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Researching how we ask users about their ethnicity

Posted by: , Posted on: - Categories: Design, User Research

Since March 2021, the GOV.UK Design System contains a new pattern to ask users for equality information – based on data standards set by the Government Statistical Service (GSS). To meet these standards, this new pattern replaced the pattern to ask users for ethnic groups discussed in this blog post.

A person working on a laptop - the screen is showing a service where the user's ethnicity is being askedHere at the Race Disparity Unit, we produce Ethnicity facts and figures - a service which presents statistics from across government showing the different experiences of people from different ethnic backgrounds.

Ethnicity data is usually gathered by asking people what their ethnic group is, either in a survey or as part of a service.

As this is a sensitive question, we need to be clear about why we’re asking it and what the data will be used for as part of our usual good practice on collecting personal information from users. We also need to give users an easy way to tell us their ethnicity, for example a list of ethnic groups to choose from.

Finding out what services currently do

Our first step has been researching the different ways in which users are asked about their ethnicity. Here are 4 examples.

Find an apprenticeship

The Find an Apprenticeship service asks: “What is your ethnic group?”. It explains to users: “We need this information to make sure that we’re giving equal opportunities to all candidates”.

Eighteen ethnic groups are presented in a dropdown box, grouped by 5 broad category headings - which appear as grey text in many browsers.

A screengrab from the Find an apprenticeship service. A dropdown box called "What is your ethnic group?" is open. The options are: Prefer not to say, English/Welsh/Scottish/Northern Irish/British, Irish, Gypsy or Irish Traveller, Any other white background; White and Black Caribbean, White and Black African, White and Asian, Any other mixed/multiple ethnic background; Indian, Pakistani, Bangladeshi, Chinese, Any other Asian background' African, Caribbean, Any other Black/African/Caribbean background; Arab, Any other ethnic group

Nominate a UK person for an Honour

The Nominate a UK person for an Honour service asks: “Which ethnic group do you identify with?”

Users are given 2 dropdowns:

  •  ‘Ethnic Origin Group’, with 5 broad categories, plus ‘Prefer not to say’
  • ‘Ethnic Origin’, whose categories change depending on which option was selected in the previous box

Users are also asked which ethnic group the person they’re nominating for an honour identifies with.

A screengrab from the Nominate someone for an honour service. The question asks: Which ethnic group do you identify with? There are 2 boxes, one says Ethnic origin group and the other says Ethnic Origin. Both are selected to White. The boxes and options are replicated for a second question: Which ethnic group does your nominee identify with?

Universal Credit

The Universal Credit service asks: “Which of these best describes your ethnic group?”.

Users are given 6 radio button choices, plus ‘Prefer not to say’. When they press ‘Next’, they are asked the same question but with a more specific list of radio button choices, based on their previous answer.

A screengrab of the Universal Credit service asking 'Your ethnic group". The question is: Which of these best describes your ethnic group? The choices are: White, Mixed, Asian or Asian British, Black or Black British, Arab, Other, Prefer not to say

Report a crime

The Metropolitan Police's online Report a crime service ask users for their ‘Ethnic background’.

It gives users a single dropdown list, with options using a prefix such as ‘White-British’ and ‘Black-African’ to help users scan the list.

A screen grab from the Report a Crime service. A dropdown called Ethnic background is open giving the options: I don't know, I'd prefer not to say, White-British, White-Irish, White-Other, Black-Other, Black-African, Black-British, Black-Asian

These are just 4 services, but we can already see differences in:

  • the way the question is phrased
  • the interaction design of the form
  • the ethnic groups given
  • the explanations about why the data is being collected and how it will be used

What we’re doing next

We’re planning to do some user research, taking into account what we’ve learned from other services so far. We'll also look at the extensive work the Office for National Statistics has done on an ethnicity question for the 2021 Census.

Get in touch

We're continuing to research the ways that government services ask users about their ethnicity and would love your help.

If your service includes a question about ethnicity, or if you think it should, you can find me on the cross-government Slack channel, on Twitter @frankieroberto, or you can get in touch via email

You can also add a comment to the GOV.UK design system backlog in Github, where there’s an open issue on ethnicity.

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  1. Comment by Ben posted on

    great that you're looking into this, and so many different ways its being done at the moment. I look forward to seeing a consistent informed pattern coming out of it!

  2. Comment by Sam posted on

    These categorisations are confusing as white is not an ethnic group, it's a skin colour.

    Mixed in those categories are literal ethnic groups ie celts latin slave and geographic origins ie african or cultural origin ie arab or nationality ie indian, pakistani and chinese.

    Of course it needs to be easy for people to choose but it's misleading if one wants to be acurate and useless if one doesn't want to be acurate.

    How to describe a mediterranean ethnic group where a spanish (europe), a lebanese (asia), an italian (europe) and an algerian (africa) look so much alike.
    Apart from the name many mediterraneans are indistinguisable: how to avoid discrimination ?

    3 different questions, 1 objective and 2 subjective:
    "What is your ethnic group"
    "Which of these best describes your ethnic group”
    "Which ethnic group do you identify with”

    So are we being asked about skin colour, cultural origin, geographic origin ?

  3. Comment by Riha web posted on

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  4. Comment by Hally posted on

    Hi Frank,

    Following from Sam's comment above, I have a few questions below that would greatly appreciate your insight

    1) If colour is part of the subjective ethnicity definition, why isn't there yellow (for SE Asian as they have yellow undertone), or brown (i.e Indian etc)? Technically, most white people are not white, they have pinkish undertone hence why they go red in the sun. It is not just black and white per se
    2) Chicken and egg question, the reason why some people identify themselves as certain colour because the form / question asked them to put themselves in the box. Why don't we remove the colour and just have the region? i.e British Asian, SE Asian, Afro-Caribbean. Surely we can guess majority of people from say Afro-Caribbean have darker skin tone (in just you haven't been, there are white and asian (Indian and Chinese born) in Jamaica
    3) I can give studies and examples on the impact of language use to essentially 'divide' groups base on the colour of their skin, at the moment it is black and white. It is not constructive language use in discussion as the white group is more likely to be labelled racist due to the divisive language and what some people describe as 'institutional racism' - correct if these term still exist in the UK legislation and on forms like these. What would your team say if black and white are to be removed from the census

    Thank you,