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Learn about trauma-informed design and how it applies to your service delivery. Read Chayn’s principles. Choose from 7 resources to continue your learning.

‘Trauma-informed design’ is a relatively new phrase within the voluntary sector. However, organisations have been applying its principles to physical settings for many years. This article is about applying those principles to online settings and digital services. It was written with help from Hera Hussain at Chayn. Chayn is a charity supporting survivors of gender-based violence.

What trauma-informed design is

Trauma-informed design is a way of thinking about how people’s trauma affects their experience of our services. It can help us design our services and working practices with more care for how they impact people.

Why trauma-informed design is relevant to the charity sector

If you work with vulnerable people then trauma informed design is relevant to you. If someone is poor, homeless, racialised or in a minority then there is a good chance they will have experienced trauma. It’s also more likely that they won't have strong support networks. Strong support helps people process, heal and move on from trauma. 

Two hallmarks of trauma informed design

Trauma-informed design has two hallmarks:

  1. Participatory approaches 
  2. Good design

This means:

  • People who’ve experienced trauma participate in the designing of services
  • Services are intentionally designed, following a structured process that surfaces people’s needs. They are useful and easy to understand.
  • Services are designed with these needs in mind in ways that minimise the risk of traumatisation through a service experience (it is impossible to remove this risk completely)
  • Services are tested for accessibility, and people’s experience of using them

But trauma-informed design has other hallmarks too.

People’s needs trump common best practice

Usually well-designed services follow some common best practices. However, trauma-informed design requires a willingness to put common practice aside if and when insight shows that people’s needs require an uncommon approach. 

For example, an online counselling service may offer clients digital calendar invites to their arranged sessions. This could be quick and easy for the user to accept and see in their diary. 

The service might also have a rule where the counsellor will not wait for clients to show up or may discontinue their support offer if they do not show up consistently. Just like they might with an in-person service.

A trauma-informed approach to this service would be different. It would:

  • Expect people to not show up for the video call. It would expect them to be nervous about reliving painful memories. It would send them warm and friendly reminders, and make it easy for them to reschedule without feeling shame. 
  • Use work plans for its counsellors that enable them to carry out other tasks, so time and money isn’t lost. This is how Chayn’s Bloom service is modelled.

A systematic approach to continuous testing and learning will help you notice when you need an uncommon approach. 

Less simplification of research insights

Many design approaches try to simplify research insights during the discovery phase. They try to reduce complexity in order to focus on the most visible and predictable needs. 

There’s nothing wrong with this approach. 

However, it carries a risk of over-simplifying the needs of people who’ve experienced trauma. This is because the differences in people’s needs, and the coping strategies they use, are more unpredictable. This makes them harder to design for.  

“There is a risk that people caricature trauma. Empathy can become overused and diluted to a level that it becomes unrecognisable. We need to be cautious with it. Compassion is needed most.” - Hera Hussain, Founder, Chayn

Involving people when they are ready

Not everyone who has experienced trauma will be ready or willing to participate in designing services. Participation is great but can trigger people’s trauma. 

Participatory approaches are generally not suitable for people who have experienced a traumatic event in the last 2-3 months. This is the most difficult recovery time for people and a time when they are most vulnerable to triggers and stress.

Having a plan for when triggers happen

It's impossible that your services won’t trigger someone at some point. Taking a trauma-informed approach means:

  • Thinking about triggers that can’t be avoided
  • Having a plan to mitigate the impact when these triggers happen
  • Implementing that plan. 
“In some practices people will already be applying trauma-informed design principles. Continuous learning and a systematic, methodical approach is really important in my experience.”  - Hera Hussain

8 trauma-informed design principles

Hera and colleagues at Chayn have developed eight trauma-informed design principles. They are relevant for any organisation working with vulnerable people. Understanding them will help you design digital and human-powered services in ways that work better for people with trauma.

1. Safety

We must make brave and bold choices that prioritise the physical and emotional safety of users. This is especially important if they have been denied safety at points in their lives. Safety by design should be the default, whether we are designing a platform interface or creating a service blueprint. 

2. Agency

Abuse, inequalities and oppression strip people of agency by removing their power and control of their narrative. By honouring the survivor’s wishes and how their story is told and used, we can create an affirming experience. This requires seeking informed consent from survivors at every step and providing information, community and material support. They should be critical to their own path to recovery, and the design of interventions for it. 

3. Equity

The world as it currently exists is not just. Systems are set up to work for dominant groups and do not do justice to people’s differing needs. As such, all of our interventions need to be designed with inclusion and accessibility in mind. Survivors are not a homogenous group and they won’t all benefit from the same types of support. We must consider how position, identity, vulnerabilities, experiences, knowledge and skills shape trauma and recovery, and create solutions that leave no one behind. 

4. Privacy

Privacy is a fundamental right. The stigma, shame and victim blaming associated with violence and trauma, increases the need for privacy. A survivor’s personal information including their trauma story - such as data, images, videos, or statements - must be kept secure and not disclosed, unless the survivor decides to do so. At the same time, we should remove obstacles that might stop them getting the help and information they need. 

5. Accountability

We must build accountability into the online systems that enable and facilitate harm, and the interventions addressing it. This includes being open and transparent about what is being done, how, and why. It includes creating and nourishing constructive feedback loops that trigger change. It also means openly communicating about what is working and what isn’t. To build trust, this communication should be clear and consistent. 

6. Plurality

There is no single-issue human, and to do justice to the complexity of human experiences, we need to suspend assumptions about what a user might want or need, and expect selection and confirmation bias. Harms manifest in different and disproportionate ways for people living at the intersection of multiple oppressions so these lived realities must be recognised. We should never assume a ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach. 

7. Sharing power

Too often, the power to make decisions is concentrated in the hands of a few. Instead, power must be distributed more widely among those individuals and communities impacted the most by violence and trauma. Interventions should be co-designed and co-created with survivors. 

8. Hope

Abuse can leave us feeling hopeless. Users do not need harsh words and sad pictures that remind them of their struggles or trigger abusive experiences. Harsh words and sad pictures tend to be used for sensationalism rather than truth. They are used to impact an audience rather than the survivor themselves.

Interventions should be designed to be an oasis for users. This means being empathetic, warm and soothing. Interventions should motivate people to ask for and embrace the help on offer. They should validate their experience, facilitate collaborative solution-seeking and offer hope for the future. 

Learn more about trauma-informed design

This article has been an introduction. To learn more, choose one of these:

Watch

  1. Trauma and the nervous system - excellent 8 minute animated video explaining how trauma and chronic stress affects our nervous system and how those effects impact our health and well-being. 
  2. Beyond trauma - 6 minute video introduction to what trauma is, how it manifests and how to design for it - by Against Violence and Abuse (AVA)
  3. Secondary trauma - 6 minute video about secondary trauma and how it can impact you as a practitioner when working digitally - by AVA

Read

  1. Trauma-informed design: understanding trauma and healing - blog on designing interfaces, narratives and services that uplift people - by Hera Hussain, Chayn
  2. Trauma-informed design - more guidance on research and design - by Jane Murison of Reason Digital
  3. To build gentler technology, practice trauma-informed design - six principles, impact of bad design on people’s brains, detailed tips on design in a range of digital settings - by Eva Decker

Listen

  1. Trauma-informed design and participatory design - 50 minute podcast with Sarah Fathallah, social designer. Includes at 14:18: advice on how to bring trauma-informed design into your own work; and at 27:50: the importance of participatory design in trauma-informed design.

Follow on Twitter

  1. Alba Villamil
  2. Rachael Dietkus (runs Social Workers Who Design)
  3. Sarah Fathallah
  4. Matt Bernius
  5. Karen Treisman

Image by Bradley Huchteman, licensed under Creative Commons 2.0

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