Trauma, taboos and designing services that work for everyone

Six minute read

Jenny Winfield is a design researcher who focuses on taboo subjects. We talked to her about her work, what it means to design trauma-informed services and the importance of managing vicarious trauma when providing funeral care.

First of all, tell us about your role and how you got into this work.

I’m a design researcher, which means that it’s my job to understand what people (users) need from specific services, and what’s missing. I then apply these insights — usually as part of a team working on improving a digital service such as a website or app.

About seven years ago, I started focusing on sensitive but common topics, like menopause, fertility challenges and sexual dysfunction. This led me to develop a niche around researching taboos and having conversations around issues that are socially or culturally ‘off limits’.

Working on these topics, I became more exposed to people who had experienced trauma. Often when people have experienced something that's taboo (or not talked about), trauma comes as part and parcel of that experience. Not always, but it can do.

When you research with people who have been through very difficult things, you need specialised methods to ensure you’re taking care of them.

What is trauma-informed research and design?

Trauma-informed design applies principles developed by social workers and clinical practitioners — people who work every day with those who've experienced trauma. They have articulated a series of principles that designers are now adopting as we venture into more sensitive territories.

When we plan a piece of research about something trauma related, we'll think about the consequences for a person of talking with us about this topic.

How will we do our best not to trigger them? What kind of words and phrases might we want to use or avoid? What could happen, whether negative or positive, as a result of this interaction?

How will we share some of our power as researchers and designers? What kinds of choices can we offer people who take part? How are we going to acknowledge the historical, cultural and gender issues in relation to our topic of interest?

In trauma-informed research, we don't ask people to tell us about their traumatic experience. We're not therapists. But we do try to create a space that feels safe enough for people to share some context with us around why they need what we're designing and how it could support them.

We think about being trauma-informed in both our research and design work. The elements of a service — such as the ability to speak to someone on the phone or fill out a form easily — need to be trauma-informed too.

Why is death such an important subject for you?

When studying Anthropology, I learned that there are topics which all people pay attention to and develop rituals around — power, money, sex, birth, death, and marriage. I found it a really useful framework to understand people and to look at differences between cultures.

I also learned that within each topic, you find taboos. For me, understanding death is one essential strand in exploring who we are.

There’s also the potential impact. When you're talking about something like death, this isn't something that might happen to people. It is going to happen. From a design perspective, you could be designing solutions which have a massive impact, because death is something we will all encounter and will all need to deal with.

Because they’re underdiscussed, a lot people think that taboos only affect a few people. But if you think about, say, mental health challenges, sexual dysfunction or women's health taboos like the menopause, the evidence shows that a majority of us go through these things.

Therefore, if you design great services around these experiences, you transform them from being issues which are ignored to ones which are understood and supported.

I’ve worked with a tech-focused, death care company on their service design, looking at what it means to celebrate a life. I have also developed a conversation guide for a suicide bereavement charity to help people talk about how it feels to be bereaved by suicide.

How do you enable conversations about taboo subjects, like death?

Your set up counts for a lot. I'll always make an effort to communicate clearly, and early on, what I hope to talk about and be clear about what I won't ask too. I'll make sure that I share the intentions for the research, so that people know what we hope to achieve by asking them to share their story.

I'll be sure to behave in a warm and non-judgemental way, whatever they share. I'll make the interaction feel mutually beneficial, rather than a transactional or extractive process.

There are varying levels of comfort with talking about challenging things. Culturally in the UK we haven't developed that muscle of talking about death, so it can feel harder to help people open up.

But I’ve found that people do often want to discuss hard topics like death if they feel supported to do so.

How did you come across Poppy’s?

I saw Poppy on LinkedIn and her creative, human approach chimed beautifully with me.

Having a background in design and innovation, I’m often asked to look at people and organisations who are reimagining tired industries.

When I see organisations, like Poppy’s, who are changing the death care experience in a brave way — being innovative while also being thoughtful and human, I'm always keen to connect and see if we can work together.

How have you been helping the Poppy’s team as we support and work with bereaved, and often traumatised, people?

I’ve been offering some help in understanding and navigating vicarious trauma.

I have thought a lot about how researchers working with traumatised people can support ourselves and mitigate vicarious trauma. We're exposed to a lot of other people's pain and frustration — particularly around services that don't work or have badly let them down in a moment of need.

In hearing their stories and opening yourself up to them, you take on a lot of potential trauma too. It can feel quite heavy.

There are strategies and practices that I follow to make sure that I don't become overwhelmed and burnt out by the work that I do. To continue doing this work, I have to take extra care of myself.

With the Poppy’s team, I took a very practical approach. Vicarious trauma needs to be managed on three levels. Firstly, by the individual themselves, understanding what might affect them personally and what to do if they notice signs of vicarious trauma, such as empathy fatigue or minimising their own feelings.

Then there's acknowledging that there are things that you can do as a team to mitigate the risks, such as working together to manage particularly upsetting deaths — such as death by suicide or death of a child.

Finally, on an organisational level, creating a culture of care that sets people up to succeed rather than to burn out. All three pieces need to work in tandem.

Over two sessions, the team learnt about what vicarious trauma is, and then identified practices that they wanted to try on these three different levels. Over a month, they explored some of these strategies, and then we met again to share how they got on and to discuss what they’d like to put into practice over the longer term.

There are no quick fixes for trauma work — and it was fantastic to see Poppy’s proactively approach the topic for the well-being of the brilliant team, and, by extension, their clients.

Find out more about Jenny and her work by visiting her website or finding her on Medium and Linked In.

To stay in touch with all the latest news and updates from Poppy's by email, sign up here or contact us if you need help planning a funeral.

Discover more articles