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How Trauma-Informed Principles Should Guide Research

by Alex Sher September 22, 2023

At One North, we strive to design for safety and inclusion. One way we do this is by having a trauma-responsive mindset, which helps us not only be prepared to act when someone is experiencing trauma but also bring more compassion to our work.

Trauma-informed practices create a safer environment for us all, resulting in a greater sense of support in our interactions and often increasing client confidence in our work. For example, trauma-informed tools help product teams prevent their products from being used for harm, such as limiting certain location tracking patterns to stop a product from doubling as a stalking tool.

Trauma is not limited to the social sector. Power dynamics and strong emotional reactions arise for researchers and participants in the corporate world. For example, hearing about someone’s difficult boss might bring up feelings a researcher has about a previous boss. Not taking the time to address those feelings can greatly impact your outcomes.

This article focuses on my area of expertise, ethnographic and qualitative research—specifically how researchers and participants can best be supported. My framework is the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration’s (SAMHSA) principles for a trauma-informed approach. Below is a brief explanation of each principle and a few examples of what each can look like in practice. Anyone interested in a more in-depth discussion of these principles and ethnographic research should read the EPIC Paper by Matt Bernius, Principal User Researcher at Code for America, and Rachel Dietkus, Founder of Social Workers Who Design.


The first SAMHSA principle is protecting everyone’s physical and psychological safety. This might look like allowing participants to call in from their own homes to an interview instead of requiring them to go to a space that’s new to them. It can also mean allowing participants the choice of having their cameras on or off. I’ve heard of researchers providing a meal for participants to allow for a greater feeling of safety, too.

Trustworthiness & Transparency

We must move at the speed of trust and be as transparent as possible. This can mean being open about the goals and sponsors of your project. When a participant provides a request outside the scope of your work, it also requires honesty about the limitations of what your research will be able to impact.

Peer Support

Peer support is all about mutual self-help and ensuring people are able to support themselves and others. In the past, when doing usability research, I’d share workarounds that I learned from other participants encountering the same issues.

This principle can also include considering how researchers can support themselves and each other. What support do researchers need? Could you create time for researchers to decompress and discuss the impact of their work on them?

Collaboration & Mutuality

Collaboration & Mutuality focuses on partnership. As SAHMSA writes, “healing happens in relationships and in the meaningful sharing of power and decision-making.” As anyone who’s worked in an organization will tell you, it’s crucial to build relationships with the right teams in order to be effective. This principle encourages us to consider who else we might want to partner with.

The collaboration and mutuality principle also encourages us to consider what other skill sets might benefit our teams. Researchers aren’t trained to have a deep understanding of trauma, so there are times when it’s more appropriate to add a team member with expertise in social work, for example.

Empowerment, Voice & Choice

Empowerment, Voice & Choice requires us to consider the existing power structures and find ways to support everyone involved. As the people writing and asking the research questions, we have power.

This can be mitigated if we’re careful in how we ask for consent. For example, instead of asking for consent only at the beginning of an interview, you can make more space for ongoing consent by asking, “Next I’d like to talk about [topic]; is that alright with you?” when switching topics during an interview.

By bringing participants in and asking for their feedback beyond data collection, they can have a larger voice in the process. I’ve had projects where we invited two to three users to each of our client meetings to share findings and discuss design decisions. This enabled them to advocate for themselves, granting them a stronger voice and lending greater credibility to our choices, rather than a researcher speaking on their behalf.

Cultural, Historical & Gender Issues

This principle is all about understanding that this work doesn’t exist in a vacuum. All work exists in our cultural context, for better or for worse, and we must navigate this responsibly. Consider the experiences of various gender and racial identities and different levels of ability. Do you have the right diversity on your team and across your participants to understand how different backgrounds and presentations impact the experiences you’re interested in? Have you researched the history of this topic to understand how past tensions might influence challenges today?

Let’s learn together.

You’re likely already following these principles in more ways than you realize, but there are always ways to improve. The more we can allow these principles to guide our work, the more support we’ll have to ensure those involved will be taken care of. This will increase the likelihood of open, honest, and effective research processes. Two questions for you to consider in your effort to be more intentional about this work: 1). What are you already doing well? 2). What could you start doing?

On this journey, remember that you’re not going to be perfect. What we can do is own it when we realize we’ve done harm and seek ways to improve. One North is also in this ongoing learning process, and we’d love to work with you on how your next project can be more trauma-responsive.

Photo Credit: Arthur Mazi | Unsplash

Alex Sher
UX Strategist

Alex Sher is a Senior Design Strategist for Customer Experience at One North. She helps clients deliver great customer and employee experiences using their knowledge of design research, social impact design, and product design.