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When User Needs Conflict

A sign with a small stick figure man and woman points to a restroom.

Say that you’re an owner of a restaurant. A non-binary staff member asks that the two, traditionally gendered restrooms with stalls be made gender neutral, so anyone can use them. Wanting your staff member to feel comfortable, you make the suggested change, but almost immediately a large part of your customer base raises complaints. What should you do?

To set up this problem, let’s make a few assumptions:

  1. There is no budget to add a third, gender neutral/family restroom stall or undergo other renovations, there’s just enough budget to change signage.

  2. The non-binary person frequently faces harassment in either gendered restroom, and they have experienced less harassment in gender-neutral restrooms.

  3. It’s legitimate to be non-binary (without this assumption, the core ethical conflict I want to talk about doesn’t get off the ground).

  4. The complaining customers feel deeply uncomfortable with the gender-neutral restrooms and do not feel safe using them.

  5. Some of the complaining customers have legitimate reasons to oppose the gender-neutral restrooms, because the stall doors have small cracks in them that make modesty and privacy difficult (likewise, without this assumption, the core ethical conflict won’t get off the ground).

There are other assumptions we could add in to fully flesh out the case, but the basic form of the problem I want to set up is this:

  • Group A is a small, marginalized group that frequently faces harassment and requests certain design solutions to feel more included and avoid harassment.

  • Group B is larger and not part of Group A, and Group B strongly objects to some design solutions that make Group A feel more included, with at least some good reasons to object.

  • Central Question: How do you resolve a conflict between user Group A and user Group B, when you can’t reach a solution that makes both happy?

The Utilitarian Approach

One way to solve this case would be to assign numbers to the relative pain or pleasure felt by each member of each group affected by the decision, then add everything up to determine which decision produces the most total user happiness. This is the basic utilitarian way of thinking.

To see how this applies to our original case, assume that there are 2 gender non-conforming people who visit or work at the restaurant who prefer gender-neutral restrooms and that there are 20 regular patrons who have complained about the signage.

Gendered Restrooms: On average, let’s say that the 2 gender-nonconforming individuals rate the experience of using the gendered restrooms at a 2/10. The 20 regular patrons rate it on average at a 9/10.

20 x .9 + 2 x .2 = 18.4 total user happiness.

Gender Neutral Restrooms: On average, let’s say that the 2 gender-nonconforming individuals rate the experience of using the gender neutral restrooms at an 8/10. The 20 regular patrons rate it on average at a 5/10.

20 x .5 + 2 x .8 = 11.6 total user happiness.

With these estimates, it’s clear that it will increase overall customer happiness to return to the gendered restroom signage. If the utilitarian way of thinking is right, then the owner should reinstate the gendered restrooms. But, is that the right way to think about this case?

Moving Beyond Metrics

From a business revenue standpoint, it might make the most sense, but from an ethical standpoint, the picture is much more complicated. There is a whole host of questions not touched by the utilitarian way of thinking, including:

  • What duties does the restaurant owner have to staff members? To customers?

  • How much do bigoted attitudes influence the reasons given by each complaining customer?

  • What broader message does the restaurant owner’s decision send to staff members, restaurant patrons, and community members?

  • How do we weigh privacy concerns vs. safety concerns?

These are questions that can’t easily be answered with metrics or a calculus, but they are vital to understanding the human and ethical import of the restaurant owner’s decision. This doesn’t mean that the metrics don’t matter. It means that to make sense of the metrics and what to do with them, we need to understand the human factors that make up the background context.

I’m afraid I’m not going to solve the restauranteur’s dilemma for you today, but the point of this exercise is to illustrate the following ideas:

  • While it’s good to make users happy and improve metrics that track valuable goals, there is more to creating ethical designs than just maximizing enjoyment for the most users.

  • Sometimes there will be genuine conflicts between user needs that cannot be reconciled within budget and time constraints.

  • How we build things in the first place matters – if the restaurant had been built with a third, family restroom or stalls that provided total privacy, this case would look very different.

When user needs conflict, we’ll have to do the best we can to resolve those conflicts creatively, but we should also think towards how we can build a better world to avoid those conflicts in the first place.

Photo Credit: Alexandra Tran

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