic data, I’m happy to mark transgender. Without more details, I’m selecting the option least likely to be used for discrimination.