Offending People at Your Website

Yesterday Rosie expressed shock when, upon mouseover, she saw that a photograph on a website had been labeled “African-American-businesswoman1.” The image in question had been placed so badly that my shock over the margins and stuff kept me from asking her what part she found offensive: calling a female businessperson a businesswoman? feeling the need to identify her ethnicity? numbering her?

There were several possibilities. So it is with the photograph on this blog post. Some visitors might be offended at seeing a holiday mentioned here which is not celebrated by everyone, and which is for many people a religious observance. Others might be offended by the wine — either because they disapprove of alcohol or because they don’t feel it should be associated with Christmas. What’s more, I titled this picture “Xmas-wine,” and I know that there are people who, being shaky on history, are offended by the abbreviation “Xmas.”

One possible response to this issue is that these people should get a life. I don’t think that’s the best response. Here’s why:

  • You’re not there when people see your website. For all we know, the person who placed the photo of the African American businesswoman may herself be an African-American businesswoman, and that may be her preferred term. If she explained that to us, we wouldn’t be offended by it. Without that additional input, your visitors can’t take these details into account.
  • You don’t want to alienate a segment of your target population. A client who sells tax software was advised by his designer that there should be pictures of bikini-clad models on his website. While some visitors might find that appealing, chances are good that a large number of people who buy tax software will be offended by this approach, so why take the chance?
  • You’re probably not making a point. If you’re making a point of some kind and you’re prepared to offend people in order to do so, more power to you. Using the term “businessman” or “businesswoman” probably isn’t a matter of principle for you, though, so –again — why take the chance? Many of the things people may find offensive at a website are small things, easily changed.

If you decide to take our advice and avoid any possibility of offense at your site, how can you identify possible problems?

  • Check for common issues. Things that smack of sexism, racism, or belittling of other groups of people for their age, abilities, or other characteristics are high on the list of possible offenders. It’s the 21st century, so you can probably recognize these possible problems. Religion and politics are other areas of potential offense; if your site isn’t about either of these subjects, consider avoiding them.
  • Test your content. Testing your content is a good idea anyway. Try to include among your testers some touchy people. Pay attention to what they say, even if you think it’s silly or oversensitive.
  • Check all the elements of your site. Rosie was bothered by the alt attribute of an image, something many people never see. There used to be a whole website devoted to unfortunate domain names — make sure yours couldn’t be included there. There may be lots of parts of your website that you don’t think of as public which a visitor might see.

When you give your site its end of the year check up, examine it for potentially offensive content. It’s just not worth taking the chance.







Leave a Reply