Tech ethics | Think Pieces

Trauma informed design

Why design is different for charities.

By Jane Murison · October 21, 2021

Part 1 of 3 in our trauma informed design series.

Designing experiences for charities and non-profit organisations has a lot in common with designing experiences for anything, but there are aspects of our work that are significantly different to the ‘standard’ (if there is such a thing).

The first aspect is the people we are reaching – people who use charities – some of whom may have experienced grief, serious illness, combat, or abuse. If we’re asking them to tell us about those experiences, we risk re-traumatising them or exacerbating their challenges. Since we work with Cruse Bereavement, Refuge, Hospice UK, and Blind Veterans UK, this is a very real and regular challenge for us at Reason Digital. It would be less of an issue if you’re trying to sell a washing machine, but since we’re building digital solutions directly related to those experiences, we have an enhanced responsibility to get this right.

The good news is that if we honour this responsibility and approach our research, design and development with deep consideration, we’re going to do better work as a result. In the third sector, it can sometimes feel like we’re ‘behind’ in terms of innovation and digital development methods – but this is where we have a unique opportunity to innovate and improve on the practices of our better-funded buddies in the commercial world.

two people talking at a desk
Two women talking to each other, one sits in a wheelchair, the other sits holding a piece of paper

Another bonus for us is we have an improved ability to access the right research participants. People are mostly well-disposed to the idea of contributing their time to a charity, especially if they or a family member have benefitted from their services, and so will often agree to participate in research and design. 

One watch-out with this is that whilst it’s easier to recruit participants from the most engaged parts of your audience (for instance, active volunteers  or long-term beneficiaries), it’s important to consider how your recruitment maps to the aims of your project. You might be rejuvenating your website with the aim of attracting new supporters and donations. If your user research is mostly with easy-to-recruit long-term volunteers, you will form a biased view of user needs. If it’s a real struggle to access these less available groups, it’s worth shelling out to recruit some participants via a market research participant recruitment agency.

What are our basic responsibilities?

There are always risks to carefully consider when researching, codesigning, and testing prototypes with users – and that’s why we adhere to the Social Research Association’s Ethics Guidance, paying particular attention to the section on ‘Avoiding harm’. 

We strongly recommend having a read. Their guidance is practical and easy to follow, and is applicable to any research with participants. It covers the basics of:

  • Informed consent (ensure participants understand their rights and give consent, knowing it can be withdrawn at any time)
  • Protect anonymity and data
  • Avoid harm (to participants or ourselves)
  • Avoid questionable research practices (don’t falsify data, make stuff up, steal stuff, or obfuscate the limitations of the study)
  • Be ethical (don’t pry into stuff you don’t need to, carry out unjustifiable tasks/exercises – fundamentally, don’t be a dick)

However, since our target audience might be at even greater risk of experiencing emotional distress, we go beyond this; to avoid harm and behave ethically.

man in camouflage coat sits with his head in his hands
two women sat across a table in masks talking

How do you do trauma informed design?

Trauma-informed approaches are hardly new in the domain of social work, and our charity partners bring along a wealth of experience with this. However, applying these concepts into digital research and design is a relatively new field, although there are some fantastic pioneers, as can be seen in the work of Chayn and Sarah Fathallah

In a nutshell, to ‘do’ Trauma-Informed Design means designing for people in a way that recognises the trauma they have experienced, seeking to avoid exacerbating this trauma in the process of discovery and design, and creating solutions which could make a positive impact to their recovery.

There are practical things to do but it starts with always keeping trauma in mind

In practice this means changing the record on the way we approach some boring-but-important parts of research and design, like how we deal with consent forms and recordings. The moment where we first introduce ourselves to research participants sets the tone on our working relationship with them, and thankfully, doing a better job of it also encourages us to think more creatively and makes it more enjoyable too.

Equalising the power balance

Normally in research, we hold all the cards and might appear aloof and unresponsive, even if we’re not ‘getting good stuff’ from a participant. Some of this is to do with ‘good science’ (wanting to have a consistent, repeatable process; having professional-looking data to show to our bosses; and looking like we know what we’re doing), but we could be undermining the trust we’re trying to build, and actually screwing up our results in the process. 

First of all – we should show participants all the cards: what we’re there to do, what we’re trying to find out about/design, how long the whole project’s going on for, and what we can’t or won’t do. 

Change your attitude and it’ll change the research – participants need to be partners not ‘material’ or a ‘sample’. We need to think about how we can let a participant into the driving seat during research. Sometimes this is by empowering them with the right tools and methods to express themselves fully, but it might also mean that they get to rip up our carefully-planned-out structure and take the conversation or workshop off in a new direction. And that’s ok.

blackboard with a set of scales drawn in chalk

Give yourself enough time

With limited resources, it’s tempting to shove in a load of research sessions into a day. If we do that, the corners we cut are more likely to be the space that allows our participants to manage their emotions, to suggest new avenues of inquiry we hadn’t considered, and to ask important questions about how they will be treated during the work. 

It’s better to assume things might take longer than planned, and make space between sessions in case they overrun. This has the additional benefit of us being able to decompress between sessions too – especially important for our own wellbeing if we’re covering sensitive topics.

Creating a bill of rights

Most research will involve a bit of talking at the start to set expectations about what will happen during the session, and to gain consent. 

This is an opportunity to reiterate people’s rights and really ensure they’re fully informed about their consent. It needs to be engaging, conversational, and interactive. There’s a chance here to co-create with a participant, and to set the way the rest of the session could run – rather than promising to ‘treat you fairly’, we can ask the question ‘what will help you to feel safe while we discuss this?’, ‘how do you want to be kept informed about our work?’. Don’t make promises you can’t keep, but be flexible about how you approach this.

two people sat across a table from each other talking, one of them has a laptop

Choosing the right methods

Given an understanding that both you and your participants bring expertise to a research/design session (you with methods and participants with their life experiences), you need to find a method that allows a participant’s expertise to bloom.

While task-based usability research will give you specific and useful understanding of how well a thing can be performed, its structure can get in the way of a participant’s expertise. You don’t know if the task you set is what they are motivated to do, or what they would naturally do. You might even be asking a participant to do something that causes stress, or reminds them of previous trauma.

This research has its place but earlier, more creative methods will be far more empowering. Co-creating can help people find new ways to express their experience and if we provide visual mapping tools, icons/stickers and formats, this might reduce peoples’ reticence to draw pictures (which lots of people find intimidating).

Ending positively

There is a risk that we ask participants to spend time discussing really tough subjects and then leave them in that frame of mind. To conclude a research session it makes sense to help a participant decompress and to move back into a positive headspace. 

We can do that in a couple of ways: 

  • by asking specifically about future plans, aspirations, what has been the biggest help, or ‘the best thing about their current situation’
  • by using warm-down tasks, like asking them to review what we’ve done in the session, check recordings, or their plans for the rest of the day

There’s no harm in doing both.

Why bother?

While our audiences have a greater chance of having experienced trauma, it benefits everybody to approach research in this way. Trauma-informed practices are more ethical practices: quite simply, it’s the right thing to do.

Who would you rather spend time with? A person who is vague about the plan, asks you a load of questions directly from their notes, and doesn’t always react to your answers, or someone who treats you with respect, breaks down clearly what’s happening, and responds with empathy to what you say? 

square letters that spell out the word Moral, above a compass

Also, since trauma-informed practices focus on empowering and co-creating with participants, they will build better experiences which are more likely to meet real needs and create positive outcomes for their users. It’s a no-brainer.

Stay tuned for part two where Jane delves into battling bias in research.