Ideabook Triage and Diagnosis

Can we improve how we deliver legal help via the Internet?

This week I have been finishing up my research paper on what user-centered standards for better online legal help sites would be. I had surveyed lay adults about how they’ve used the Internet in the past to respond to legal issues, and then also had them do some searches for legal help & reviews of certain legal help websites.

I’ve been playing around with small graphics to sum up some of the comments that the users have reported back. Here is one such visual:

Internet for Legal Help user voices

In addition, at Legal Design Lab we have started a working group around this topic specifically. You can read about our process here, and our outcomes, standards, and work here.


How do people use the Internet for legal services?

I have been working over the past few months on a research paper about how people use the Internet for legal help. I’ve been doing online questionnaires to develop insights into who legal users are — what a core typology of user types are, what their mental models are when searching for legal help for a problem in their lives, and what their preferences are for how to find and comprehend legal help.

I’ve followed those up with task analyses — having users use different legal websites to try to find information & see how they fare and react to various types of website designs.

Though writing is taking me longer than I wish it would, the results are truly fascinating & I’m excited to get them published in the near future. In the meanwhile, here are some of my notebook sketches from my initial plans of what my study would look like.

How do people use the Internet for legal services?How do people use the Internet for legal services? How do people use the Internet for legal services?

If you’re also interested in this topic, or have reading suggestions or thoughts for me — pass them along!


Can we use TV-law-love to improve real-life legal services?

Internet as legal help - why do we love to watch law and hate it in real life - color

I have been writing up my findings from a recent research study I did, on how lay people use the Internet to respond to legal problems that crop up in their lives.  I’m doing this as part of a longer design research inquiry, to develop best practices, guiding standards, and new models for online legal help resources.

One section of my research was asking my participants about their relationship with law. My intention was to find what the mental model & frameworks are in play, when they interpret their legal problem into an Internet search query, and as they sift through possible resources and decide which (if any) to trust and use.

In this block of questions, I asked participants to rank their general interest in learning more law, and to explain their response. I’ve been slightly surprised by how high one camp of people’s self-professed interest in learning law have been. One distinct group of respondents expressed an interest akin to:

‘I always thought I would have enjoyed going to law school, but I didn’t go’,

‘I want to understand the rules that apply to me and be prepared for situations that might come up’.

‘Law is really interesting, and I’m curious to know more.’

This is opposed to the other distinct (but much smaller) group of respondents who declare a firm disinterest in anything law.  This type of participant declared with certainty,

‘I don’t like law,’

‘I have no interest in law or anything about it,’ or

‘Doesn’t mean much to me.’

What I’m interested in is the potential to tap into the first group’s self-professed curiosity, if not fascination, with the legal system.  Even if most of them ranked their opinion of lawyers very low, they ranked their opinion of the legal system much higher.  They don’t want to be lawyers, but they want to be smart in this area & have an appetite for learning more. Some people tied their interest in law directly to a wish to be able to solve their own future legal problems, but many professed a general curiosity.

This leads me to hypothesize that there is a Law-as-Entertainment mental model for legal help resources to be tapping into.  For the users who are curious about learning more law, they also love consuming legal shows. When I asked the participants where they had learned law from, television was the number two source of legal information that people identified (just behind the Internet).  The interested-in-law group is consuming lots of fictional legal narratives on tv (if not also podcasts now…).

So my question becomes: How could we design legal help sites that tap into this one user group’s mixture of love of legal narratives,  plus legal curiosity & appetite to be ‘law smart’? 

Our current model of self-help, government, and even for-profit legal sites tend to take a ‘Reference Book’ as their model.  List out all the resources, let people browse or search their way to the right topic, and then tell them lots of information on this topic through text descriptions.  It is like looking into an encyclopedia or dictionary.

Could we remix this very dry experience — or just reframe it with subtle cues, phrasings, imagery, and interactions — to tap into more positive and rich mental models?  If people enjoy watching legal procedurals and dramas so much, can we borrow some elements from them to make online legal resources more engaging?

I’m not thinking full-blown dramatic narratives or character development.  But can we use more subtle & resource-light ways to make legal info resources more engaging? Some ideas:

  • Putting more faces, images, and visuals along with the text
  • Instead of having point by point descriptions of legal procedures, have annotated storyboards
  • Give sample, fictionalized anecdote versions of the legal info alongside the very functional, practical run-downs of info
  • Have interactive, game-like paths through the information, revealing it selectively & responsively, rather than all at once
  • Group info into a kind of narrative arc: that  about the background context, about the conflict, and about resolution, mimicking a standard storyline arc, and give the user the motivation to carry through this storyline themselves
  • Make Goofus/Gallant examples for legal procedure — how a person ideally would follow the procedure, versus a less-than-ideal path (what you could do wrong, how you could fall into common mistakes)

This is an initial brainstorm, possible directions with which to change or supplement the Reference Book model of legal resources.  Have you seen any good models in this direction, or do you have any ideas along this line?


Is the Internet the place for legal help?

I’m working this week on pulling together an academic paper I’ve been writing on best practices & design standards for online legal resource sites, aimed at helping lay people begin to address a legal problem that’s cropped up in their life.

Internet for legal help illustration - by Margaret Hagan

In my literature review, I keep circling back to articles coming out of University College London, which has done a large amount of quantitative & qualitative study of tech-based legal resources. These studies tend to be fairly skeptical of tech’s potential to help people actually resolve their legal issues.

The article Just a phone call away: Is telephone advice enough? from Nigel Balmer, Marisol Smith, Catrina Denvir and Ash Patel, compares the efficiency & quality of the experience of legal help given face to face, versus that provided over the telephone. It finds that telephone-based advice takes significantly longer than face to face.

It also runs down a shortlist of advantages & drawbacks of tech-based legal help. Tech-based legal help tools offer some main advantages to face-to-face services:

  • immediacy
  • convenience, enhances ease of access
  • lower cost to the service providers

Tech-based legal help may offer advantages to those users who have certain constraints:

  • mobility issues,
  • rural homes,
  • time pressures,
  • caring responsibilities,
  • without private transport

But it may not serve others:

  • those with difficulty communicating their needs and situation
  • those without good English language skills
  • those who don’t have access to tech in a private setting

Other article from UCL researchers dig into specific demographics’ use of tech-based legal help.  These pieces try to deflate the notion that the Internet will change access to justice in a major way, by looking into the limitations of how various groups engage (or do not) internet-based help.

The article Portal or pot hole? Exploring how older people use the ‘information superhighway’ for advice relating to problems with a legal dimension considers how people over 60 search the Internet for help — finding that most of this population in the UK do not use the Internet to find help, except for the ‘young aging’ who are more willing to try tech-based solutions.

On the other end of the age spectrum, the article Surfing the web – Recreation or resource? Exploring how young people in the UK use the Internet as an advice portal for problems with a legal dimension finds that even if young people in the UK have grown up with more technology in their lives, many still do not know how to effectively access legal help online.

The UCL researchers seem to be circling around skepticism about the promise of the Internet to revolutionize access to justice. When they look at UK data sets about lay people’s use of Internet & phone-based resources, they find many shortcomings.  Some of them are about users’ general lack of technological literacy & comfort, some of them are about the difficulty for a tech-literate person to navigate the Internet to effectively find relevant & rich help.

To me, this means that we should not stake all our work on exclusively Internet-based resources — but that we should still be investing a much larger amount of research, money & development into making the Internet more usable as a legal resource.  This means not only making individual legal help websites better designed — but also making search portals (especially Google) more intelligent in getting people’s search queries diagnosed as legal ones, and then dispatching them to public, non-profit sources of information that fit their jurisdiction & their situation.

Have you read any good research either examining the status quo of how lay people use the Internet for legal help — or about what new concepts, models, and requirements are for innovation in online legal help?  Send it along!