project stats

methods: concept maps, expert interviews, secondary research (analysis of trends and statistics), retrospective interviews, inquiries on Reddit, design probes, participatory design workshops
my role: I planned and facilitated primary research with subject matter experts, stakeholders, and end users. I visually documented our research and contributed to the conceptual design of the toolkit. I defined and prototyped the card game in low and high fidelities.
teammates: Meghan Clark, Zeyneb Majid
duration: 16 weeks

challenge

Support employees who are affected by the impacts of trauma

outcome

A toolkit that helps novice managers shape a trauma-informed workplace

 

Finding a Beginning

Tasked with pursuing a humanitarian project, I reflected on the social problems that matter to me.

I explored the social problems that matter to me, what I can contribute, who I should team up with, and moments in which I have felt compelled to intervene.

My peers did the same and we each shared the topic we were most drawn to.

For me it was mental health and I was fortunate to find affinity with my soon-to-be teammates, who were drawn to public health, women’s issues, and the impacts of trauma on employees.

From there, we looked for commonality between these domains.

I sketched this concept map as we discussed what drew us to each problem.

We decided to pursue the problem space that Meghan originally framed: supporting employees who have trauma that impacts their experience in the workplace.

Framing Our Design Challenge

Method: Problem Framing

From there, we each practiced IDEO’s method of Framing Your Design Challenge.

We all had slightly different takes on the problem at hand and how we could address it so this exercise helped us align.

In particular, I observed that some of us defined our task at hand very specifically:

How might we build the social networks of women who have experienced trauma?

While others took broader strokes:

What are challenges that trauma survivors face in professional settings and how can we help them cope with them?

Once we decided to center our efforts around the impacts of trauma in the workplace, we created this concept map.

While my teammates wanted to move forward on a specific idea, I encouraged us to keep exploring the problem space before selecting an intervention.

As the only human-centered design practitioner within the group, I learned a great deal about collaborating with colleagues from scientific and management backgrounds.

The uncertainty inherent in wicked problems and human-centered design was often uncomfortable but we persevered.

When In Doubt, Talk to People

Methods: Post In Online Forum, Expert Interviews

We posted in a PTSD subreddit and received very candid responses.

Due to the sensitive nature of our problem space, it was not practical for us to directly recruit employees with trauma.

Zeyneb had the wonderful idea of using Reddit to seek stories from the people we were designing for. This allowed individuals to maintain their anonymity.

 

We spoke with a local university professor who recently joined the county’s Office of Children, Youth, and Family. She studies the impact of violence on youth, which offered us pragmatic and scholarly perspectives on these topics.

We spoke with a university staff member who specializes in reducing sexual violence which helped us consider what we are including when we say “trauma”.

We “Downloaded Our Learnings" then made a crude affinity diagram.

We found:

  • people with trauma face enormous barriers in their workplaces

    • they are forced to work in conditions that are unfair for anyone

    • they are frequently bombarded by triggers that resurface the trauma

  • the need to disclose a disability in order to get support within a workplace is a big barrier

  • disclosing requires a certain level of trust in one’s manager and employer which isn’t always there

  • some people were offered flexibility at work, but they still had to go out of their way to stay afloat

  • we needed to learn more about different causes for trauma and how they might shape the focus and applicability of our project

    • trauma could develop from sexual violence, neighborhood violence, military service, neglect, etc.

  • opportunities exist to increase knowledge sharing between affected individuals and to make workplaces more supportive of these individuals

Charting the Landscape

Methods: Secondary Research, Studying Adjacent Problems

To add context to the perspectives we gathered, we dove into secondary research to understand historical events and the current state, influencers, and trends.

We found:

  • the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) is the primary force that compels employers to accommodate employees

    • however, it is not without limitations: it requires than an employee is able to perform all essential job functions without an accommodation and it allows an employer to refuse an accommodation that is “unreasonable”

  • employers that are leaders when it comes to supporting vulnerable employees weave support for wellness into their culture and benefits

  • individuals with disabilities are significantly underemployed compared to able individuals

  • employers lose a great deal of value (money, time, productivity) when their employees with disabilities are left unsupported

I mapped the many people a survivor of trauma might encounter. This offered us a way to identify alternative entry points for an intervention.

Narrowing our focus

“The information needed to understand the problem
depends upon one's idea for
solving it.” –Horst Rittel

At this point we had a firm grasp of how we could intervene so it was time to identify an area of opportunity to pursue.

As Rittel says, there’s only so much you an understand about a wicked problem before you settle on a way to address it.

We went back to the whiteboard to articulate our top ideas.

ideas-for-interventions.png

We identified leverage points at different scales, such as changing the physical workplace environment, educating employees, or shifting employers’ mindsets.

DIVING INTO THE ADA PROCESS

Because we knew the ADA was a major component, I interviewed the Equal Opportunity Services Associate at our university to learn about the process by which employees are accommodated.

Using elements of contextual design, I generated detailed interpreted notes and a sequence flow diagram.

I created this high-level sequence flow diagram of the Interactive ADA process as practiced by Carnegie Mellon University based on an interview with an EOS Associate.

The interview illuminated the Interactive ADA process and highlighted many of the barriers to attaining this type of official support, such as obtaining a diagnosis, disclosing a disability, and establishing and implementing a reasonable accommodation plan.

PICKING OUR PATH FORWARD

Our research up to this point drew us to access to accommodations as the critical leverage point within the system.

We framed our design challenge again, defining this problem statement:

Professionals who have had traumatic experiences are sometimes burdened while in the workplace, due to triggers or the fear of them. This impacts their ability to feel safe at work and perform at a high level to retain their job.

We knew we wanted to have this impact:

Support survivors of trauma so that they may succeed in corporate environments despite their illness.

So we asked these design questions:

How might we empower employees who have experienced trauma to learn about and seek accommodations without sacrificing safety or privacy?

How might we make granting accommodations attractive and feasible for employers?

THE INEVITABLE PIVOT

At this point we were excited about addressing our problem space by making accommodations easier to obtain. So we met with a local organization, Center for Victims, to learn more.

Their Medical Director and Director of Outreach spoke with us about the causes and neurological impacts of trauma, the current state of workplace support for individuals with trauma, and their approach to supporting these individuals.

After this discussion, I created a visual framework illustrating the differences between organizations’ policies, practices, and norms regarding disability.

To our surprise, they avoided giving out diagnoses and highlighted the limitations of an accommodations-based system.

Instead, they advocated for what they call trauma-informed workplaces.

In these environments, the culture, practices, and policies of the workplace are structured to ensure a welcoming and supportive environment for individuals who have experienced trauma.

 

designing participatory probes

To help us respond to this new information, I facilitated exercises to establish a persona and articulate our primary insights.

We discussed who we were designing for when it came to employees with trauma and who we were not. Most significantly, we settled on employees who work in office settings who have experienced a traumatic event more than 6 months prior and are now trying to cope.

We discussed who we were designing for when it came to employees with trauma and who we were not. Most significantly, we settled on employees who work in office settings who have experienced a traumatic event more than 6 months prior and are now trying to cope.

We identified a series of insight statements then picked the ones with the most potential to shift the system.

We identified a series of insight statements then picked the ones with the most potential to shift the system.

I came up with a number of participatory design probes to help us identify an intervention.

One activity I wrote asked employees and employers how they would respond to different situations in which an employee has a certain need.

This formed the basis for a card game that turned into the cornerstone of the intervention we ultimately pursued.

Developing and Validating Our Intervention

As we worked to put our participatory design probes in front of people, we realized we also needed to define the persona of the manager who would obtain our intervention.

We spoke with a manager who recalled the beginning of his career when he felt unequipped to deal with the personal challenges that affected employees within the workplace.

This led us to steadfastly pursue the design of a toolkit for “millennial managers” that would help them transition their organizations into trauma-informed workplaces.

Conducting Participatory Workshops

We conducted two participatory workshops. They served to teach us about the expectations of employees and managers but also to evaluate the components of our toolkit.

One workshop was with a local organization, Small Seeds, which we connected with through one of the experts we interviewed. It supports children and families within the community.

Our second workshop was with a business unit of our university, which I recruited.

Each workshop involved three parts:

  • a worksheet that listed different events and asked whether each counted as a trauma

  • playing of the card game in small groups

  • discussion of the experience of the workshop and feedback on the two probes

Employees of local non-profit Small Seeds play an early version of the card game during a participatory design workshop.

Employees of local non-profit Small Seeds play an early version of the card game during a participatory design workshop.

Polishing Our Intervention and Approach

The workshops taught us:

  • managers found the act of having to choose then speak aloud their recommendations a very effective opportunity to practice these difficult conversations

  • for individuals in the smaller organization, speaking about this content felt natural whereas individuals in the larger organization felt they would ask someone in HR to handle it

  • the activity of determining what counts as trauma led most people to feel that anything could be trauma for someone depending on the context; it was also triggering for some people

We scheduled a conversation with two individual’s from the university’s HR Professional Development team. They were impressed by the role playing activity.

However, they felt they would want to bring in an expert in the mental health or trauma recovery fields to lead this kind of workshop, given the sensitive nature of the content.

OUR PROPOSAL

We ultimately proposed a toolkit that an HR department could order which would include:

  • a worksheet to help team members reflect on the many sources of trauma

  • a card game to help the team practice asking for and offering support across different scenarios

  • informational resources about trauma and how to shape a trauma-informed workplace

It is intended for use by a specialist or an HR professional to facilitate conversations with managers.

One player is the “employee” who is given a  person  card, a  position  card, and a few  situation  cards to read aloud. The other players—”managers”—then choose from their  response  cards the best and worst option for this employee. After they each read their option aloud, the “employee” choose their preferred response and explains why. (view  instructions  and  cards )

One player is the “employee” who is given a person card, a position card, and a few situation cards to read aloud. The other players—”managers”—then choose from their response cards the best and worst option for this employee. After they each read their option aloud, the “employee” choose their preferred response and explains why. (view instructions and cards)