To tick the box or not to tick the box

Brighton Council’s latest initiative to be more inclusive has provoked some really unimpressive knees to jerk all over the place. The comments at the end of these two tabloid articles are perfect examples –

Elsewhere on the web, it has been posted that Brighton will not be losing the honorific, as has been reported, merely allowing the form to be more flexible so it can be completed as people see fit. In other words, you can be Mr, or Mrs, or Dr, or Rev, or Maj, etc. As with most “political correctness gone mad” stories, the facts have been over-exaggerated and a minority, who had nothing to do with the governmental decision, persecuted again.

However, this non-story made me think about the nature of form-filling for those of us who don’t conform. And, let’s face it, most of us don’t conform when it comes to fitting our life into a box. No form can ever truly capture the diversity of human experience. Most people you speak to “hate filling in forms”. I suspect that this is due, in part, to the lack of individuality that a form allows. They are blunt, one-size-fits-all tools required by the Information Age. There is almost always a box or question that one cannot answer satisfactorily and this sense of dissatisfaction colours our view of the form as being an unrepresentative and unreliable snapshot of us.

Having been a database administrator for more years than is healthy, I know how hard it is to design a form that elicits the correct information from people. It is a fact that the majority of people do not complete application forms correctly (ie. as the designer intended), which is why tick boxes and multiple choice questions are used. I also know how hard it is to address correspondence correctly, including an honorific in order not to be seen as rude, when an incomplete form does not tell you whether “Sam Smith” is male or female. Brighton Council should therefore be applauded for not putting the requirements of their database above the desire to be inclusive. Leaving a field open on a form makes it more likely to: a) not be filled in; or, b) filled in with the wrong information.

The problem that Brighton Council is trying to address goes to the heart of one of my earlier posts: our obsession with dividing society into male or female. Forms ask this question all the time and I’m not sure why. Why does my bank, or electricity company, or social network, need to know this? I suspect that it has to do with the almighty dollar. Marketing demographics tell us that more women than men use social networking, men flick channels on the television more often than women, women are attracted to adverts that show a picture that evokes an emotion, etc. It seems to be an all too easy way to split us up to sell us stuff. I don’t know about you, but I conform to very few of the findings of marketing data so, when it comes to selling me stuff, the joke is on the people who commission this data!

It is too easy to put M/F on a form. It has become a standard. Form designers don’t even think about why they are including it any more. If nothing else, at least Brighton Council are thinking about it.

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