project statsmethods: 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
Support employees who are affected by the impacts of trauma
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.
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.
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?
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
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”.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.