In search of lost image: representing gender non-conforming people in UX

Author Date August 18, 2020 Read 8 min
Flipping the gender paradigm in UX deliverables can be quite costly and time-consuming. The mainstream world of stock photography leaves little room for representing “edge cases” such as…

Flipping the gender paradigm in UX deliverables can be quite costly and time-consuming.

The mainstream world of stock photography leaves little room for representing “edge cases” such as queer, gender non-conforming, or transgender people. Corporate decks are infamously full of white, cis-gender young urban professionals tapping on their sleek laptops in prize-winning architectural spaces.

We (UX researcher and designer in an experience design consultancy) wanted to provide an inclusive digital experience for our audiences by representing gender non-conforming people of color in our deliverables. As we searched for appropriate imagery, we discovered flipping this paradigm can be quite costly and time-consuming; the mainstream world of target users leaves little room for “edge cases” such as queer, gender non-conforming, or transgender people.

Our client, a large technology company, tasked us to create a book about the users of its global product to circulate internally across the organization.

The book would document the variety of our research deliverables (including Personas, Customer Journeys, Ecosystems) and familiarize their internal teams with their clients’ daily challenges. We were making a UX coffee table book: glossy, polished, and designed to capture attention.

The interviews and contextual inquiries comprising our qualitative research yielded rich insights. Through our data-gathering, we designed four Personas spanning the user community of our client’s product. When it was time to give them faces, bodies, and names, we wanted to stay true to our social responsibilities. Along with the rest of the country, we were becoming increasingly aware of the current administration’s targeting of transgender, non-binary, homosexual and queer communities and individuals: notably, the roll-back of Barack Obama’s Equal Access Rule [2016] (permitting homeless shelters to refuse transgender people) and rising rates of policing and violence in police custody. We are not so naïve to believe that a single photograph could cancel systemic injustice, but it was important for us to take a stand and proactively mitigate bias and discrimination by creating a gender non-conforming Persona.

There was also a not insignificant amount of looking in the mirror.

We recognized our own inherent biases: we caught ourselves nodding as our clients referred to users as “he,” most notably when discussing imaginary senior executives. Personas from previous projects that we had not designed ourselves had been ascribed gender based on the attributes their carried: some traditionally considered masculine (career-driven, dynamic, risk-taking), others feminine (team-player, reconciliatory, indecisive). By rethinking and rewriting our Personas as gender-agnostic, we endeavored to remove assumptions, shortcuts in thinking, and unconscious stereotyping. This path was not without challenges.

As a visual medium, photography makes a statement: “I am here. I am seen.”


The beginning seemed easy: at the data-synthesis stage, we were careful to use only gender-neutral pronouns when referring to our Personas. We gave them gender-neutral names to avoid perpetuating bias. When we reached the execution stage, we considered illustrations rather than photographs where the signifiers of gender could be absent even while the body is pictured.

Our client, however, had established visual style and guidelines which favor photographs over illustrations. Undaunted, we continued our mission. As a visual medium, photography makes a statement: “I am here. I am seen.” We aimed to weave that statement into the discussions of gender, sexuality, and race which rarely occur in corporate environments. Using gender non-conforming photographs, we wanted to encourage stakeholders and our own team to confront their discomfort and interrogate it.

We consequently searched the popular free stock image sites (UnsplashPexels) and a number of alternative sites (WOCinTechnappy) testing countless keyword combinations (e.g. non-gender + office or binary + professional), both candid and staged. We noticed a few key things:

  • The farther we strayed from white, cis-gendered, heteronormative imagery, the fewer search results.
  • Much of the imagery that does exist of gender non-conforming people falls in the “pride” category: people holding rainbow flags, walking in pride parades, kissing on courthouse steps.
  • Diverse stock imagery is predominately available for editorial license rather than business or commercial. It is a challenge to find photos of gender-diverse individuals in work settings or even doing everyday things. (Vice/Broadly’s Gender Spectrum Collection, a notable exception, only offers their library with licenses for editorial use).
  • Even when we did track down single images that suited our needs, finding additional pictures of the same person in a work environment (both alone and working alongside colleagues) proved nearly impossible.

…the higher up the corporate ladder we wanted to represent, the fewer usable results were returned.


Intersectional inclusiveness is even more of a challenge: finding imagery of a person of color in a professional context may be hard but finding imagery of gender non-conforming person of color is practically impossible. Besides, the higher up the corporate ladder we wanted to represent (senior manager, leader, public speaker), the fewer usable results were returned. Representations of people of color as business leaders were extremely rare, to say nothing of gender non-conforming people.

While queer photography has been a powerful, multiverse phenomenon in the art world (think of Nan Goldin’s Ballad of Sexual Dependency [1985], Bettina Rheims’ Modern Lovers [1990], or Zanele Muholi’s Faces and Phases [2010]) and the fashion world follows (see Amos Mac’s campaign for & Other Stories [2015] or transgender model Teddy Quinlivan as one of the newest faces of Chanel in 2019), the UX world does not deliver when more than one identity aspect is being called for.

Zanele Muholi — Anele ‘Anza’ Khaba, KwaThema Community Hall, Springs, Johannesburg, 2012 [link]


There is a common belief among the larger tech community that “technology is gender neutral,” but from a monetary point of view there is not enough of an economic incentive to increase availability of inclusive imagery for technology-focused presentations, posters, or other deliverables.

Unable to find a single image that suited our needs (a gender non-conforming person of color in an office setting, pictured alone, and with others) we turned to the commercial stock image banks.

We eventually found “our” Persona, but it felt more like luck than anything else. Even at the “big” stock houses like Getty and Reuters, finding this kind of imagery meant wading through page after page of editorial flag-waving imagery. Had we been trying to create more than one gender non-conforming Persona, we would have run out of luck, and time.

Let us not forget, these images were costly — far beyond individual budget, and probably unjustifiable for a smaller company or a start-up. We were grateful to have the support (moral and financial) of our primary stakeholder for that purchase, but we recognize that this is a rare opportunity. It might be unlikely that allowances are made in a typical budget for high quality image licensing, especially if the client has their own existing photo library.


Unfortunately, the problem goes far beyond budget. Even the keywords required to find diverse stock imagery made us cringe. Imagery of a woman with short hair and somewhat “masculine” clothing might be tagged as trans. “Our” Eli was described in tags as a man, a woman, a trans person and, broadly “gender-neutral.” Even the most gender ambiguous UX imagery was inundated with gendered language.

This reflected a larger issue: UX remains exclusionary due to the repetition of cultural stereotypes and assumptions of heterosexuality and heteronormativity. Despite a few important initiatives to make design more inclusive for trans and gender non-conforming users, the bulk of existing psychology and UX research has been carried out by, and for, communities that are not only Western, educated, affluent, industrialized, and white, but also heteronormative and gender-conforming.

This directly and heavily affects the identity politics of non cis-normative people and as a result, they are dealt a disservice by mainstream websites, apps, and online products. Even though Facebook, OkCupid and Tinder have adapted their registration forms to be more inclusive of trans and gender non-conforming people, onboarding forms, surveys, and applications still require binary gender choices and do not allow users to change or write their own. Platforms force users to re-create their entire account should their gender identity shift. Gendered pronouns are used in marketing campaigns and online content, and social platform users rarely have the choice whether to hide or display identifying information on their profiles. Despite shifting from human-machine interactions to user-centered design, the majority of UX research and design processes remain reductive, focusing on users performing series of tasks and devoid of the lived experience of our users.

Inclusion neither starts nor ends with a single photograph.


Fortunate to have the financial resources, a supportive team, and a stakeholder aligned with our mission of allyship, we were able to drive inclusivity in our materials. We realize, however, that many researchers and designers can be perplexed when facing stock-image banks catering to a monolithic demographic calibrated to a white, affluent, heteronormative middle-class.

Good UX is about easing daily struggles in order for all people to meet their needs in the community. Education. Healthcare. Increasing efficiency and satisfaction in our jobs. Connecting to our loved ones or meeting new people so that they can become loved one day. Transportation and navigating public space. Safety from systemic discrimination. While cis-normative people may take many technological affordances for granted, others may not, and as researchers and designers, we are the guardians and spokespersons for our end users. In order to best represent them, we must not assume their gender or alienate them through gender identification that is ascriptive, rather than representative.

Inclusion neither starts nor ends with a single photograph. There are ways to drive inclusion that go beyond visual representation. We want to continue this mission in every project by asking deeper questions such as:

  • How many gender non-conforming users have we interviewed for this project or others?
  • To what extent can and should sexual identity be a part of recruitment, and to what products/services?
  • How can we make sure that we allow the embodied experience of our user speak whether we are designing an architectural space or an app?

The Gender Spectrum Collection by Vice/Broadly: Great inclusive imagery for editorial use
Open Peeps: Free hand-drawn illustration library that’s fully customizable and really inclusive
Unsplash: Free stock imagery with a wide diversity of imagery and photographers
The Fluid Self on Adobe Stock: Embracing diverse and fluid identity
Tonl: Culturally diverse stock photos that represent the true world we live in

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