Tech vs Abuse is a research project which explored the potential opportunities for technology to play a supportive role in the context of domestic violence and abuse.
Every year, over two million people in the UK experience domestic abuse. This includes 100,000 people who are at high risk of murder and serious harm. 95,000 of those are women (SafeLives, 2016).
Domestic abuse takes many forms: psychological, physical, sexual, financial, and emotional. At the core is control and coercion. The impact on individuals and families is profound and long-lasting.
We are increasingly living across digital platforms. In Britain, 82% of adults use the internet every day (Office of National Statistics). Digital platforms help us stay in touch and have revolutionised communication and the way we gather information. However, they are also subject to abusive control and coercion.
We know that many people experiencing abuse may not recognise it as such. Some may be fearful of disclosing information or unsure of what support is available. Others have left an abusive relationship but want to protect themselves from further harm. As a result, they often suffer from isolation and are cut off from friends and family.
Technology has the potential to tackle these issues. To become an empowering tool, not a source of risk. To enable survivors to make connections. To ensure they have the information they need. To rebuild their independence safely and sustainably.
Comic Relief commissioned Tech vs Abuse, a ground-breaking research project, to do just this.
There’s no ‘one size fits all’ solution
After all, what if you are in a lesbian relationship; what would you search for online? What would it mean if the perpetrator was your son or your brother? What would it mean if you have children together but do not live together? Or if it is complicated because of your immigration status?
What people want to know, and why, is different based on their individual circumstances and their relationship. There is no such thing as a ‘domestic violence journey’. There is no typical pathway.
That meant we had to explore many different aspects of intersectionality. Accessibility, background, and circumstances were crucial to how women were able to use technology.
We set out to explore the potential opportunities, gaps, and risks presented by technology in the context of domestic violence and abuse. Together with SafeLives and Chayn, we gathered insights from over 200 survivors of abuse and 350 practitioners who supported them.
“Working together in collaboration with Snook, Safe Lives and Chayn has been fascinating. We’ve produced a great piece of research and learnt a lot about the role of technology in domestic abuse situations. The resulting reports and outputs are both compelling and useful for the sector. As a result, Comic Relief has invested much-needed funding into this area.”
Uncovering the insights that power change
The work was challenging, revealing, and rewarding. Real life stories uncovered insights that could be used to frame and develop better services. The honest and humble encounters with victims and survivors enabled us to create a collection of tools to describe digital experiences, outlining both highlights and pain points.
It was a flexible process that allowed for agile developments throughout. For example, we created six Experience maps synthesising the stories we had heard. These continually evolved, during sessions, in a way that allowed women to generate further conversations and add to the stories, without being pressured to tell their own story.
Sensitivity and understanding were crucial in engaging survivors and practitioners. We created Scenario Cards; a tactile tool designed to enable people to share their own stories.
Every story shared was unique. Importantly, they illustrated how technology could be used – both positively and negatively.
For example, almost half of the women involved said they were monitored online or with technology – through trackers, apps, or internet blockers. A browser can be crucial for planning an escape, but a search history can instantly betray those plans.
A key gap in current online and tech solutions is finding advice and information which helps people make safe decisions in small windows of opportunity. Crucial information for women included financial and legal support, identified as the biggest gap in resources available.
Key design principles
The challenge of using technology in a secure and private way can make an already traumatic situation even more stressful. By highlighting the key opportunities at specific stages, we found out where targeted interventions can make a difference.
We also created a set of 7 Design principles, a summary of things heard, specific for women victims. Any solution for victims and survivors should be based on this core guide.
Awareness can lead to the change we need to see
To best ensure women’s safety when designing technology in this space, you have to think as an abuser. This is important because perpetrators remain one step ahead in re-purposing technology to their advantage.
Our work allows to change this. It also, effectively, turns survivors’ stories into actionable insights. Through these, those creating new technologies can better understand the issues around abuse and therefore build the appropriate life-changing tools into their products. Even the tools that are better designed can be tweaked or re-designed accordingly.
Finding the technology that has the potential to help victims recognise that they are in an abusive relationship earlier, which in turn would help them overcome the key barrier to getting support.
Realising that survivors are often under intense strain when they use digital tools, contributing to errors when attempting to browse privately, clear a search history, or delete data.
The workshops and processes opened conversations and brought people together. For victims and survivors it showed the importance of their voice. They were empowered and listened to. They got something tangible out of this.
One woman said it increased her confidence to speak publicly. Another survivor said, “Amazing! I learned a lot. I left with more hope and I feel a bit more beautiful.”
Importantly, it produced actionable results, paving a new way for the Tech vs Abuse funding programme.
"Snook are a passionate, committed, and thoughtful organisation to work with. They have a great range of skills, including research, service design, communications, and project management."Nissa Ramsay, Grants Digital Innovation Manager at Comic Relief