Idea in Brief

  • Trauma-informed approach to design allows to consider how traumatic experiences affect users and find inclusive solutions that will meet their needs.
  • By following specific principles, it is possible to unlock the transformative power that design might have for human beings.
  • Above all it is necessary to prioritize user safety and prevent re-traumatization by conducting an in-depth research of users’ fears and needs.

Chayn is a survivor-led community, which means we practise trauma-informed design and prioritise trust and safety over aesthetic or simplicity. Often, this also means we have to go the long way to embrace the complexity that is commonly flattened in favour of post-it sized personas and cardboard empathy maps. Since 2013, many hundreds of hours of research, creating, testing, learning, unlearning and experimenting have gone into how Chayn’s design supports survivors of abuse — across different types of needs, languages, cultures and political landscapes.

Understanding trauma

Trauma is an emotional response to one or many terrible events that involves a risk of harm or danger to ourselves or others. The threat can be a threat to our life, such as assault; sense of self (as in emotional abuse); or our personal identities, like the everyday experiences of racism. Behaviours and norms that destroy, invalidate or erase our sense of identity, our wellbeing and sense of self can cause trauma.

These scars that communities inherit manifest in dangerous, confusing and damaging ways. For instance, in the United States Native Americans experience PTSD more than twice as often as the general population. The model below by Peter Menzies (Clinical Head of Aboriginal Services Centre for Addiction and Mental Health Toronto) does a great job of thinking about homelessness and its connection to intergenerational trauma.



Where there is trauma, there is room for healing — but the route to heal will look different for everyone. Especially if trauma is continued and chronic, meaning someone has been made to feel unsafe within themselves and in the worldOur foundations of control, entitlement, agency, love and care are affected or compromised by sustained abuse.

An evolving set of trauma-informed design principles

A literature review of trauma-informed practices will reveal many values but mostly focus on ensuring user safety and preventing re-traumatisation. In a physical setting, this would mean thinking about the reception space of a clinic or else removing triggering sounds, objects and smells from a treatment area.

  1. Trustworthy: Build trust with transparent, clear and consistent communication and design. People who experience trauma have often lived through internal and external unpredictability. Good, intentional user interface builds credibility in the first interactions — but it’s the service itself that will do the rest. One way to build trust is to be consistent and predictable.
  2. Plurality: To do justice to the complexity in human experiences, we need to suspend assumptions about what a user might want or need and thus account for selection and confirmation bias. A refugee might not be able to speak English but may be able to competently converse in “texting” English.
  3. Agency: Abuse, inequalities and oppression strip people of agency. We must always make sure we do not use tactics of oppression to ensure we can redistribute power and agency by providing information, community and/or material support.Users and survivors of abuse should be a critical component to their own path to wellbeing, not silenced.
  4. Open and accountable: For Chayn, this also means practising the values of openness and collaboration with our partners, banishing the spectacle of perfection performance and embracing the risk of failure that comes with holding uncertainty as dear as knowledge.
  5. Solidarity: There is no single-issue human, therefore all of our interventions need to be designed with that in mind. Even if our services focus on one aspect, we need to signpost to other needs to provide the best relief.
  6. Empathy: Abuse can leave us feeling like no one cares about us and, at times, that we don’t even care about ourselves. Empathetic, warm, soothing and minimally-designed interfaces and narrative should feel like a virtual hug, motivating people to both ask for and embrace the help we can offer. It should validate their experience as we seek out collaborative solutions.
  7. Friction and privacy: We should remove unnecessary obstacles from users getting to the information and help they require, although some friction is necessary to protect user data and personal rights.
  8. Hope: People who come to our services are often in positions of pain or of trauma. They do not need to be reminded of their own struggles, experiences or difficulties with harsh words and sad pictures — many of which are facsimiles of an abusive experience, organised in sensationalism rather than truth, or are shocking for the benefit of an audience rather than the survivor themselves. It’s scary and brave to reach out for help:our virtual spaces need to feel like an oasis for users, not another place of stress, Othering or misunderstanding.