Mitigating anxiety for first-time court attendees
In response to this problem, we designed a system of tools for the court staff to provide consistent visual language and verbal tone for litigants and other hearing attendees.
Tools & Methods
Adobe Acrobat DC
...visual communication help the court to provide reliable, timely, comprehensible information to litigants?
First, we discovered that crucial information for litigants comes from a variety of people and resources, placing a burden on them to either piece together salient points themselves, or seek help from their caseworkers, who are often extremely busy.
Second, some important information is only available in very formal language. As a result, many court attendees learn the hard way about courtroom expectations, resulting in damaged rapport with their judge or a delay in proceedings.
Third, we found that much of this information is necessary; we couldn’t realistically reduce information provided to litigants. Therefore, we saw an opportunity to lower cognitive load by providing consistent visual language and pacing disbursement of information.
Along with the renaming of the courts as a unified court system, we recommended a series of changes that would present a more unified and orienting visual language, and empower visitors to find only the information they need.
First contact: Hearing preparation and reminder card
A universal document that could be provided along with any hearing notice, focused on the next steps leading up to the first court visit. Provided in color version and a more budget-conscious black-and-white version.
Independent preparation: Integrated text-based and web answer database
This resource would allow visitors to get the information they needed without people. Utilizing conversational interface tools such as Dialogflow, users can ask questions in natural language, and get results that minimize legalese.
The same technology can be applied to both web interfaces and text-based services, so that low-income visitors can use whatever technology is at their disposal.
Empower staff: Templates for consistent signage
The court staff will be equipped with simple tools for creating highly understandable and consistent signage by customizing fillable PDFs with tailor-made icons.
Different office copy paper colors distinguish the purpose of each type of sign.
These signs have consistent visual language to both the online and paper resources already made available to litigants in the other parts of our solution.
After care: hearing preparation card becomes official excuse note
Several interviewees mentioned that it was difficult for attendees to get an excuse note from the judge for missing school or work. Having the note pre-filled and on the back of the litigant’s hearing reminder makes receiving an official note from the court as easy as getting it stamped.
We began our research by visiting the court for a tour of the physical spaces within the courthouse. We observed both court entrances, toured the waiting rooms, and visited the various public offices that offer families resources and support.
During the following weeks we sat in on a number of hearings, mostly for dependency cases, and saw firsthand the difference between how communication is handled based on the parties involved in a case. Every judge, lawyer, caseworker and client communicates in a different way, and some teams work more fluidly together than others.
Interviews of court and DHS staff members, and families with experience navigating the courts followed. We interviewed a representative from the Juvenile Court Project, several youth at an emergency shelter, DHS caseworkers, and a family court judge, to name a few. They each helped to paint a more complete picture of the family court experience.
We were also provided with materials to help us understand the way the court operates and coordinates services with DHS. Many of these materials are also available to court visitors through various means – some online, some in the courthouse, and on DVD. However, despite the fact that these resources are bountiful, we also noticed that not many of them are put to use.
Choosing an Audience
The sheer breadth of different use cases made it extremely difficult to establish user flows for this problem. Instead, we pooled all of our insights and let recurring themes emerge. When these themes were connected to one another, our audience seemed clear:
The court’s most pressing procedural issues most affected first-time court attendees.
As we understood it, this is the period of most confusion for families new to the system, and coupled with the fresh trauma of whatever incident led them to the court, we wanted to do our best to mitigate the difficulty of making sense of the factors to consider.
As we gathered information from our research, we collected our insights in Mural, an online whiteboarding tool. We used them to assemble an affinity map, and made note of the most prominent themes that emerged.
Isolating the Problem
From the insights gathered in our affinity map, we established a few goals for our solution:
1. Mitigate the variables in information dispensed from different sources (particularly people).
2. Make the existing resources easier to find and navigate.
3. Give attendees the answers they need most when they need them most.
To balance our qualitative insights, we designed a survey to quantify our assumptions and determine whether the solutions we were considering would be impactful. The survey focused on preparedness for court and asked for information on the resources accessed over time. Sixty-three respondents completed the survey. Results of the survey validated our qualitative feedback:
92% find out how to prepare by word of mouth.
58% only access the internet via smartphone.
67% feel unprepared for their first visit.
When developing our solution, there were constraints to consider if we wanted our solution to be implemented.
Silo-ed Departments. Several court staff have told us that the various departments within the courthouse operate fairly independent of one another. Furthermore, with hearing notices being distributed by different agencies using different softwares, we knew that trying to implement a sweeping change to make them all uniform would not be received as a realistic solution.
Budgetary Constraints. We understand that the county operates on a tight budget. For our solution to be effective, it had to be mindful of that fact.
Bearing these things in mind, we sought to create solutions that would work within the constraints, but still potentially have an immediate impact.
Devising a Solution
A FOUR-PART APPROACH
Of the possible solutions we explored, four components had the most specific impact on first-time visitors, and we felt they could be brought together to make a single unified solution.
We focused on making sure the fonts and color palette we chose struck a balance between being warm and supportive, while also maintaining an institutional tone.
We made a sincere effort to provide realistic solutions that would have a significant impact on the court experience.
We are both incredibly grateful for the opportunity to work on such an involved and powerful project. We were so moved by the stories we heard and made our best effort to provide solutions that honored those stories.
What was helpful
Seeing hearings firsthand, although they had little visible impact on our final solution, gave an important perspective on the range of challenges court users face beyond coordinating their first visit. If the pains of the first visit can be mitigated, it allows litigants to plan better, stay in a calmer state of mind, and have a smoother hearing.
What had the most potential
The excuse card is a low-tech solution that will significantly lessen the amount of time an attendee has to spend in the courthouse. By waiting for a simple stamp, rather than a printout, attendees only require seconds of a court staffer’s time to get what they need.
The main takeaways
In very complex systems such as the court’s, we realized how helpful centralizing resources for litigants could be. There are very many organizations out there one a mission to help litigants, but coordinating them would make them all more useful.
Given more time…
Due to time constraints, we weren’t able to plan a survey for court users very far in advance. DHS was gracious enough to allow us to provide surveys to judges and case workers for new clients. This gave us valuable insights about what was working and what wasn’t, but we would have liked to conduct a more comprehensive investigation with users.
We truly believe in the potential for this solution to have an attainable positive impact. DHS held meetings in January to discuss potentially implementing some of our design ideas, and we will remain available to help facilitate them and make any necessary adaptations.