So, you wanna build an app?

Part II: Know your audience

If you’re building an app for survivors of abuse, your mantra should always be: first, do no harm. Survivors of abuse may be using your app in the middle of a crisis, or while looking for help to escape a violent situation. Although you can’t predict how someone will use your app, you can minimize harm by building an app that takes the unique needs of your audience into consideration. Below are some tips for doing just that.

Don’t Create a False Sense of Security

Because survivors may rely on your app to help them find safety or to get time-critical information, the app needs to work as it’s intended. Unfortunately, many apps that have been created for survivors are so complex they often don’t work the way the designers intended. We tested dozens of apps whose sole promise was to locate a victim when they’re in danger, but many of them didn’t always show exact location. Sometimes it was off by a few houses and sometimes it was off by a few miles. If your app promises personal security and safety as a key function, you have to make sure it works accurately every time, and in every environment (rural/suburban/urban).

Don’t Overpromise

Carefully market your app, and be sure not to imply that it does more than it’s actually able to. We’ve seen many safety apps created for victims of abuse that are marketed with claims that are blatantly false, and that (unethically) try to appeal to the victim’s need for safety. Some of these marketing ploys include: “#1 Prevention of Sexual Assault!”, “You’ll never be in danger again,” and “It’s like having a police officer in your pocket.” Even though the developers may have had good intentions, not only are these claims unrealistic, they can be dangerous if someone were to accept them as true.

Such claims may keep the user from thinking through other safety measures they could take. If users believe that your app is the only safety strategy they need, you’ve likely created a false sense of security that can result in unintended danger to the victim. Moreover, if someone has the app and does get assaulted, it can contribute to victim blaming – accusations that the victim had a safety app that could have prevented the assault, if only they’d used it properly. Simply put: don’t tell victims the app will keep them safe. There is no app that can stop an abusive partner from trying to harm their victim – the only thing that can stop that from happening are abusers themselves.

Be Accurate About Your Information

Because the app is created for someone who might be in danger, make sure that the information in your app is accurate. Resources should link to accurate phone numbers or websites, and be appropriate for your intended audience. For example, if your app is for victims of domestic violence, list local domestic violence programs in the resources section, rather than listing general health services. Remember that even if your app is meant for a specific location (such as your city) or population (such as teens), anyone can download the app, so resources should be applicable to all users (you can include the National Hotline in addition to the local hotline numbers), or clearly state who can use the resources. Double and triple check the information you’ve listed (websites, phone numbers, and other contact information) to make sure it’s correct, and make this a part of your ongoing maintenance plan.

Be Accurate in Your Language

If you don’t have expertise in the dynamics of domestic violence, sexual assault, or stalking, work with experts in those respective fields to develop your content and to ensure your language is correct and appropriate. Domestic violence, sexual assault, and stalking are all very nuanced issues. Users of your app could be in a traumatised state of mind when they’re using your app, and your content needs to be sensitive. Victims may not yet have the words or definitions to explain what they’re experiencing, and the way you describe it may have a major impact on their understanding. Work with domestic violence, sexual assault, and stalking victim experts to help you write content that is appropriate.

This series was written by our sister project, the U.S. Safety Net Project at the National Network to End Domestic Violence. This series is based on lessons learned when developing the NNEDV Tech Safety App, and in reviewing dozens of apps created for victims of domestic violence, sexual assault, and stalking.

Read the previous article in this series: Part I: What to consider before developing an app

Part I: What to consider before developing an app

Read the next article in this series, Part III: Safety first

Part III: Safety first