Trauma-Informed Research & Design by Dr. Bre Gentile

Trauma-Informed Research & Design by Dr. Bre Gentile

Designwhine Issue 10 Trauma Informed Design

UX Designers are not just obligated to design interfaces to bring joy, but also avoid pain

What is Trauma?

There are several definitions of the word trauma. For this article and in the context of research and design, trauma is any adverse experience where trust was broken. The trauma that I focus on is largely around the ten adverse childhood experiences (ACEs): sexual abuse, emotional abuse, emotional neglect, physical abuse, physical neglect, incarcerated family member, divorce, mental illness, mother treated violently, or substance abuse. In each of those experiences, trust is broken and without support those experiences can be left unexamined and lead to several negative health outcomes like heart disease, cancer, suicide, and depression.

Trauma has different levels of severity and pervasiveness. For example, we have all experienced a level of trauma with the pandemic. For some it was very traumatic, for others it was jarring and impactful. In user experience we have a particular insight into the trauma some people experienced. Some of us are asked to hold life experiences through surveys and interviews and expected to turn those into actionable insights the design team can prototype.

What does it mean to be trauma-informed?

Being trauma-informed means you have a working knowledge of trauma and you have a way of operationalizing tenants of trauma into concrete items. For example, you would be considered a trauma-informed UX researcher if you understood the trauma some have around finances, you could operationalize fear of being poor into concrete items like low-balance reminders, automatic transfers to savings, autopings to users that they have $100 more in their savings than they did 30 days ago. Your knowledge informs your insights. While organizations and startups are quick to say they’re user-centric or human-centered, very few of their researchers and designers have more than a bachelor’s level understanding of psychology. The truth is to be truly user-centric, human-centered, or trauma-informed you need to have at least a bachelor’s degree in psychology. Why? Because you have to be trained to listen, observe, and hold space. An in-depth interview is an opportunity to listen, observe, and hold space but without being trauma-informed we have no way of knowing that opportunity existed. Without being willing to sit with users and listen to them, observe them, and hold space for them we’re getting surface level sample of who they really are and what the problem really is.

Being trauma-informed oftentimes requires teams to do a different type of professional development. Yes we want our UX teams to be proficient in methodologies, in platforms like Figma, etc. However, to truly repair a rupture, we have to understand the rupture and what that means so we can not only repair it but make it the best experience they’ve had yet. For example, when e-commerce makes stylish clothes inaccessible to the middle class they are sending a message that the middle class is not worthy of delivering a solution allowing them to easily purchase stylish clothes online. Perhaps the middle class is left thinking “if only we had more money, then they would invest in solutions for us.” Before we make a solution to solve that problem, we need to frame it as a rupture and become intensely curious. What did it mean to not be able to buy clothes online? What were the problems created by not having affordable online shopping? What was it like not having a solution? Now that we see the rupture we can start to ask about the repair. What would an accessible tech solution look like? What would it mean to be able to buy clothes online? What would make this solution a burden?

By the time you go to design your prototype you have an acute understanding of what it felt like to exist in the problem space, you’ve taken that understanding and applied knowledge you acquired during your research to propose a repair. (i.e. stylish clothes not being accessible to the middle-class)

Why is being trauma-informed so important?

We have an obligation as UX researchers and designers to create products and services that bring joy and delight. I’d like to add to that obligation – we are also obligated to create to avoid pain. If we can agree that part of living is suffering, then we need to focus on researching and designing products and services that avoid pain. What does this look like? Here’s an example. I’m trying to learn a new language using Duolingo. I was on a roll and logged in 10 days in a row but missed a day because I was travelling. I’m super bummed about missing a day, I’m starting to get down on myself that I was on a roll and now I’m not, and now I’m even starting to doubt that I can learn a new language. I log onto the app and see that even though I missed a day, Duolingo understands and keeps my streak alive! I was given a redo. Before using the app I was experiencing suffering – pained by negative self-talk and self-doubt. They designed a feature knowing that ending a streak is tough. That feature made me tell my colleagues, it led me to write a review, it kept me engaged and I continued to use the app.

Being trauma-informed is important because it gets at the real reason people use our products and services: we solved a problem. Yes, the joyful and delightful features keep our products and services sticky, but the reason people engage in the first place and stay engaged is because of the many times your product or service alleviated pain.

In 2020 I lost my grandfather who was like my father to COVID. I wanted to look at the news but I didn’t want to see the word COVID for many months after. I thought if I deselected a few industries where I knew COVID would show up like politics, science, medicine – that I would be able to browse the news. Unfortunately as I browsed fashion news there was an article on COVID, even as I browsed sports headlines there was mention of COVID. At that point my news app failed me. Had I been able to start my app with an opportunity to choose topics that would bring me joy or select topics that I’d like to avoid, that would have been a trauma-informed product. This is one of many apps that miss the mark and inadvertently retrigger users.

How do we become more trauma-informed?

Most job descriptions of UX roles are doing a better job at listing psychology as a domain of study. You may still find your team lacks sufficient training in listening, observing, and holding space. Here are 3 ways to boost your team’s emotional intelligence and showcase your user-centeredness:

  1. Begin hiring people with stronger psychology backgrounds. Many psychologists are curious about making the jump to tech. Use job descriptions and hiring ads to reach more psychologists or folks with psychology degrees.
  2. Engage in a team mindfulness practice. When you slow your team down to really be with their own thoughts, energy, and attitudes they can better hold space for users when the time comes.
  3. Learn from experts like Indi Young, Rachael Dietkus, myself and other experts dedicated to disrupting how research and design are done with a single goal: research and design for the users. We all have free offerings and paid opportunities to partner with us.

Putting it all together

Shifting to trauma-informed research and design is an adoption of a perspective. It takes a change of thinking and adopting processes that take time and happen over time. You can certainly put it in words but if someone was to audit your human-centernedness or your use-centricness, how would you fair? The goal is that over time you would improve by increasing user involvement in design or by holding in-depth interviews asking only one question. It’s quite a lot to take in as an individual yet alone to adopt as a leader and train your team in. Remember, this is an adoption of perspective.

Here are a few things you can do to get started:

Start by familiarizing yourself with work in trauma-informed design, social workers in design, and the like. Follow passionate experts doing this work like Rachael Dietkus, George Aye, Vivianne Castillo and myself. Contract with consultancies doing this work like: Dr. G’s Lab, Greater Good Studio, and Social Workers Who Design.

When you’re ready to learn more and want support for yourself and/or your team, reach out to the aforementioned. The best part about this work is its typically customizable and you usually work directly with the founder or principal researcher/designer.

This article was last updated on November 27, 2023; Originally published on May 5, 2022

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