With Safety in Mind: Building Online Experiences for Survivors of Intimate Partner Violence

When we talk about good user-centered design, what we’re really talking about is immersion. How do we keep the bounce rate down and promote an experience that makes a user spend time sifting through the wonderful content a client has to offer? But what do you do if a high bounce rate is part of the culture of your users? What if getting immersed in the site you’ve designed could literally cost someone his or her life? These are the questions designers for intimate partner violence service organizations have to ask themselves early in the planning stages of building a website or application.

Intimate Partner Violence

Intimate Partner Violence (IPV) is a cycle of abuse and control perpetrated against a significant other in a casual or committed relationship. It is commonly referred to as domestic violence or dating abuse. These labels tend to conjure up images of physical abuse, neglecting the fact that abusers may use a broad spectrum of tactics to elicit fear and ultimately control. Abuse can be verbal, emotional, sexual, financial or even technological. With the advent of new forms of communication, IPV has become more insidious. Location tracking technologies are repurposed as personal surveillance systems. Social media is utilized to stalk, harass, and intimidate. In some ways, the web has increased the number of avenues for coercion and control, and this is particularly true among young people who have fewer firewalls between their online and in-person identities.

Because violence tends to escalate when there are signs that a person is attempting to leave an abusive relationship, service providers often find themselves in a complicated position when developing online experiences for their clients. They want to help people get to safety without putting them in danger in the process. It’s not uncommon for a survivor to be watched while they browse the web or be told to hand over their mobile device and surrender passwords.

Besides crisis visitors to the site, IPV service organizations also have to offer in-depth educational materials for those who have time to read through the content and understand more about the issue. There is also an audience of secondary providers, such as law enforcement, prosecutors, educators, and healthcare professionals who may come in contact with survivors and want to provide resources and support. For non-profit organizations there is typically a third audience—funders—whose interest in program events, organizational history, and financial solvency must be accounted for.

When developing a site’s information architecture, each of these audiences must be taken into account. Because survivors are the most specialized and high-need audience, I’ll focus on strategies for designing for their experience first, but the others should not be disregarded in the final design.

Stakeholder Interview Stage

During the early stages of planning for the website, it’s important to conduct thorough interviews with an organization’s leadership, its frontline staff, and its communications manager. Each will bring different perspectives on both the goals of the site and the behavior of prospective users. Here are a few things to keep in mind when setting up interviews:

  • Many organizations or programs have limited staff capacity to allocate to the project. IPV service providers often have small administrative departments and limited time to take direct service staff away from their daily work duties due to high demand. If you are searching for an IT person to talk to about servers, a content strategist who updates their website, a social media associate, or an internal branding specialist, it’s likely they’re all the same person. Nonprofits can carry a startup feel well into their third decade of existence, and government providers can be similarly under-resourced.
  • Different staff will bring different perspectives. Administrative staff are used to thinking about the brand and how to make it appealing to funders and institutional sources. On the other hand, frontline staff talk through scenarios with survivors on a daily basis. Developing a synergy between presenting the organization’s identity in a compelling and professional way and catering to the most high-need user group is essential.
  • Carefully analyze the resources of the organization. The foundation and government funding on which IPV service providers rely is often restrictive about expenses that don’t go directly to clients. An annual subscription to an image repository may be no problem for a corporation with a marketing department, but community-based organizations often have no such line in their budget. This being the case, a site that relies on stock images may stress the organization down the line.

User Research Stage

Despite how critical they are to developing the site, survivors can be difficult to access for the user research stage. There are confidentiality and safety concerns, along with the fact that active clients are typically operating on a limited schedule leaving little room for participating in user research. Direct service workers can be very protective of survivors as there is a great deal of intention around not making services feel transactional or exploitative.

Some programs may have alumni who have successfully achieved safety or who have an interest in doing advocacy work for other survivors. They may constitute the best opportunity to gain direct insight into the behavior and preferences of prospective users. That said, here are best practices to keep in mind:

Do’s and Don’ts for Performing User Research with Survivors

Do Don’t
Thank survivors for their participation and for wanting to share their story. Sensationalize or tokenize the experience of IPV. Stories can be intense, but no one wants to be treated like a strange curiosity.
Ask questions about how they generally accessed the web while with their partner and note that this may vary significantly by age. Also talk about how they share information with other survivors. Ask “triggering” questions. These might include lurid descriptions of actual abuse or intensely probing questions. Instead, adopt an interview style that allows the survivor to share as much of their story as they are comfortable with.
Watch videos of survivor testimonials. The best way to prepare for understanding some of the challenges a survivor might have faced prior to meeting them is to watch what other survivors had to say about their own experiences. While not everyone is the same, perpetrators often follow similar patterns. Blame the victim. Victim blaming is the act of making the survivor feel like the abuse was their fault rather than the responsibility of the person who chose to do them harm. An example of language that blames the victim is the frequently asked question: “Why did you stay?”
Recognize that IPV impacts people of all ages, classes, races, and ethnicities. Identify the primary populations your organization directly serves, but note that not every survivor who accesses your information on the web might fall under those categories. Be gender or hetero normative. According to the Center for Disease Control, IPV impacts 1 in 3 women and 1 in 4 men. The prevalence and underreporting are estimated to be even higher among LGBTQ couples.
Conduct any surveys or usability tests on-site. While digital surveys are easier to tally, it’s a good idea to prepare a print version in the event that web access may be unreliable for some survivors. Use pop-up surveys on the website. The critical moment someone is delayed on the site when attempting to exit could put them in danger.
Look at the analytics. Assuming there is a pre-existing site, determine who is coming to the site, what devices they are using, and what content is most accessed. Think high bounce rates are indicative of content’s lack of engagement. Survivors can come to the site via referral links or AdWords campaigns and scan the information quickly before having to exit.

Design Phase

After you’ve developed user profiles for survivors and some of the organization’s other top audiences, it’s time to build. Let’s revisit some of the points mentioned earlier that you will want to keep in consideration when trying to determine how content might be selected and positioned.


A survivor may have only seconds to get to vital information. They may not realize that they’re putting themselves in more danger by visiting your site. Some sites, for example TheHotline.org (Figure 1), use a warning popup to alert users of the risk while quickly connecting them to resources.

Screen displaying a popup with a safety alert for site visitors warning them that their computer use can be monitored and to call the National Domestic Violence Hotline for help.

Figure 1: Landing page for TheHotline.org, a project of the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence. There are over 20,000 calls per day to IPV hotlines nationwide.

Other practices include placing a click to call emergency number prominently on the site or offering chat and text features if it’s within the organization’s capacity to monitor. Perhaps most important, and generally widespread among service provider websites, is a highly visible exit button or command that will immediately take a user off the site to a “neutral” page such as Google or CNN (Figure 2). When an abusive partner surprises a survivor, this simple escape button can allow users to leave the site in the nick of time without causing suspicion that will increase their risk of harm.

Screen displaying homepage with a popup off to the right with instructions for the user to “press ESC to quick escape” from the site.

Figure 2: Screenshot from NoMore.Org, a public awareness campaign that focuses on IPV. Note the escape button in the bottom right corner.`


While safety is the chief concern, we also want our sites to tell a relatable and informative story. If we miss the mark on this, we do a disservice both to the organization and survivors who may have more time to understand what’s happening to them and that there is a road out.


Image heavy websites can be a challenge for IPV organizations. If they need to keep the content dynamic, it can be a challenge to commission high quality photography or maintain a subscription to a stock photography service. Because IPV spans all ages, races, and genders, it can be alienating to show users a picture that doesn’t represent them. Survivors are often uncomfortable with having their own image permanently associated with IPV. Staff themselves may need to keep a low profile due to threats from partners of present and former clients. Any images used that do include staff or past clients should be accompanied by photo release consent forms.

Survivor Stories

There is often nothing more powerful than reading or seeing a story shared directly by a survivor. For other survivors it reinforces the idea that they are not alone. For the general public that harbors many misconceptions about IPV it can be an important tool for education. In the early interview phase it’s important to determine what assets the organization already has and work to leverage low-cost or pro bono resources to create more content.

Resilience vs. Strength

IPV service provider websites should carry a theme of resilience, not strength, in their imagery and messaging. Strength is a loaded term and often connotes that a person is weak for being abused. This is victim blaming. According to the American Psychological Association, resilience is the process of adapting well in the face of adversity, trauma, tragedy, threats, or significant sources of stress—such as family and relationship problems, serious health problems, or workplace and financial stressors. It means “bouncing back” from difficult experiences. When we tell the story of survivors and the organizations that serve them, we are telling a resiliency story.

Position within the larger community

Organizations seldom operate in a vacuum, and many survivors may land on the site via an unexpected SEO byway. Showing how the organization connects to other providers and providing easy links to regional or national resources where survivors can get help if they are out of the service area is important. Some organizations and programs have a particular service focus or limited staff, so linking to their partners on the web can help ensure a survivor is getting access to the full menu of services they might require.

Testing Phase

Once the site has been designed and coded, finding a suitable user group to test it can be a challenge. As previously mentioned, survivors can be difficult to access and are sometimes uncomfortable being surveilled while using the web as a result of past traumas. In this case, direct service staff can be helpful in pointing out issues in the experience that may be unsafe or alienating for a user. Testing should focus on how the site might be used by a person in a crisis, be used in a non-emergency, and be accessed by non-survivor site visitors. Testing should be conducted on various mobile devices, making sure that the hotline is visible and clickable since that is what’s needed most in an emergency.

Final Thoughts

Survivors of Intimate Partner Violence represent a unique user group that challenges some conventional wisdom about how websites are designed. The principles of user-centered design demand that we think outside the box when designing an experience which—by its very nature—could make someone less safe, but also get them on the road to safety. IPV service providers are often under-resourced, but their content is of extremely high value as it can literally save lives.

Design professionals who create websites and applications to target this population can increase the likelihood of a survivor accessing much-needed information in time by paying careful attention to the perspectives of organizational stakeholders and potential users in the interview and research phases. During the design phase, prioritizing safety and survivor voice in the architecture and narrative of the site can make the difficult step of seeking help a little easier. In the vast majority of cases, survivors never tell anyone about the abuse, so the site you design today could be their first connection to hope.

Virgilio, D. (2015). With Safety in Mind: Building Online Experiences for Survivors of Intimate Partner Violence. User Experience Magazine, 15(5).
Retrieved from http://uxpamagazine.org/with-safety-in-mind/

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