Class Blog Design Research

Drawing of a Housing Court waiting room

A sketch from my notebook, while I was observing a waiting room in a Court Service center in Boston, for people who were waiting for help with housing cases.

Class Blog Design Research

Summary of Spring 2016 class findings on Self Help Centers

In Spring 2016, Margaret Hagan and Janet Martinez taught a course at Stanford Law School, through the Policy Lab program, called Prototyping Access to Justice: Designing New Legal Services for Self-Help (see the official class description on Stanford Law’s site here).

In partnership with the California Judicial Council and Self-Help Centers in San Mateo and Santa Clara County, we ran through several design cycles to document how self-help centers currently welcome, orient, and provide services to people without lawyers, who are going through civil law (mainly family law) to solve their problems.


On this page, we document our process and some of our initial learnings. We will be writing up a more formal report and paper with our results. In the meantime, we present this as a more informal write-up, with lots of images.

Our Process

We followed a human centered design process to explore what new solutions would be possible. This meant that we had half of our classes at the University, in a workshop or lecture seven, in which the students learned design methods and then practiced them in teams. The other half of the classes were in the field. Our team worked in the courthouse in Redwood City, where the San Mateo County Self Help Center is located. We interviewed the staff that works there. We ran through the process of trying to find the Self Help Center and use it. We observed people as they were going through the service and interacting with the Center’s resources and staff. We did design reviews of how information was being communicated and how service was being provided.

Scoping out our Challenge

In our first class, our team spoke with our partners in the court and California judicial council in order to understand their perspective. We were particularly interested in how they framed the problem that our class would be addressing. We also asked them about previous efforts to improve self-help centers, as well as the legal, budget, and staff constraints that self-help centers must operate within.

From these conversations, our team focused on a few questions to guide our research at the court. We would focus on how to improve the welcome and orientation experiences of people who come to the court building in order to find help for their family law problems. In addition to this initial stage of engagement, we would also consider the experience of understanding the legal process and trying to follow it.

Our class, with its limited time frame, would not explore later steps, like negotiations or mediation, or enforcement of court orders. It would also not address the process of attending hearings and being strategic about them. Rather, we limited ourselves to the initial stages of the person figuring out the court system and using self-help resources to get started on their process.

In California, many people with issues around divorce, child custody, child support, and guardianship, try to navigate the legal system on their own without a lawyer. Often they seek out help from the self-help center in order to do it themselves. They seek out help in person as well as online. Our research would focus on those coming in person to the building, but we would also consider how to adapt our proposals to an online context.

In addition, many of the litigants in California do not speak English as their first language. There are also major issues with literacy in general, and literacy of legal jargon, written in English, in particular. We decided to sideline these issues of language access temporarily, and focus on litigants who at least could read English at the grade school level or above. But we recognize that any of our solutions, to truly serve access to justice, would need to adapt to foreign languages easily, as well as to low literacy situations as well.

We entered into our next phase of user and system research, with a scope down vision of which types of users we would be designing for, and what parts of court user experience we would focus on.  We would target people with English literacy who were starting off their family law court journey, and who chose to do so in person and not online.

Design Observations on site

We had three sessions in the court building and the self-help center to uncover problem areas, successes, and other needs and requirements for the people seeking out help for family law problems. During the sessions, we used a range of design research methods to understand the current Service design and user experience. These methods included observation, service safaris, interviews with users, interviews with staff and other professionals, and feedback sessions on sacrificial ideas. Using these methods, we were able to figure out more precisely how we could improve the user experience of the courts

We identified key touchpoints where the current Self-Help Center design was failing, and where it could be improved. They are as follows.

Target areas for user welcome and orientation to the court:

  1. Signage
  2. Names, Terms, Language
  3. Line and Triage
  4. Welcome Experience
  5. Physical Space
  6. Resources
  7. Directions
  8. Referrals

Target areas for navigation of the legal process:

  1. Filling in forms
  2. Understanding basics of process
  3. Knowing the detailed step-by-step
  4. Supporting Homework and Legwork outside of the Center
  5. Following through on the plan

Findings about our Target Users

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Signage isn’t supporting people

  • people get lost
  • people don’t read the signs, or after they read them, they go back to ask the security guard
  • no one is staffing the information booth
  • many signs outside the building, but with very different visual languages
  • importance of entry way right before the metal detectors
  • importance of after the metal detectors, that guard can refer to easily
  • fail point of at the escalator, whether to go up or to go straight
  • fail point of the self help center’s board that should be in the eyeline
  • all signs in English

Names and Terms don’t signify what they’re supposed to

  • importance of ‘start a divorce’ versus ‘help with a divorce’ — two different offices you might have to go to (clerk versus facilitator)
  • different signs refer to center by different names
  • clerk in office downstairs doesn’t consistently say same name
  • people in the know say “Family Law Facilitator”, few people say Self-Help
  • but confusion with “Family Law Facilitator” or “Family Law Services” or “Family Law Clerk”
  • nothing feels ‘natural’

The Pain of the Line

  • people don’t like waiting inside the actual center — too cramped, not private, really “feel the line”, anxious about making it through, it’s hot, it’s uncomfortable
  • “The Line” experience sets off on a negative foot, the line-ness makes them angry at each other, feel length
  • people don’t know what to expect, what they can get from here or not
  • can’t prep beforehand, get a jump on the line through online or phone channels, need to show up and hope for the best

Where is the Welcome?

  • feeling of confusion and lostness until they reach the center — undermines confidence, makes them feel lost
  • feeling of intimidation, whether they can even enter the door of the Center
  • Bulletin Board resources is not in their eyeline, often missed
  • No strong signal that “you’ve arrived in the right place”
  • not enough human people to guide — just the security guards
  • clerks in office downstairs could be a valuable welcoming point, to direct people to the center, but they do not give clear or enthusiastic referrals to Center

The Physical Space’s discomfort and exposure

  • Lack of privacy for very sensitive and confidential information about family problems
  • Really tough if you have an infant or toddler who’s not potty trained
  • Not enough chairs
  • Not enough physical space to do the interviews
  • Computers are not used (potentially should be removed completely?)

Lots of Resources, but not enough order to them

  • Many scattered notices and resources, without clear labels about who they’re for, and what their value is
  • Signs and resources are small, printed in too small a way
  • Staff verbally give directions and support (like with clerks downstairs), but without knowing how much people actually take in
  • Lots of next steps, hard to take in
  • Physical directions to other offices or buildings are verbally described, hard to remember

Early stage Concepts

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As soon as we began this design cycle, we took note of any ideas that we had. Even though there is a designated part our work cycle in which we would do brainstorming, we acknowledge that good ideas pop up even when we are supposedly focused on other things, like observing the space or doing interviews. Anytime an idea was suggested to us or something triggered an idea in us, we jotted it down, and then did regular debriefs as a team to share these ideas.

Many of the ideas are very sketchy, without much detail or thought about implementation. But this large collection of concepts helped us to have a very productive brainstorm, and gave us a lot of material with which to pattern and then prioritize the concepts we felt were most promising take forward. We also used many of these early concepts as sacrificial prototypes/provocations, that we could show to our users or to court staff, and get their feedback as well as their additional ideas.

Iterated, improved designs

By our final presentation to our Court partners in May 2016, we had made some decisions about which ideas to prioritize as suggested pilots in the Self-Help Center. We combined some ideas, and we staged them from the most immediate and do-able, to the most ambitious and resource-demanding.

We’d also point back to a Guardianship/Court Design workshop that we ran two years ago. This previous workshop was focused on self-help guardianships, and produced a range of concept designs to help litigants through this particular family law procedure. Those ideas are listed out on our workshop page here. We noticed some overlap between those proposals and ours here.

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Self Help Center essential research

In our interviews with experts and court professionals, we identified some of the core challenges and needs.

Here are some of the highlights:

  • More and more people are coming to the civil court system without a lawyer
  • Judges, clerks, and other court professionals have an obligation to be neutral, but they also must serve these people without lawyers
  • Many of these court professionals are trying to figure out ways that they can be supportive and warm to users, without biasing the system towards them. They don’t want to be totally passive, but they don’t want to be hyperactive in support.
  • They try to help people present the facts clearly, so that the story of what’s going on is clear — so the justice system can work well
  • People can’t figure out how to present their facts and issues on their own — they need assistance to do this

We also heard some core needs and constraints, the “lay of the land” of how the systems work and what dynamics are going on.

About Self Help Centers as a thing:

  • They are run at Courts, on site
  • They are led by a lawyer as a managing director, with support from other attorneys, non-attorneys, and Justice Corps volunteers
  • They must be Neutral
  • They are not the lawyers of the people who come in. There is no confidentiality or other features of an attorney-client relationship
  • They can’t go into court with the person

Many of the people fit into the following categories:

  • they’re employed
  • they make less than $3000 a month
  • many are Spanish-speaking, or don’t have English as their first language
  • many are not of White background
  • many are being referred by word of mouth, clerks, judges, forms, or the website
  • they come seeking “some legal help”
  • then they return for follow-up checks and support — typically there are three visits in family cases.

The goals of the Self Help Center and the Judicial Council are as follows:

  • They want to identify systemic problems they can fix
  • They want to build partnerships and coalitions to enhance the center
  • They want to get beyond just helping the person get the paperwork right — but also improve negotiation and strategy skills
  • They want to figure out ways to make a wider continuum of services available, from lawyers to non-lawyers to tech services

The problems of the system are that it is:

  • designed for lawyers
  • there are very complex choices, because of how the law is structured
  • the forms are made for people with lawyers
  • there is a wide variety of people coming in for service

The opportunities experts see are that:

  • we can use technology, online services, and off-site services
  • we promote more listening and respect for people
  • we give more guidance and navigation
  • we help people advocate for themselves when they are before the judge, so they can make better use of hearings
  • we can identify and redirect complex cases (about 20% of the cases)
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User situations in Self Help Centers

As we have been researching the status quo situation of the Self Help Centers, we’ve identified some common types of users. They are as follows.

People with their kids, stressed and overwhelmed. They either can’t get child care, or brought them hoping to use court child care, but couldn’t because of the age/potty-training requirements

People who are stressed, anxious, and overfilled with emotion because of the life problem they’re in.

People with mental health problems that affect their ability to focus and navigate in the court setting.

People with very limited English proficiency, who don’t feel comfortable with legal English procedures and paperwork.

People, especially children and youth, who are serving as navigators for an adult, who have a language issue or mental capacity issue, that keeps them from being able to navigate themselves.

These are not all the user types, but some of the ones with the most pressing needs that we saw at various Self Help Centers.

Ideabook Wayfinding and Space Design

Making the court Self Help Center more friendly and human

Could we remake the Self Help Center to be more colorful, friendly, and humanized?

This could be with more art on the wall, with more aesthetically and purposefully structured walls of resources. It could also have things for toddlers and other kids to focus on, so that they are focused, calm, and not distracting their parents and others.