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Why law needs design

Margaret Hagan
Director, Stanford Legal Design Lab
Often when we think about what law is, we think about abstract notions like justice, liability, control, or agreement. But law is also a human experience. It is a system made by humans but we don't often think of it in the terms of experience, with close attention to how people think, how they feel, and how they understand. This is where law needs a human-centered design approach.

by Stefan Stefancík

If you’ve ever been through the legal system -- whether it’s dealing with a traffic ticket, going through a divorce, navigating disputes with a landlord, or setting up a will-- you might have felt confused, frustrated, lost, or overwhelmed.

Our design team at the Stanford Legal Design Lab interviews people about their journeys through the court system, and the most frequent comments we hear are emotional: about anxiety, control, fear, and exhaustion. People want to be strategic, to understand their options and protect their rights, but too often the processes and language of the legal system have the opposite effect -- making a person feel unconfident and disempowered.

Often when we think about what law is, we think about abstract notions like justice, liability, control, or agreement. But law is also a human experience. It is a system made by humans but we don't often think of it in the terms of experience, with close attention to how people think, how they feel, and how they understand. This is where law needs a human-centered design approach.

A Design Approach - Escambia Project

For example, let’s say the attorney general’s office sets a policy: they want to encourage young people with a juvenile criminal record to clean their record, so they have a better chance of getting jobs and housing. In a traditional legal approach to this problem, the office would publish legal forms and place them in a court or on a website, and hope for young people to come. This approach doesn’t think about context, engagement, or human experience. Who do young people trust? What are ways to present information so that they will engage with the process and follow through with it? Where are touchpoints in the community where they will find this legal option and trust it?

The legal system traditionally doesn’t consider its users’ experience -- or think about the consequences for people’s access to justice when the user experience is poor.

A legal design approach brings a human centered approach to questions of law & policy making. It means reconsidering how our systems and documents are set up, to focus on the people that they are trying to serve. Who is supposed to be interacting with the legal rule, or a contract, or a court procedure? Using a design approach, we can begin to see the legal system from their point of view, figure out how it might be frustrating or overwhelming, and then determine what new improvements might make the experience of the legal system better. For example, can visual guides with fewer words help explain things better? In all of this, a design approach has us focus on three main metrics:

  • Is the system usable? Meaning, can people figure out what steps to take and what the terms mean? Second, is the system useful?
  • Does it actually help a person solve a problem in their life or become a better person?
  • Finally, is the system engaging? Do people enjoy using it, do they find it inviting and supportive?

If you hold most parts of the legal system up to the metrics of usefulness, usability, and engagement, there is huge room for improvement. In our work at the Stanford Legal Design Lab, we do design work with legal system users and professionals to define ways to make the system more user-friendly. This includes work with courts to provide more visual guides, and contextual coaching. It also involves community-led system design, in which people going through divorce, traffic tickets, or guardianships work alongside lawyers, clerks, and judges to blueprint what a better process could be. We also work with corporate lawyers to think through better contract and privacy policy design.

Legal services innovation - escambia copy

The potential to improve how the law works for people is huge - because the law is an incredibly human system. It’s made up of rules, processes, and services that humans have created for each other. With design, we can transform it to work better for people. It may be that dealing with tickets, child custody, evictions, or privacy policies is never going to be enjoyable. But if we can give people control, we can likely reduce anxiety and friction. That would constitute a meaningful change for the better.

Intro to Legal Design - solving problems

The views expressed in this article reflect those of the author. TTC Labs seeks to include a diverse range of perspectives and expert insight to encourage a constructive exchange of ideas.