Trauma Informed Design

A Method for Building Just and Inclusive Futures. By Hera Hussain

Digital Futures - hera_neu

When I started Chayn in 2013, I had absolutely no experience of activism, movement building, feminist theory and service design. I had been a serial volunteer for changemaking social entrepreneurs and technology for good projects but apart from that, my professional experience was limited to working in the tech startup scene in the UK. What I did have was a very personal struggle of more than a year, of trying to help two close friends get out of abusive marriages.

Chayn is a global non-profit that creates digital, multilingual resources to support the healing of survivors of gender-based violence. Our focus is on empowering women and people of other marginalised genders who have experienced domestic, sexual or tech-facilitated abuse. We work with, not for, survivors. Language, racial, gender and migrant justice are at the heart of our work.

Now, nine years later, when I look back, I am filled with a sense of gratitude and wonder at how much I’ve learned from others and what I’ve been able to build with the Chayn and wider digital rights community. I stumbled, learned from established communities, came up with ideas and tested them, built a community around feminist and decolonising principles, and in so doing, provided services to half a million people across the globe to help them heal from trauma.

What was intuitive about building trauma-informed digital spaces and products is hard to capture, but the good news is, in the spirit of the open knowledge movement, we’ve been able to consult with our peers on our methodology before sharing it with you.

At the Digital Futures Gathering, I also got a chance to share our trauma-informed design principles and get feedback on ways they could be applied to the work people are doing outside of gender-based violence. 

Something I think about a lot is how, when we only think about the digital space as a place of harm, we forget to build a space for our dreams of what it should be, and the many ways in which it already is that.

There’s a growing movement to consider joy, pleasure and imagination in our activisms.

I often talk about the web as a common good – a garden of gardens for all of us. It’s up to us to sow seeds of hope and progress in the corners where darkness and dismay fester.

These trauma-informed design principles help Chayn aspire for better, while keeping an eye on how to reduce and/or eliminate harm. You’ll also find examples of how these principles can be applied to technology design around technology-facilitated violence.

Design principleApplication
Making brave and bold choices that prioritise the
physical and emotional safety of people.
  • 2 Factor Authentication
  • Sharing last known logins and locations
  • Blocking and filtering content and users
Honouring the survivor’s wishes by asking for
informed consent to create affirming experiences.
  • Allowing people to access essential information without having to create accounts
  • Giving an option of what information is kept public and private, such as full names and location
Designing for inclusion must consider how position, identity, vulnerabilities, experiences, knowledge,
and skills shape trauma and recovery. Survivors
are not a homogenous group.
  • Designing products that cater to a range of accessibility requirements such as speech and hearing impairments
  • Rolling out new safety features simultaneously in all low and high-income countries and enabling reporting in multiple languages
  • Providing staff training and learning opportunities on anti-oppression and decolonisation
Securing a survivor’s personal information and story unless the survivor decides otherwise. Also ensuring frictionless access to help and information.
  • Clearly indicating what data is publicly accessible and what isn’t
  • Using end-to-end encrypted technology and exploring the use of privacy-enhancing technologies (PET) such as encryption and data masking
  • Providing survivors with a digital file of evidence that can support civil and criminal cases, if they want to pursue those routes
Maintaining a relationship of trust includes being
open and consistent about what is being done,
how and why.
  • Providing clear ways to help survivors identify in-platform reporting mechanisms such as quick access bars for reporting abuse
  • Being consistent and predictable in product design – by providing structure and routine
  • Committing to long-term change, rather than reacting to scandals and infrequent public outrage
Actively leaving space for complexity and recognising harm manifests in different and disproportionate
ways for people living at the intersection of multiple oppression. 
  • Training moderators to understand cultural context
  • Refraining from assuming which language is spoken based on location
  • Training staff on the impact of additional vulnerabilities, such as caste, race, religion, sexual orientation and disabilities
Power sharing
Distributing and sharing power by co-designing interventions with survivors. 
  • Giving survivors decision-making power in tech companies through compensated board or committee positions
  • For global firms, using local teams and networks to gather ideas for ways to improve services across the globe
  • Creating community-owned models and practices for governance and evaluation
Creating validating, empathetic, warm, and
soothing experiences, motivating people to seek
and embrace the help on offer. We should seek collaborative solutions and offer hope for the future.
  • Using an empathetic tone in written and vocal communications
  • Ensuring visual assets are not retraumatising. Displaying simple, soothing, and visually appealing UX.
  • Prioritising ethical considerations in corporate decision-making over shareholder priorities


You’ll notice that none of these principles fit neatly only in their own box. They overlap, they cannot be a checklist. They demand careful consideration and an appreciation for nuance.

Aspirations for the future

When I think about the fight we have up against us, with the urgency of the climate crisis, the rise of the far right, authoritarianism and what is being unhelpfully termed the ‘culture wars’, I’m filled with a sense that mixes dread with hope. The dread comes from the realisation that many of us on the frontlines are tired and feeling the weight of decades of dehumanising incidents, and that instead of channelling this into a fire to unify us and work together, we’re busy in-fighting and purity posturing (appearing to have all the right answers).

But there’s also the hope. At the Digital Futures Gathering, I had a fascinating chat one evening, which continued the next morning on the train to the airport, with someone who has spent two decades on the feminist action front, especially at the intersection with technology.She used the phrase ‘the tyranny of binary’ to describe something I have been struggling with in the activism space: the expectation of performative perfection. That there is one way of doing something good and if you don’t do it and you’re not seen to be doing it, you’re obviously Bad and with The System. This binary of what is good and is not, what is usual or unusual, and what is disruptive or conductive has been driving me up the wall. And it was so nice to get advice from her about tuning out those who worship the tyranny of the binary and instead focus on feminist values.

My call is to all activists, policymakers and businesses who want to see a thriving civic space – let’s create the space for nuance, complexity and plurality.

While we fight for the principles we want and remind those in power about the harms our communities face right now, let’s not forget to take a moment to recognise how far we’ve come in some areas. And even where we’ve taken a step back, let’s acknowledge how we got there and how we get back to where we need to be.

Let’s embrace the messy. And let’s win something for all of us – a better, inclusive and just digital future.

Hera Hussain is the founder and CEO of CHAYN – a global nonprofit that creates resources on the web to address gender-based violence.