User-Centered Legal Design
User-centered design asks whether the product/service provides useful, usable, and engaging solutions, taking a holistic view from the perspective of the end objectives of the user. UCLD applies this lens to users of the legal system. This holistic approach necessarily encompasses an appreciation for individual objectives within the context of the systemic objectives of the legal system as a whole.
Features of a digital built environment can help navigate the relationship between the individual user’s objectives, and those of the system, while scaling drives down marginal costs. Parties can tailor a virtual venue’s procedural and communication features to their needs, within broader systemic principles of cooperation.
UCLD provides a useful framework for assessing how the features of digital platforms can moderate participant’s experience by recognizing that:
- users’ objectives in the legal system are more dynamic than those of the system itself;
- feature complexity of the digital built-environment can empower scaled diversity of choice to meet these expanded needs and objectives;
- digital ‘features’ will always impose trade-offs between individual and systemic interests when scaled; and,
- systemic principles emerge from patterns in the preferences and objectives of users.
Technology may enable us to automate a forest of procedural complexity through virtual hearings, but it won’t solve the deeper question of whether a user’s substantive experience aligns with their objectives for engaging with the system in the first place.
For that, the legal profession will need to understand the experience of using new virtual platform venues from the client perspective. Yes, this will require lawyers and courts to develop a deep familiarity with the feature sets of the digital platforms we adopt, and the agency enhancing/diminishing returns they generate.
Only by understanding how technology shapes our digital built environment, can we guide clients through decisions negotiating the feature landscape to meet their needs.
No one wants to find out, for example, that Zoom can send a transcript of private messages between participants to the host, after the fact. Zoom’s ‘frictionless’ experience also imposes trade-offs with users’ cyber-security and privacy. Its data processing systems were sufficiently insecure that governments and major corporations banned its use.
There are smart resources, critiques and analyses to develop the digital literacy to use, and the vocabulary to explain, the trade-offs in rules based systems mediated on digital platforms. We can learn from each other. Videoconferencing literacy has cratered the cost of information sharing, which may just be the superpower we need, together with public participation, to build this new vehicle of virtual law, while in motion.
There is no better time than now, when we are naive to the possibilities the transition to virtual law could facilitate, to find innovative, empathic solutions in law. If we survived the transition to the fax machine, we can survive the transition to Zoom.