Here are six best practices for digital content and collecting feedback to make sure your spaces are more inclusive, especially when working with stigmatized audiences.
Make it a necessity to collaborate with members of the community you want to reach. Collaboration not only ensures that your organization has the support of the community, but it also means that your organization has verified knowledge about the community. Having this information can mean a lot for the comfort of your audiences, and makes it clear that you aren't targeting this population for your own gains.
An excellent solution for this is to make sure that your organization is incredibly diverse. There has been plenty of research done that proves diversity makes a team smarter and stronger. It could also make it easier to connect with difficult-to-reach communities.
If you're looking to reach a community that no one on your team is personally involved with, you should strive to connect with advocacy groups for that group. Be prepared to explain what you're doing exactly and why you're doing it. Make sure you want to reach this community for the right reasons. If anyone feels like you're trying to tokenize a specific population, chances are they won't want to help you. Being prepared and able to speak clearly about your goals will allow advocacy groups to vouch for you and your work.
Avoid stigmatizing language and labeling. You aren't trying to 'other' any population. You're working to bring everyone into the conversation and normalize their existence. Make sure that the language you're using doesn't have a negative history. While some LGBTQ+ people use the word 'queer' in their personal vernacular when speaking with others from the community, it's understood that there is a significant and negative history around the word, so it's a word to avoid when working with the LGBTQ+ population.
Avoid adding unnecessary descriptors. Sometimes, in an effort to be inclusive, organizations will call out groups that don't need special attention. A website with medical information, for instance, might have a section labeled LGBTQ+ Health. While this doesn't necessarily seem problematic, it adds an exclusionary tone and asserts that folx in the LGBTQ+ community have to worry about their health separately from everyone else. Creating these lines of separation between the health needs of audiences creates an assumption that LGBTQ+ folx have "other" health issues they need to worry about, which typically isn't the case. All people have bodies and health concerns; there is no need to distinguish between healthcare and LGBTQ+ healthcare.
Content that is specific to LGBTQ+ folx in some way (i.e., hormone replacement therapy or gender-affirming surgeries) can have relevant metadata to make sure it appears in a search, rather than using explicit labeling that creates dividing lines between populations.
Recently, Apple announced its new menstrual cycle monitoring in its WatchOS update. Apple did a great job using inclusive language in its announcement. Without stating it outright, the company acknowledged that women aren't the only people who experience menstrual cycles. Nowhere on its site does it say that this feature is for women; the language ("Gaining insight into your menstrual cycle," for example) is incredibly inclusive. Apple mirrors this language across all of its content, and in doing so is continuing its inclusivity without making a big deal out of it. You don't have to announce inclusivity for it to be noticed and impactful.
Find unbiased ways to address people. It's important to neutralize how you talk about and to people. Instead of using gendered pronouns or phrases like "he" or "she" use a neutral pronoun like "they." If you want to take it a step further, you can avoid pronouns altogether and use descriptive phrases, like "the participant," "the external stakeholder," or "the sales-clerk." And then there's the most neutral descriptor: to use someone's name.
When addressing a group of people, it's good practice to stay away from saying things like "ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls" or "you guys." Take a page out New York's Metropolitan Transportation Authority's book and try saying, "Attention, everyone …" This neutralizes the language and truly addresses all people. In more casual settings, you can say things such as "friends," "y' all," or "people" instead of "guys." Use of this language is habitual, and shifting your mindset will take time, but people will recognize the effort and appreciate it. This practice of neutralizing language should be mirrored in your company culture and in your personal life. The phrases "practice what you preach" and "practice makes perfect" apply here.
Be inclusive when collecting survey feedback to gain an accurate representation of your audience. If you want a true understanding of all your audiences and external stakeholders, you need to open up to genders that fall outside of cis-normative culture. Only using "Male," "Female," and "Other" will turn away potential participants who don't feel welcomed into a survey based on the limited options. This common oversight means you aren't getting an understanding of your entire audience. In surveys and screeners, offer the following options:
- Non-Binary/Third Gender
- Prefer Not to Answer
- Another Option We Haven’t Thought Of: ____________________(open this field to allow participants to include their own gender option. Thanks to Lynn Boyden for this suggestion.)
Most survey platforms don't allow you to change the word "Other" to something more inclusive, so it's incredibly important to make sure that field is open to allow participants to insert their desired gender option.
You can also allow participants to select their pronoun instead of gender, although that does assume that everyone knows what a pronoun is.
When collecting face-to-face feedback, make sure your participants feel comfortable with the moderator. People who belong to stigmatized audiences sometimes need additional assurance that they will be safe in new situations. When collecting face-to-face feedback, it is crucial to make sure that the participant doesn't feel uncomfortable, as this could lead to biased or inaccurate responses. For example, trans people may not feel comfortable talking about transition-related topics with a cisgender person, no matter how much of an ally they claim or want to be. This type of mindset applies to any stigmatized, underserved, or difficult to reach population.
Another example would be women who have survived domestic violence. They may not feel comfortable talking to someone who resembles their abuser. You should gather this information in a screener beforehand to make sure that when it comes time to conduct feedback sessions, you are prepared to speak with them in the most empathetic way possible. Ask screener questions like, "Our researcher identifies as male; would you feel comfortable speaking about this sensitive topic with a male-presenting person?" or "Our researcher is cisgender, would you be comfortable discussing transition-related topics with a cisgender person?"
As for many stigmatized populations, the internet has historically been a safe space for the LGBTQ+ community. If we all make these small but impactful changes in our organizations, we can make sure that the digital world continues to feel safe and welcoming to everyone. With this knowledge, we hope that organizations everywhere can make these necessary and important changes in language and practice, which will, in turn, encourage these changes in the "real world."