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The Importance of Trauma-Informed Design in Customer Experience

Trauma-Informed Design considers the impact of trauma & how it shapes individuals' engagement with a service, product, or experience.

Published on
July 11, 2023
Lauren Terry, Cindy Chang and Annie Martin

Designing experiences and services cannot be approached with a one-size-fits-all mentality. The unique needs, preferences, and experiences of your customers greatly influence their interaction with services and your organisation. However, what happens when your customers have gone through traumatic experiences?

Trauma refers to deeply distressing or disturbing events that overwhelm a person's ability to cope and significantly affect their emotional, psychological, and physical well-being. Traumatic experiences can vary widely, ranging from accidents to violence, emergencies, abuse, or loss. Often, individuals who have experienced trauma exhibit symptoms that hinder their capacity, capability, and desire to engage with the world around them.

This is where Trauma-Informed Design comes in.

Trauma-Informed Design is a framework that considers and acknowledges the impact of trauma on individuals and how it shapes their perceptions and engagement with a service, product, or experience. Trauma-Informed Design aims to avoid exacerbating this trauma and instead supports individuals on their recovery journey by taking an accessible, inclusive and empowering approach to design and delivery. 

Why a Trauma-Informed Approach Matters for Your Organisation

Despite its critical importance, many government and private organisations can overlook the significance of adopting a Trauma-Informed approach. They often fail to recognise the profound impact their decisions can have on people's emotional and psycho-social well-being. This oversight stems from teams becoming too absorbed in their specific features, products, or services in isolation without considering the bigger picture. The consequence is a 'black hole' that individuals fall into, where trauma is unintentionally intensified, and opportunities to positively contribute to their recovery are missed.

Regardless of the industry your organisation operates in, highly emotionally-charged experiences, such as those listed below, necessitate a different approach to customer engagement, co-design, and experience design, particularly when dealing with a vulnerable customer group:

  • Understanding and education: e.g. prevention and awareness
  • Accessing support, e.g. accessing support services, treatment and care 
  • Triaging, e.g. escalation or dispute pathways
  • Evaluation and readjustment, e.g. a claims submission and evaluation
  • Ongoing support and recovery, e.g., transition to or out of work, return to health.

Embracing a Trauma-Informed Design approach is essential for your organisation to ensure it addresses the unique needs of individuals who have experienced trauma in these contexts. By doing so, you can contribute to their healing and provide the support they require for a positive recovery journey.

Taking a Principle-led approach to Trauma-Informed Design

Drawing upon our vast experience in this field, we have developed a dynamic set of principles that shape our work and design, and serve as a valuable checklist for evaluating your organisation's experiences, services, and support. These principles enable you to determine whether a reevaluation of your approach is necessary:

  1. Apply empathy for different situational, psychological and emotional contexts
  2. Aim to be seamless and frictionless to remove cognitive load
  3. Be open and accountable to build a sense of safety and trust 
  4. Gain consent to give back choice and agency
  5. Distribute power and decision-making to those impacted
  6. Facilitate peer-to-peer connections and support to build a sense of community and belonging
  7. Maintain information privacy and security
  8. Enable accessibility through multiple channels to allow for changing needs and preferences
  9. Consider the individuals' overall goals in personalisation 
  10. Take a safety-first approach for staff who work with traumatised individuals.

By adhering to these principles, you can proactively assess your organisation's current practices and identify areas that require refinement or a complete shift in approach. This enables you to align your work with the evolving needs and experiences of individuals impacted by trauma, fostering a more supportive and empowering environment.

A Case Study: Using Co-design in Defence’s Response to Australia’s Royal Commission into Defence and Veteran Suicides

The Royal Commission into Defence and Veteran Suicide was established in 2021 to investigate and address the devastatingly high rates of Defence and Veteran suicides in Australia. In response to five of the Commission’s recommendations outlined in its August 2022 interim report, The Customer Experience Company worked with the Department of Defence and Department of Veterans’ Affairs (DVA) to co-design the experience of accessing personal information from the Departments with current serving ADF members, ex-serving members, their families and representatives.

Ensuring the co-design process was Trauma-Informed meant acknowledging the prevalence of trauma in this environment and its impact on individuals’ perspectives, behaviours, experiences and needs. The co-design workshops we held fostered safe spaces for people to be vulnerable, often sharing their trauma, grief, and pain. We built trust with research participants and connected on a personal level, also ensuring our process allowed for individuals to connect with each other as well. The co-design process was inclusive and empowering for members, ex-serving members, their families and representatives, and we recognised the unique needs and perspectives of these individuals and their families in providing their voices through the design process.

We were committed to making our final designs Trauma-Responsive. Our holistic approach, which considered the entire experience rather than isolated aspects, led to the Department of Defence creating and implementing an entirely new business directorate to handle personal information requests. This new unit would provide a simple, streamlined, and easy single point of access for requesting personal information. 

We ensured that the new experience was transparent, empathetic, and empowering by:

  • Enabling warm and simplistic transfers within the new directorate handling information access so participants don’t have to repeat information.
  • Making communications materials clear and simple for people of varying capacities to consume information. 
  • Providing various channels to access information to give individuals a choice and enable accessibility in how they engage with the new business directorate.

Through our inclusive and empowering design process, the experience of those seeking personal information from the Department of Defence and DVA has transformed to truly meet the needs of its users, and we are proud to have played a part in this transformational change.

A Case Study: Helping An Australian Funeral Services Provider to better support families through the end of life journey.

The way we look at death as a society today is changing with evolving expectations around grief, remembrance, and cultural norms. An Australian funeral provider recognised this shift and wanted to better support families through the end of life journey. In 2020 the provider engaged The Customer Experience Company to strategically support it’s customer centric transformation. 

Taking a Trauma-Informed approach, we conducted empathetic research with family members who had organised a funeral or memorial service for their loved one, requiring us to delve into conversations surrounding their grief. We heard the difficulty, anger and frustration of having to navigate a highly emotive experience that is often complicated by the desires of many family members and an administrative-laden process. 

Implementing Trauma-Informed Design can take an emotional toll as designers, particularly during the research phase. To safeguard the well-being of our staff, we proactively incorporated mechanisms to prevent second-hand trauma including establishing clear boundaries for conversation, giving our staff the power to end an unproductive or unsafe conversation, and prioritising collective ‘team health’ debriefs to process individual emotions that arise. By consciously implementing these mechanisms, we ensure that our designers can navigate the emotional challenges associated with Trauma-Informed Design while maintaining their well-being. 

From the deep empathetic research insights, we recommended this Funeral Services Provider develop a digital self-service app that would alleviate the mental and administrative burden on customers who are frequently grappling with grief, stress, and overwhelm. 

This alternative channel would empower individuals to navigate the necessary administrative tasks involved in funeral planning at their own pace and within the comfort of their own home. By shifting these discussions to a digital platform, we aim to minimise the pressure for customers to make hasty decisions during face-to-face conversations with funeral provider staff members. This approach recognises the emotional state of customers during such a challenging time and provides them with the space and flexibility they need to make informed choices. 

By reducing the need for immediate decision-making and offering a self-directed experience, the digital self-service app can facilitate a more considerate and empowering funeral planning process for individuals navigating grief.

Taking action

We invite you to evaluate how Trauma-Informed Design practices are integrated within your teams. This evaluation is crucial in determining whether you deliver a compassionate and genuinely seamless experience for your most vulnerable customers. To gauge your organisation's alignment with Trauma-Informed Design, consider the following questions:

  1. Do you have a genuine understanding of the complete end-to-end experience of the individuals you serve? This includes identifying gaps where they may not receive the necessary support or where trauma might be inadvertently exacerbated.
  2. How well do your current design practices align with the principles of Trauma-Informed Design? Assess whether your approaches, methodologies, and strategies incorporate the core tenets of empathy, safety, and inclusivity.

By undertaking this evaluation, you can ensure that every interaction with your customers is guided by empathy and aimed at creating a positive impact. It is vital to provide your customers with the support and care they deserve, especially during vulnerable moments. 

If you need help, consult us below and hear valuable insights and guidance on navigating this challenge.

Speak with an expert

Lauren Terry
Head of Design
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