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Four principles of product design: Designing to empower survivors of abuse

The financial cost of abuse

One in four women in the US is a survivor of domestic violence. Based on that, it’s highly likely you know someone who is, or who has been, in an abusive relationship. Situations vary, as do the demographics of survivors—they can be poor or wealthy, they may have a high school diploma or an advanced degree, they can be unknown or on the covers of magazines. The one thing that many survivors share in common is the financial crisis that comes with leaving an abusive relationship. Financial insecurity is one of the main reasons people choose to stay with or return to, an abuser.

Women are often afraid to leave their abusers due to their financial dependence on them; abusers may cut off access to cash, bank accounts or credit cards. Many women also cannot afford to move out and start over alone. They may lose their job or access to transportation when they move out. They have children to support. But what if more women knew about the financial compensation options available to them?

When we think of the public services available for survivors of domestic violence, we most often think of protective services, emergency shelters, and temporary welfare programs. Less likely but equally important, are resources that support the financial crisis that comes with leaving an abuser.

FreeFrom is a non-profit legal organization whose mission is to help survivors of domestic abuse become financially independent and rebuild their lives. They work with community partners to help educate survivors on the financial compensation options available to them based on their unique circumstances. But navigating these options can be complicated, inaccessible, and frustrating for the survivor who has already endured.

FreeFrom always refers to their clients as survivors rather than victims. The word ‘survivor’ connotes resilience and strength. It also moves the individual forward, from a place of violence endured toward a brighter future.

As a software consultancy that focuses on both revolutionizing the IT industry and creating positive social change, our goal for our work with FreeFrom was to find a way to de-mystify financial compensation and make it more accessible to more survivors. Our goal is to help ensure more survivors realize they are not alone and to help them connect with resources that can move them toward a brighter future.

Starting with a clear purpose

The good news is that there are many resources for survivors of domestic violence. The bad news is that they vary by the state and by the situation, and finding the right ones isn’t easy. FreeFrom asked us to improve the overall experience for survivors of domestic abuse as they navigate the complex landscape of financial compensation options available.
 
We set out to build Get Compensation! — a fully functional responsive web application that helps survivors of domestic violence understand the financial compensation options available to them through a brief six statement survey. During this journey, we overcame many challenges and learned a few things that led us to identify four core principles we call

Designing for empowerment

Four principles for designing for empowerment

What can product designers and technologists do to create solutions that empower the voiceless and marginalized in society? In our experience, Designing for Empowerment requires these four things. We have chosen to personify each of these principles by the role they play in the journey of a survivor toward financial independence.
 

1. The interpreter: How to design for easy translation

Translate language to an approachable, conversational tone. Present information in a relatable way that makes users feel confident they are on the right track.

Information is power and language the gate that either grants or restricts access. Legal documents that explain a survivor’s rights and compensation are complex and difficult to understand, further emphasizing their position of powerlessness and victimhood. Survivors may have to hire an attorney to explain how compensation works and to help them navigate a complex system, but for many, hiring a lawyer isn’t affordable. Survivors need a translator who opens the gate.

For us, this meant shifting the point of view, terminology, and tone from lawyers and legal-ese to accessible survivor-friendly language. Starting with the Welcome page and throughout the whole experience, we adopted clear, direct, everyday language and a more casual tone of voice, much like speaking with a trusted friend. For example, instead of the word ‘defendant’—a legal term which refers to the abuser and not the survivor—we used the word ‘abuser.’ This subtle shift makes a world of difference to someone navigating this process alone.

2. The guide: How to design for choice

Guide the user’s experience through clear and discrete steps that provide guidance and confidence, but ultimately leave the decisions up to them.

Understand what your users care most about and translate those criteria into categories that reflect the users’ priorities. This understanding and guidance will help steer them through the process of understanding their own priorities at the moment and help them to make more informed decisions for themselves.

In our case, we took the criteria that survivors need to qualify for any given compensation avenue and turned them into categories like “Likelihood (of getting the Award)” or Safety. Instead of one question with one answer, we present a statement with multiple, equally valid options to guide their experience while leaving enough room for them to make the decision themselves.

For example, in addressing the topic of safety, we let the survivor know which financial avenues might require them to go to court and face their abuser. They select the statement that best describes how safe they feel with this option.  
 

3. The coach: How to design room for growth

Give a user a place to start in the system, but allow for the opportunity to change and evolve.

People and their situations evolve. We quickly recognized that survivors have different needs and priorities at various stages of their healing process. As they navigate the system, they learn more about themselves, their situation, the options available, and what they want. With time and information, their continued development makes them better equipped to deal with all of the complexities of a difficult situation. We had to create something flexible that grows and evolves with a survivor, so we enable them to retake the quiz and find different options.

We focused on creating a series of archetypes, or mindsets, based on the survivor’s responses to a series of questions. The mindsets represent the user’s state of mind at that point in time, kind of like a personality test; results are not fixed and change depending on their response. These mindsets then map to a suggested avenue of compensation. For example, in the beginning, a survivor might have a “Resilient Planner’ mindset in which they are focused on ensuring their physical safety. Later, as they gain some confidence, they might evolve into a ‘Justice Seeker’ mindset where they willing to take more risks such as facing their abuser in court to get more compensation.
 

4. The Mirror: How to design for self-reflection

Show the user all of their responses assembled in the same place. Allow them to make choices by acting as a mirror and reflecting the necessary information.

We wanted to make sure that survivors using Get Compensation! not only understood the options being presented but that they understood why. This way the meaningfulness of the results is inferred from their own evidence rather than an external opinion. They guide the process themselves basing it on their experiences and ultimately making an empowered decision.  

How did we apply the principle? We found that it resonated with survivors to see the selections they made across categories as a list on the last screen. For example, under details for Victims of Crime Act or ‘VOCA,’ one of the compensation avenues, we list the survivor’s answers to the categories of ‘Time,’ ‘Cost,’ ‘Award,’ ‘Likelihood,’ and ‘Safety.’ We match their answers with the compensation avenue in a way that made sense to their personal histories. On top of that, we list benefits, challenges, and how-tos for each avenue, so they have enough information to make an informed decision moving forward.

The four principles we have identified and defined are not rules set in stone, but practical and essential reminders when designing to empower people who have experienced domestic abuse. But they also have application in other circumstances where you are trying to empower someone to gain access to information or work through a personal decision. If you use these four principles, we would love to hear about it!

Get Compensation! is currently available for residents of California with more states coming soon.

Watch Fernanda Alcocer, and Amy Findeiss share this story on stage at XConf NA, an annual conference for techies by techies.