Exploring Trauma-Informed Research Practices

Findings from our recently published article about maintaining ethics in design and research
an illustration of three people talking

Research is a core part of what makes technical products and services work well. By hearing directly from the clients and people interacting with a product or service, we know where clients might struggle with parts of the process and how we can make adjustments to make a service more accessible. But person-centric research and its associated practices can often be traumatic—asking clients to re-live painful experiences or talk about challenging life circumstances requires responsible safeguards for both participants and researchers.

To learn more about ethical, trauma-informed research methodologies, we spoke with Matt Bernius, a Principal Qualitative Researcher at Code for America, and Rachael Dietkus, the Founder of Social Workers Who Design. They recently published a paper that explores the many ways trauma may appear in the research space and discusses a model for mitigating the risks of trauma for more ethical, responsible, and care-focused research.

What are research encounter scenarios that might stir up trauma for participants? What do researchers and designers need to keep in mind about triggers as they engage in their work?

Matt: One of the difficult things about trauma is how unpredictable it is. Because it’s so deeply tied to individual experiences, it can sometimes be challenging to predict when it might emerge in a research encounter. There are definitely situations where it’s more likely to emerge, for example, if you are discussing topics related to people’s experiences with the criminal legal system or food or housing insecurity. Yet, because trauma is tied to individual experiences, researchers and designers should not assume that just because someone has dealt with those things, they must be traumatized. So it’s good to approach things from a harm reduction perspective.

What are the first steps researchers can take to ensure that everyone involved feels emotionally, psychologically, and physiologically safe when participating in the process?

Rachael: There is a great deal that designers and researchers can do to make everyone feel safer. To begin, assessing the conditions for the research is essential. It’s important to communicate clearly with participants about the nature of the research, what is expected of them, their rights and responsibilities in speaking with us, and how their contributions will be used in any storytelling. I have found that it is also crucial not to promise something we cannot ethically provide. Providing participants with ethical, responsible, and supportive resources to help them navigate their emotions and feelings is a strong value-add for serious, complex, and sensitive subject matters. I’m starting to see teams integrate a trained, licensed counselor or therapist as part of the research team, which I believe is a game-changer in the work we often encounter. Designers and researchers could partake in professional development to help develop a stronger compassion intelligence, which would provide a better understanding for addressing potential signs of distress or discomfort and give the compassionate tools to halt the research or provide additional therapeutic support and rapport, if necessary. Overall, the key is to be as proactive as possible, anticipate and be sensitive to the needs and experiences of participants, and prioritize their—as well as researchers’—safety and well-being throughout the entire research process.

Matt: I second everything Rachael said, especially the last point. I think many researchers and designers typically only focus on protecting participants—I know that’s how I used to approach things. And while it’s important to have that focus, it can lead to thinking about those protections as something that we do “at” our participants. We must realize that we, as researchers and designers, are also participants in the process and deserve the same care and protections as our participants.

We must be constantly present, listening, and learning—especially as our understanding of trauma evolves. 

Your article states that “becoming trauma responsive is an ongoing and unfinished process.” Why is that?

Matt: I don’t believe there are any “one size fits all” solutions to trauma. What works for one person in one situation will not necessarily work for the next person (in the same or a different situation). So we must be constantly present, listening, and learning—especially as our understanding of trauma evolves. 

Rachael: For those taking trauma-responsive practices seriously and understanding that we’re often talking about much more than research and design (read: organizational cultures, systems, societies, etc.), there is a realization that this is lifelong work. For many, the engagement with trauma-responsive practice may arise out of harm or necessity or perhaps from simply recognizing that there must be more responsible and ethical ways of doing our work. Although the mindset shifts may start small, ideally, this becomes a daily practice and is a new way of working. 

How has the research conversation around trauma shifted in the past few years? What unique explorations of trauma are happening now that weren’t before?

Rachael: One significant shift in the U.S. has been a greater emphasis on using trauma-informed care principles in research methods from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA). By integrating SAMHSA’s principles, designers and researchers can move towards safer research practices and minimize the potential for trauma to be activated during the research process. There has also been a growing recognition of the need to address the intersection of trauma and other forms of oppression and marginalization, such as racism and anti-Black racism, and homophobia and transphobia, in research and practice.

Matt: To Rachael’s last point, many techniques and methods that make up trauma-informed and responsive approaches are things that researchers and scholars from marginalized communities have advocated adopting for at least two decades. So these ideas have been circulating for a while, and they’re getting wider acclaim.

The biggest shift is the global context we are all operating in. The global COVID-19 pandemic and its countless repercussions, coupled with the rise in political and social violence, not to mention climate disasters and the faltering of our social safety nets, have shown how vulnerable we all are to traumatic events. Our hope is that we, as a research and design community, can use this moment to progress toward adopting trauma-responsive approaches in everything we do.

Want to learn more? Find the full copy of this research, Cultivating Resiliencies for All: The Necessity of Trauma Responsive Research Practices, published at the 2022 EPIC Conference.

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