Class Blog Project updates

Design for Justice: Language Access — an introduction in week 1

by Sahil Chopra

Language is the medium by which we interact with culture, express our ideas, and maintain our rights. Without “language access”, i.e. the ability to convey one’s thoughts effectively and understand others correctly, one is disempowered altogether. At a societal level this can lead to systemic inequality, whether intentional or not; and one of the places where this is most evident is the court system.

This Autumn, I’m one of the 25 students enrolled in Stanford’s Design for Language Access, a course initiated by the Stanford Legal Design Lab to investigate and advise how state courts may better serve Californians entering the legal system, who either do not speak or have limited proficiency with English.

As the Judicial Council of California’s Strategic Plan for Language Access in California Court details, 40% of Californians speak non-English languages at home, 200+ languages and dialects are spoken by Californians as a whole, and approximately ~20% of Californians have English language limitations. Going to court is always a stressful experience, as the impetus to seek court help is often a difficult circumstance itself. Coupling the weight of the incident with the inability to communicate and properly resolve your issue only magnifies the stress incurred by the individual. Moreover, it may be difficult to properly resolve one’s legal issue and receive the proper access to one’s legal rights if they are unable to effectively communicate with lawyers, clerks, and judges within the judicial branch. Thus, “language access”, as the Judicial Council of California titles it, is a critical issue that we must address in order to ensure and fair and equitable legal proceedings.

Personally, I have no prior background with judicial systems. I’m a computer scientist by training, completing my BS/MS with concentrations in Artificial Intelligence and Human Computer Interaction – focusing a bulk of my research in cognitive science and natural language processing. But that’s where the diverse experience of my classmates come in. We are lawyers, teachers, designers, business students, and computer scientists — all hoping to better understand this space and offer a different perspective.

Over the next nine weeks, we shall apply the fundamental principles of “Design Thinking” to first observe and interview individuals going through the court system and then hypothesize, prototype, and test potential strategies that may provide better language access to millions of Californians. Our class will culminate in a list of possible solutions and implementations which the California courts may consider as potential avenues by which the state can improve language access at scale. Additionally, we shall be evaluating a pilot program that California courts is running in San Jose, where tablets with Google Translate are being employed to help ease communication between non-English-speaking clients and English-speaking court staff.

Stay tuned to learn more week-by-week about our journey to help provide better language access to Californians!

Class Blog Design Research

Designing a more user-friendly legal system: notes from the field

Today we held our Prototyping Access to Justice class on-site at San Mateo County court house, specifically in and around the Self-Help Center and Family Law Facilitator.

The six student teams are all at the point where they have working prototypes that they want to test. They each have hypotheses about how they can make the legal system better for people without lawyers, and have embodied these hypotheses into a new tool — digital- or paper-based.

Instead of our usual class setting at a design studio at Stanford’s, we created an impromptu class space in the Waiting Area on the 2nd floor of the Superior Court, where people are lining up to see people at the Self- Help Center, or are waiting to be called for an appointment. Some of the teams also set up testing spaces inside the Self Help Center, for when people had down-time after they had filled in forms or were waiting for next-steps.

The teams sought out people to give quick feedback, as well as longer experiential testing. They had interactive click-through prototypes of digital tools, paper mockups of new tools, posters and floor pathways for navigation, and tablets with new feedback forms. They had gift cards to give to user testers, to compensate for their time.

They tested their prototypes in small groups — with some taking notes (or translating into Spanish) and others leading the questions. They also had designer and developer coaches with them, to help them spot new opportunities and to run the testings.


So what were the takeaways? I was able to pull out some high-level insights during my debriefs with each team, as well as some specific points for improvement.

1. The forms are too many and too complex. This was a refrain that each team heard from users, no matter if their questions and prototype revolved around forms or not. If there is one big message that family law litigants have for courts, it is: make your forms easier to understand, and easier to complete.

There is an overload of paperwork, that is laid out in a way that does not make sense to people, and overwhelms them.

2. Little things about court — like parking, way finding, and security checks — have a big influence on people’s experience. Though we as lawyers might think about the legal procedure, forms, and hearings as the main determinants of people’s procedural justice and sense of fairness about court, there are other more pedestrian factors that shape their time with the legal system. If parking is difficult, expensive, or with a ticking timer, this puts an extra layer of pressure and confusion. If the security guards doing initial checks at the door are adversarial or cold, this raises the stress level of people and sets them off on a bad foot. If there is confusion about where they are going or how to get there, people lose confidence in themselves and feel that they are wasting time and not being strategic.

3. Pathways on the Floor should be implemented immediately. Our team Chukka-Ryorui, who are focused on improving navigation, put down a dotted red line from the building’s entrance to the Self Help Center on the 2nd floor. They used masking tape to make the line — and it took less than half an hour to implement. The feedback was universally positive. People were able to follow it and understand it without any complicated explanation. Users reported that they already are familiar with this pattern from hospitals, and appreciate having it here. They want bold color lines that they can follow easily, along with complementary signage.

We recommend that courts implement colored floor pathways for their most popular routes: Self Help Center, County Clerk, and Jury Services primarily. This is a relatively cheap intervention (vinyl floor paths are not that expensive) that can have a major impact.

4. “Out-of-Court Homework” Tasks must be Modeled + with reminders. As we heard from litigants and from staff, the most common fail points are around all the tasks that the litigant cannot do at the court, but must do outside. Getting service of process done, and done correctly, with the paperwork noted correctly with address, date, and other pieces of data is a very common failure. Also, remembering to get this done at the right time is also a fail point.

Some of the recommendations in this space is to have more reminder services that proactively reach out to the litigant to tell them they have to do this task before their service.

Also, the demand is for models of forms that have been done correctly, with annotations about why it is correct and how to do it right.

5. Be Mobile First, with guides and tools for the phone. The overwhelming majority of the people we spoke with have mobile phones, and are willing to use them to get legal tasks done. Tools must be built for phones, not desktops.

We are setting a bounty for the best new product that lets people understand processes and fill out forms using the phone. Even if this is not ideal — even if we wish that people would have the big screens of a desktop computer when they’re doing complex processes, they will be using mobile phones and paper handouts most of the time in practice.

Six. Maps are key. The team that was testing out a giant, slightly comic-based map of child custody process got great reviews. People responded well to their characters and to the map-based view.

They are thinking in terms of both a paper-based map (that could be a wall poster of a general ‘happy path’ of how the process works in the ideal, combined with a booklet of in-detail maps that include detours). And in terms of a digital map, that could be zoomed in.

People were able to instantly figure out the paper based map. They know how to use it. The digital map was harder — people were more hesitant to use it, and to know what to touch on the screen in order to see what would happen.


More insights to come as our class proceeds — stay tuned for more of our design work and proposals for making Self Help Centers and the legal system more user-friendly.

I am also quite excited about setting up a more regular pop-up design lab on site at courts and other points in the legal system. To create more relevant and interactive designs, having input directly from litigants and court professionals is highly valuable. And doing the prototyping in the environment also helps the designs better mesh with this particular context, and what affordances and opportunities already exist there.


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.