When a sexual assault survivor goes to an emergency room to get a rape kit, they could be there for 2 hours—or for 10. They’ll most likely be paired with a nurse who has has never administered a rape kit before (many hospitals don’t even have Sexual Assault Nurse Examiners, who are specially trained to help survivors, on staff), let alone been trained in how to properly handle criminal evidence. The nurse must work through the up-to 15 steps involved, each with its own often complicated instructions for how to collect and store the evidence swabbed from the person’s body or scraped from under their nails. The whole time, the survivor is often in the dark about what will happen to them next. At a time when victims are seeking help, and when nurses want to help them, the process can make everyone feel helpless.
When Antya Waegemann first heard about the rape kit backlog—both in terms of unsubmitted and untested rape kits—she thought, “This has to be a design problem.” When she looked into what rape kits exactly are, that design problem became even more obvious. Waegemann, a product designer who got her master’s at the School of Visual Arts, set out to redesign the rape kit as part of her studies. Called RN Advocate, or RNA, the redesigned kit and corresponding app is the winner in the students category of Fast Company’s 2020 World Changing Ideas Awards.
“These kits are so neglected, and their design and their function is at the bare minimum,” she says. “It’s also an area that so clearly hasn’t had any design in it. There’s so many people working on the policy, people working on procedures, but not many people that understand user-centered design or the power of color and visuals and how we can make it easier for these nurses.”
Waegemann’s work started with her becoming a sexual assault and domestic violence advocate at New York Presbyterian Hospital, where she supported survivors while they were being examined. Waegemann watched nurses stumble over complicated rape kit instructions and carry out parts of the exam that weren’t necessary—like a cervical swab even though the person only experienced an oral assault—because they were overwhelmed and unsure of what they really needed to do. She watched survivors be retraumatized by the experience and be unsure of what was happening to them during the procedure.
Her redesigned kit focuses on making the process easier for nurses as well as survivors in three ways: using visual instructions and graphics to help nurses navigate the instructions, color-coordinated steps so the nurse knows which steps are necessary and which they can skip based on the survivor’s experience, and a patient-facing app that lets the survivor follow along during the exam. By streamlining the design, Waegemann says, she can helpfully reduce at least one of the many “overloads” that both nurses and survivors deal with in that moment, empower more nurses to conduct a rape kit rather than turn survivors away, and empower survivors with knowledge about what they will undergo.
Waegemann is now working with the Sexual Assault Nurse Examiner program to hear feedback and explore testing for her RNA redesigned rape kit, which is just one product of her thesis, “When No One Believes You: Redesigning the Rape Kit and Responses to Sexual Assault.” In it, she explores multiple design interventions for sexual assault survivors, nurses, and police, to help close the gap between the number of sexual assaults—in the U.S., someone is sexually assaulted every 92 seconds—and the number of reported sexual assault crimes—only about 30% of sexual assault victims report the crime.
“I really focused on what I call the aftermath of an assault,” she says. “How do survivors find what their resources are? How do they find out what a rape kit is? How do they find out if they want one? How do they get one?” She envisions this redesigned kit as one part of a larger restructuring of how we can help survivors. “Right now responses we have for sexual assault victims are so horrible and frankly unacceptable,” she adds. “You break your arm and you can get help. Your car gets stolen and you can get help. There’s no reason why getting help after a sexual assault should be so difficult, and the kit is a really crucial tool within seeking justice and finding help.”