How the justice system can learn from unemployment insurance

The federal government is newly focused on Customer Experience (CX). That has meant that their teams are creating better websites, tools, and forms that can help people get their business with agencies done more easily.

The Department of Labor has a team working on modernizing Unemployment Insurance. See their examples & guidance about how to use better design and tech to improve people’s experience with the government.

These strategies and examples can be used by courts, legal aid groups, and other justice system actors to improve their processes, as well. These practices include:

  • Plain Language
  • Mobile-Friendliness
  • Automated Quality Testing Tools
  • Keeping the Backend and improving the frontend
  • Redesigning Notices and Application Forms

The website has specific guidance on improving the usability of each of these initiatives.

For example, here are quality feedback tools to run:
Background Class Blog

Talking with the Public Policy Lab about design and government innovation

This quarter, I’m co-teaching a class, Community-Led System Design with Janet Martinez at Stanford Law School/ We are bringing various innovators who are doing human-centered design work in government and legal systems. We, and our students, will be documenting what we learn during this class from our guest speakers and our own work.

The Public Policy Lab team presenting at the

Our first visitors were Chelsea Mauldin and Shanti Mathew, from Public Policy Lab in New York. We have admired their work on affordable housing, social support services, and public health work — all done with tremendous respect for the communities they’re serving and methods that put community-members’ voice at the center of decision-making. 

The Public Policy Lab’s website

Chelsea and Shanti joined us virtually from their New York office, to discuss their approach, their projects, and insights for future public policy innovators.

As you can explore on the website, the Public Policy Lab team works with municipal and federal agencies. As a non-profit, the Public Policy Lab is an independent group, but they work closely with partners inside the government to create new initiatives to better deliver services and support to the public.

They work at a core point of friction: between the policy-maker’s point of view, which often is utopian, rational, and bureaucratic — and members of the public’s point of view, which often is pragmatic, cognitively overloaded, and disempowered. 

Finding how to move forward, with a tension between Policy-Makers and The Public

They have figured out ways to use design to better identify opportunities and test them. This means going through a few phases — of doing research and identifying key problems and opportunities, then co-creating, prototyping, and testing with community members, and finally refining and doing storytelling and market-building.

Stanford students mapping out design process to use in tackling legal system challenges

If you do one project with a policy-maker, you might set a new example inside the organization. A human-centered process can change the posture of the agency toward the public they serve — there are ripple effects on how people in the agency interact with the public, and how they set up services.

How can you find the right partner?

Some possible project partners are motivated by the group’s own concern for some big societal issues — and other times it is the government agencies who come with issues (sometimes with funds or not). Some of the work is funded by philanthropic grants.

The Lab team has found wonderful partners in the government, who are smart, dedicated policy-makers — who are passionate and engaged. What is challenging is that public agencies are complex entities, so there is a huge number of moving pieces with distributed authority. Some of the challenges that have arisen:

  1. How can you make change in a complex system that isn’t particularly top-down (one person can say change this, and everything changes)?
  2. To what degree do our partners have power and influence? We need to come up with a plan that speaks to their power and constraints.

When the Lab is scoping partners, they need to define ‘What does success look like?” and “Who is involved in this system”? There will never be enough time or money to do all the things the group wants to do. So they ask:

  • What do we want to get to? Let’s define success concretely.
  • Who are the people involved in service-delivery? Whose agreement do you need to get to make changes on the ground? If they want successful implementation, they are going to need to get them on the board.

How can you work well on System Design?

One big lesson they offered: No conference calls — you need to be in the same room together, especially if they are going to tell you anything uncomfortable. You should do some stakeholder mapping exercise with your partner — who are the individual types of humans involved in the decision-making they are talking about, who are the actual humans — it is Mary and Bob to convince to get them on board.

Starting our System Maps in class, of the Guardianship Legal System

Usually they do a half-day workshop, to cover big topics like ‘what are we doing here’, ‘ have the partners talk about it’, ‘we visualize it as they talk about it’, ‘how will we define success’, ‘what are we going to make’, and the logistics of how we’ll do it.

How can you plan for resistance to change?

You can assume there will be people who will resist change. You will never expect people to do what they don’t want to do.

You need to design it for uptake. You need to design what people will embrace because it will benefit them. That’s why to start with observational research — how are people working around the problem, what are the strategies they are already using? Use people’s current behaviors to design for those outcomes. You can amplify the current behaviors, so that they are likely to do what you are expecting.

Can you find a design space where people all want the same thing? You want to find a space where there is alignment.

In addition, you need to see the people in the field, who have capacity and boots-on-the-ground. Who has extra knowledge and assets that you could use in a new program design? You can then activate those resources.

The trickiest population is mid-level management, whose job satisfaction and success aren’t directly affected by the system you’re trying to improve, and who don’t have lived experiences with it. They won’t have as much skin in the game.

What are main challenges to get engagement and involvement

Getting access to people — especially the right people, is more challenging than you would expect. It’s never that easy to get approvals.

The Lab believes in meeting with people in their space, so you are not the ‘expert’ in your ‘focus group’ — but rather in their kitchen, and you are a guest in their home, to learn about their lives. It takes someone whose job it is to arrange those research opportunities, hours on the phone or on text. The logistical challenge is huge, but it is worth it.

Once that happens, then people are incredibly generous with their knowledge and experiences and follow-up. They’re almost always kind and helpful to the process.

If it’s impossible to do substantial, one-on-one engagements — and you have to do ‘Stranger’ research, like a card table in the lobby and intercepting, you can get a lot of knowledge, but you won’t have an ongoing relationship. That may be okay, but know the limits of what you are able to understand about these people.

Often the Lab does rounds of research and testing with different populations, because it’s impossible to get the same people back. You get fresh eyes looking at your work every time. Your design has to work harder.

They always compensate members of the public for their time. But don’t give so much that you are buying their answers — so that you are paying them for what you want to hear.

Thinking through ethics and consent during design research

How to be ethical, and get quality consent?

How do you do informed consent — it is hugely important. Let’s talk about consent procedures. The work designers do is inherently exploitative — we extract people’s experiences and input, then turn around to make something that will not necessarily benefit them directly. We need to be clear on that as our team, and with that knowledge in our team — we are aware of it.

The Lab encourages us to reframe Consent. Instead of consent oriented around protecting your organization — so you won’t be sued, can consent rather be about what the person should expect. So that people know that photos, audios, etc. might be shared out — you are using someone’s face to sell your work, do they understand it? Do they understand where their image might end up? If we take a photo of them, do they know what will happen with it — that it might be on the Internet.

Also, can you aggregate stories, so you are not exposing a single person? We try to get away from anything that could identify a person. We create personas based in research, but they are so aggregated that there is no single person’s life recognizable there.

Especially if a person has less agency — like a child, a person in prison, a person in the hospital, a person with mental illness — we need to be even more transparent with what we’ll do, and what to expect.

During the process, we need to work as hard as we can to strip our own professional authority away — and give the power to the user. Give them final oversight of whatever you’re creating, and ask them for what they would change.

Evaluation and Metrics

The Lab is working on our own evaluation process, because it’s very complicated and it’s hard to determine causality. It takes a long time — how do we actually see changes? It might take 4–5 years after the policy design happened. What do you measure at what point?

When we define a Theory of Change at the outset of our project — we think about evaluation in a few different ways:

  • How do we measure the design of the thing?
  • How do we measure the experience of the partner?
  • How do we measure how policy and organizations change?

The Lab can measure output (kids show up to school; kids aren’t as hungry; people are less poor) for program evaluation. That is often outside their scope of their project partner engagement. They can measure compliance: are staff referring families, are they filling in the form correctly, are families getting set up with a case manager? Those are actions in the program that they can track.

In a past project, they had made lots of design artifacts and strategies, so they could then evaluate: did the partner put posters up, did they table at the school fair, did they send the text messages? Those are our design evaluations, to see if the new system worked. This is formative research, to learn what to design — to see are they working, and how they are not working. The evaluation helps them learn how to redesign.

The Lab is trying to flick multiple levers — not just a single form, they’re doing multiple touch points across a service journey across time, and it’s about human interactions, not just a single form. How do you track systems-level impact? It’s a huge question, that they’re working on.

Many thanks to Chelsea and Shanti for visiting our class, and we are looking forward to seeing more of their work! Read more about the Public Policy Labhere.

Background Class Blog

The Rise of Design in Policymaking: In conversation with Verena Kontschieder

By Ayushi Vig, This was originally posted in our Medium publication Legal Design and Innovation

In Community-Led System Design, a Stanford Law School/ course this quarter, we are speaking with people working on systems- and policy-design projects, from a human-centered design perspective. One of our guests was Verena Kontschieder, a visiting research student at the Center for Design Research.

Verena at our class

Verena’s topic was the growing number of Policy Labs in governments and intergovernmental organizations — and how more policy-makers are using design approaches for better governance and systems change.

Verena’s talk, illustrated by Margaret Hagan

Design approaches to crop theft

Verena began her talk with a case study how design is coming into policy-making: regarding praedial larceny in the Caribbean subregion.

Praedial larceny is the theft of growing crops. It had been the most significant crime in the region for over two decades, with its rate of occurrence only rising.

At the international governance level, policymakers and the Food and Agriculture Organization had been conducting constant research on praedial larceny in efforts to reduce the problem. They found that only 45% of all cases were reported and traced. They interpreted this as being due to the inertia of the region’s police forces, which led to wide frustration and distrust among people. Still, however, they were not able to improve the situation, and the occurrence of PL continued to rise.

Three years ago, the FAO decided to try a new approach. Together with the World Bank, it worked with multiple NGOs, civil society organizations, and trade unions to conduct on-the-ground design work. These organizations interviewed hundreds of people who had been affected by and involved in praedial larceny in some capacity. Very quickly, they discovered that the problem was not the police; rather, it was a combination of shame and societal structure. People were not reporting cases of praedial larceny out of a fear of being marginalized, as the stigma of being an informant in that society was just too high.

This case study was significant for me because it vividly illustrated how research at the international governance level can fail to capture the reality of the people on the ground (such as for over 20 years in this example!). As Verena pointed out however, it is important to remember that both these approaches are valid, albeit in different contexts.

The rising Labscape

This case study also illustrates a shift in paradigm that is currently occurring worldwide. Verena called this a shift towards “labscapes”, i.e. policy labs working across landscapes while also acting as a “safe place to do dangerous things”. This lab movement is driven by academia, business, government, and the private sector, and has been particularly prominent since 2012.

Verena’s talk, illustrated by Margaret Hagan

These policy labs, such as the African Development Bank Policy Innovation Lab and the Laboratorio de Gobierno, are taking on different shapes and formats, but the nature of their existence is similar. They are all working to enable stakeholders to come together in a physical space in the face of complex policy changes in manners not addressable in traditional institutions, while at odds with traditional policymaking.

Verena also discussed her own Ph.D research, which consists of multi-sited case studies on policy labs at the international governance level, with the goal of examining the intersections of innovation, policy, and design.

Verena’s talk, as illustrated by Margaret Hagan

One of her key findings thus far is that there is an institutional vs. individual level break in the labspace. Policy and society are detached at various levels; policymakers and institutions lack transparency and often even direct accountability, and there is, as a result, a sore lack of institutional trust on behalf of citizens, who feel extremely alienated from these higher-up levels of governance.

Verena’s talk, as illustrated by Margaret Hagan

Verena emphasized that humility should be a key aspect of any design process — as designers and policymakers, it is important to know that we are fallible and no longer the experts. Rather, we need to be sourcing the experience and knowledge of communities directly affected by the issues we seek to tackle. Verena also raised the question of what the role of policy and policymakers should be, and whether it should just be one of enabling NGO’s and/or the private sector to tackle social problems.

Verena’s talk, as illustrated by Margaret Hagan

Verena ended by raising several thoughtful and important questions that are emerging from her research:

1. Are policy and political incentives misaligned? Is innovation possible in the absence of market incentives?

2. Are out-of-lab policy initiatives not innovative? If not, why is innovation not happening outside the lab?

3. As designers, should we strive to reformat entire organizational systems, or let design trickle down organizational hierarchies to produce meaningful change?


Getting to 100% Access to Justice

A vision from the Judicial Council’s Bonnie Hough at the UCHastings conference on equal access to justice.


Simple at the front, Smart at the back: design for access to justice innovation

A colleague working on improving the legal system in New Zealand from a user-centered design perspective mentioned this phrase to me in a recent email: Simple at the Front, Smart at the Back. Now it’s my constant refrain.

What does it mean? That when we build tools, guides, explainers, or anything else for laypeople to deal with the legal system, they should be simple, intuitive & clear for the person. But this interface should be covering up a very intelligent and robust complex system. We aren’t actually ‘simplfiying’ so much as improving the user experience of the system through tools that make people feel that navigating the system is simple. Using the power of coordinated, interactive, smart technology (and planning) we can make complex systems seem simple.

Next week I am convening a working group on how we can make the internet a better place for legal help.
This is one of the three main themes of work this year at my Legal Design Lab at Stanford. The main question is how we can make it incredibly easy for a lay person who is using Google or the starting point to find legal info, to get them from their Google search to essential information about their situation, tools and information to help them make smart decisions, and then actually follow through on them.

My goal is to promote more coordination among the many organizations that currently (and could possibly) provide these online services right now.

These are not a standard group of people. Some of them are non-legal — search engine providers like Google, Microsoft, Yahoo, or referral services like 211 & United Way. Others are legal help site maintainers, or courts, or the attorney general office, or consumer law companies, or startups, or legal aid groups, or non-profits, or legal publishers. So many different entities, all potentially with value to offer a person on their journey from “Do I Have a Legal Problem?” to “I Got My Problem Resolved.”

The future I see is one of coordination of all these various service-providers so that a layperson in search of help can journey between their services seamlessly — with all their personal information in tow, knowing how to get from one provider to the next, not getting confused or lost after one service’s offering ends, and having the different providers help her along to resolution.

To get to this seamless user journey & enjoyable online user experience, it might be tempting to call for a Mega Portal. This would be the one amazing, well-designed, user-friendly, comprehensive website that can get a person from problem-query to answers, appointments, and tools.

This is a pie-in-the-sky dream, and also not that close to what different people actually want. There will not be the one almighty legal site that everyone in the country will go to. The closest we will get on that front is Google. There is simply no strong enough legal brand or comprehensive-enough resource that can cover all the many touchpoints a person must go through in a typical legal process.

Rather than bank on this one almighty Mega Portal, I see a future where we can build a whole lot of different ways to access this coordinated legal system. It would be full of different apps, websites, in-person stations, court and self-help kiosks, text messaging systems — and whatever new technology is coming our way in the next decades. We don’t need one perfect portal, we need a rich ecosystem of new & cutting-edge tools that can get different kinds of people to the same legal help.

Better internet for legal help coordinated system w many doors

And to achieve this vision, what’s the key thing — the first step? It sure doesn’t sound sexy, but I am increasingly obsessed with it: Data Standards. APIs. Getting all these different kinds of Internet-based legal service providers to make sure that their systems can talk to each other, that they accessibly present their databases of information about what legal help exists, who can access what, what rules apply to whom, what documents to submit, where to submit them, and on & on….

We can’t afford to live in the current siloed & proprietary world, where vendors and agencies hoard data & don’t talk to other service-providers. Where groups build a legal services tool and then don’t let this tool talk to other tools or pass a user over to next steps on her journey. We need to set requirements that providers must coordinate with each other, for the sake of the legal user. The layperson’s attempts to find help are going to be disjointed, confusing, and frustrating to the point of giving up if all these different providers don’t talk to each other, and help the person go from an Internet search to a trustworthy, supportive path of legal help.

Now’s the time to be investing in the infrastructure of the Internet for Legal Help. It will make Google search results better — surfacing jurisdiction-correct and public help resources, instead of spammy and irrelevant hits. It will allow for a new generation of legal tools to be built by young entrepreneurs and lawyers, who have ideas for better ways to present legal resources, or who just want to experiment in this space. It will foster innovation in access to justice, by giving a solid backbone of content and resources for innovators to draw from and a network of other tools to link to.

That’s how we’re going to get to “Simple in the Front and Smart in the Back” — with investment in coordinating the underlying system of how service providers present their info & share it with other providers, and by opening up the consumer law/access to justice space for more experimentation and creation.


Everyone is starting to get it: innovating access to justice

Here is a small sketch I made while listening to talks at the Legal Service Corporation’s 40th Anniversary celebration in downtown San Francisco last month. It was from Justice Jonathan Lippman, the Chief Judge of NY’s Court of Appeals. The conversation was about the growing momentum from courts and lawyers to invest in new ways of providing services, getting legal information to laypeople, and giving support mechanisms to help people through the complicated court system. Chief Judge Lippman has been a consistent & vocal advocate for more user-friendly & innovative court systems, and he said that more legal professionals are coming around to this point.


6 orders of legal design: how we can intervene in the legal system to improve it

I’ve been thinking systematically over the past few months, as I’ve been looking back over design work and initiatives going on in the world of legal innovation, and bringing design into law. Here’s one of the schematics I’ve created, to make sense of what I’ve been observing.6 orders of legal design

These 6 Orders are the categories of interventions we working to improve access to justice — laypeople’s access to and empowerment within the legal system. I’ve drawn them out at an abstract level, but tried to hint at what kind of tools and policies would be contained in each.

I’ve listed them out in order of ambition too. Like I’ve written earlier on this blog, I’m eager to move conversations about user experience and usability beyond just making more Plain Language — or even beyond just making more visual and clean-composition interventions. Those are important, but they are also just the first orders of what could be happening.

I am pushing for interventions that are more ambitious — giving laypeople more ability to understand and customize legal info, legal processes, legal options for their own wise planning. Access to Justice requires more than just presenting info — it requires creating comprehension and decision-making tools for people, who are stuck in complex systems.

And, of course, the big target is making the system less complex. Why must procedures be so laborious and obscure? If we can change regulations and procedures within courts and legal services, then we can make big strides in improving laypeople’s comprehension & ability to navigate these systems.


Moving Legal Innovation from Waterfall to Agile

How can we develop new solutions in agile, responsive ways? So that if we see a problem or hear a user need — that we take action, try something in a lightweight way, small way — a hack, rather than a huge undertaking?

This is the idea that is coming out of the world of government improvements, that I’m hearing again and again at the Code For America summit. Moving from the ‘Waterfall’ method of developing new things, to the ‘Agile’ method. Could we bring this into the world of Courts & Legal Aid?

That’s what I’m starting to play with with my projects & teams at Stanford’s Legal Design Initiative — it would be great to expand this into the institutions themselves. Could we open up a court room or two to be sandboxes, in which we researchers and designers can come in and try new interventions that respond to user needs in really quick, but also very real ways, so that we can gather data & refine them quickly? Instead of overplanning & deferring innovation, can’t we act sooner and then use the data and feedback to figure out the idea’s worth and figure out the best way to solve the needs?


Court innovations at the Code for America Summit

2015-09-30 12.06.10

I’m excited to be speaking at the Code For America Summit this week in Oakland — and trying to make the bridge between the robust & big-energy civic tech world, and the world of legal innovation.

Very excited to see a small subset of people interested in making the government better (more accessible, more user-friendly, more engaging) who are also interested in courts and the justice system. Look at this unconference proposal for tomorrow:
2015-09-30 12.06.16


My (sketched) vision of the future of accessible legal services

How can we help people on-ramp into the legal system in much easier & accessible ways? This is the solution that’s been growing in my mind (but still obviously a little rough) over the last few months.

Accessible Legal Services

We need to invest in several layers at once:

1) The especially hard one: Building a central repository (or a smart, organized network) of all the information about legal services that people need when they are figuring out what legal help they need & how they can get it. This includes: basic legal info about options and procedures, eligibility info about what they qualify for, service options and hand-offs to people/orgs who can help them, know your rights materials that help them spot legal issues and respond to them quickly.

2) The more designerly one: Building better tools, interfaces, and user-facing services that help people access information from this central repository in a clean, just-in-time, quick way. These are the apps, websites, kiosks, in-person meetings, SMS channels that let a person find the right help for them right when they need it.

3) The flashier one: Building a single, memorable brand that lets a person know that the legal help they’re accessing is trustworthy, up-to-date, and right for them, and that is sticky enough that they can remember it if they’re in an emergency or just far away from lawyers.

A lot to do, I know — but an exciting one, and something that is not impossible. I have been experimenting in this second camp over the past few years — with websites & SMS channels that would let people find and access content in user-friendly ways. But I keep coming back to camp #1 & #3. We need all three in order to build a truly accessible & 21st century system of legal services.

I’m excited to be working with Open Referral & others on starting to think about how #1 is achievable, at least in a small Bay Area pilot.

Are you interested in any of these 3 undertakings? Let me know!