Participatory Design for Innovation in Access to Justice

Margaret Hagan at Daedalus: “Most access-to-justice technologies are designed by lawyers and reflect lawyers’ perspectives on what people need. Most of these technologies do not fulfill their promise because the people they are designed to serve do not use them. Participatory design, which was developed in Scandinavia as a process for creating better software, brings end users and other stakeholders into the design process to help decide what problems need to be solved and how. Work at the Stanford Legal Design Lab highlights new insights about what tools can provide the assistance that people actually need, and about where and how they are likely to access and use those tools. These participatory design models lead to more effective innovation and greater community engagement with courts and the legal system.

A decade into the push for innovation in access to justice, most efforts reflect the interests and concerns of courts and lawyers rather than the needs of the people the innovations are supposed to serve. New legal technologies and services, whether aiming to help people expunge their criminal records or to get divorced in more cooperative ways, have not been adopted by the general public. Instead, it is primarily lawyers who use them.1

One way to increase the likelihood that innovations will serve clients would be to involve clients in designing them. Participatory design emerged in Scandinavia in the 1970s as a way to think more effectively about decision-making in the workplace.  It evolved into a strategy for developing software in which potential users were invited to help define a vision of a product, and it has since been widely used for changing systems like elementary education, hospital services, and smart cities, which use data and technology to improve sustainability and foster economic development.3

Participatory design’s promise is that “system innovation” is more likely to be effective in producing tools that the target group will use and in spending existing resources efficiently to do so. Courts spend an enormous amount of money on information technology every year. But the technology often fails to meet courts’ goals: barely half of the people affected are satisfied with courts’ customer service….(More)”.