Using trauma informed principles in content design
As children we learned that old schoolyard “sticks and stones” rhyme. It ends with the line, “words will never hurt me”.
Content designers know that actually, words can hurt a lot. We spend time and research to look for the right words. We mirror the language our audience uses, and we create content that speaks to them at the level they are at.
Clumsy, thoughtless words can cause harm. And in the wrong situation or context, they can cause stress, anxiety, and trauma.
Stress, anxiety, and trauma
Stress, anxiety and trauma are often used interchangeably. While they share characteristics, they have different definitions.
- Stress is usually defined as something that happens because of an external cause, for example a particular meeting or situation. We can usually say what is causing the stress, and when that thing goes away the stress alleviates.
- Anxiety is a person’s internal reaction to stress. It can continue after the stressful situation has passed, and it may include anxiety about the stress or anxiety itself.
- Trauma is the result of very stressful, frightening or distressing events. Trauma can happen to anyone, at any age, and can have long-term effects.
The effect of stress, anxiety and trauma on reading
Stress, anxiety and trauma release the stress hormones adrenaline and cortisol. No matter who we are and how well we do things under normal circumstances, these hormones can make it harder to:
- understand information,
- make decisions,
- consider and reflect on information.
Content design and trauma informed principles
People who have been traumatised can be hurt again by reminders of their original trauma. Trauma-informed principles help people working for trauma survivors avoid causing further harm (“re-traumatisation”).
Applying these principles may help people who are also experiencing stress and anxiety. But it’s important to remember that whoever uses your content may have experienced trauma. As much as possible, we want to avoid re-traumatising them.
Trauma informed practice often works by making a connection and building trust. For example, a support worker will build a relationship over time to make sure the person they are supporting is comfortable.
But once we publish content, our users are generally on their own. We can’t make them a cup of tea if something is upsetting, or hold their hand as they go through a difficult process.
What we can do is create content that reduces the risk of re-traumatising, and follows trauma-informed principles.
Depending on who you ask, there are 5 or 6 principles to trauma informed practice. We’re going with 6. They are:
- cultural consideration.
Incorporating safety into your content is about avoiding causing further harm. Your website, service, letter, or app should not re-traumatise the person using it.
There are lots of ways you can make someone feel safe(r) online. Content or trigger warnings are common. The intention is to warn someone about the content that is coming up, so they can choose to proceed or not. (However, some recent thinking suggests that content warnings can themselves be traumatic.)
Sometimes safety is much more immediate. You may need to include a safe exit option for your website. This is common for sites that provide support for vulnerable people. If you’re including a safe exit option, here are a couple of resources to help:
- Safety Net Project: exploring technology safety in the context of intimate partner violence, sexual assault, and violence against women
- Giving users a quick disguised exit from a website
But safety is also about providing support.
Think about what information the person needs at that moment. Don’t overwhelm them with more information than they need to know right now.
Frontload the important message. This means someone knows what to expect, and can choose when to access it.
Where possible or appropriate, let people know where they can go for further support. That may be your own service or organisation, or another.
Content is often one-way. Once we publish, there’s no back and forth interaction. So when you’re designing a website, leaflet, poster, booklet, or form - how do you build trust with the person at the other end?
Some tips to remember:
- use language that’s easy to understand so people know what they need to do and don’t feel tricked by jargon or technical terms,
- make your content easy and logical to find, so people don’t feel they have to hunt for the information they need,
- provide clear contact details and next steps, if appropriate.
Giving guidance tips or options can help people answer questions. Remember that stress, anxiety and trauma all release hormones that make it harder to take in information and make decisions. Keeping your content clear and simple will help.
If possible and practical, give people choice. Let them choose how and when they access your content, or tell them if they have the choice to go somewhere else. Have different ways to support different people. For example, some users might want to speak to a person on the telephone for support. Others might want to be able to access information independently.
You cannot always meet every user's every need, but you can be as flexible as possible. Always give clear instructions on things like:
- time limits,
- save options,
- next steps.
We already work with others to create content. When you’re creating content for people who have experienced trauma, this is even more important.
People who have been traumatised might feel powerless, excluded, and not heard. Content can redress the balance - if it’s created to communicate and help and does not act as a barrier.
Doing research or creating content with people who have experienced trauma needs careful preparation and planning. You must consider ethics, safeguarding, and support both before and after the research sessions. If direct contact would potentially re-traumatise someone, consider involving organisations who have an existing, trusted relationship with users.
Can your content empower people? Absolutely!
Clear, accessible content can support someone to act independently, make their own decisions, or learn something new.
I once tested a form with someone who described themselves as “severely dyslexic.” They regularly used a screen reader, and expected they would need some help to complete the form.
However, because the form had been designed to be clear and simple, they read it all independently. At the end of the testing they said how proud they were they’d managed to do it by themself.
Creating clear content means that people can read and understand it. They are not left feeling confused or frustrated - definitely an empowering feeling.
Our content should always be inclusive. We take care to write respectfully and inclusively about things like gender, age, and disability.
Trauma-informed practice thinks about cultural factors, too. This means when you’re creating content you must consider things like:
Content free from sticks and stones
When we create content for people experiencing stress, anxiety, or trauma, we can’t always reassure them as we would a friend. We might not be able to offer them solutions to every problem. But by following trauma informed principles, we can try to make sure our content does not cause harm.
Because words should never break someone.
Rachel will be doing more work on trauma-informed content this year - watch this space!