Simple at the front, Smart at the back: design for access to justice innovation

A colleague working on improving the legal system in New Zealand from a user-centered design perspective mentioned this phrase to me in a recent email: Simple at the Front, Smart at the Back. Now it’s my constant refrain.

Simple front smart back

What does it mean? That when we build tools, guides, explainers, or anything else for laypeople to deal with the legal system, they should be simple, intuitive & clear for the person. But this interface should be covering up a very intelligent and robust complex system. We aren’t actually ‘simplfiying’ so much as improving the user experience of the system through tools that make people feel that navigating the system is simple. Using the power of coordinated, interactive, smart technology (and planning) we can make complex systems seem simple.


Next week I am convening a working group on how we can make the internet a better place for legal help.
This is one of the three main themes of work this year at my Legal Design Lab at Stanford. The main question is how we can make it incredibly easy for a lay person who is using Google or the starting point to find legal info, to get them from their Google search to essential information about their situation, tools and information to help them make smart decisions, and then actually follow through on them.

Better internet for legal help image user journey

My goal is to promote more coordination among the many organizations that currently (and could possibly) provide these online services right now.

These are not a standard group of people. Some of them are non-legal — search engine providers like Google, Microsoft, Yahoo, or referral services like 211 & United Way. Others are legal help site maintainers, or courts, or the attorney general office, or consumer law companies, or startups, or legal aid groups, or non-profits, or legal publishers. So many different entities, all potentially with value to offer a person on their journey from “Do I Have a Legal Problem?” to “I Got My Problem Resolved.”

The future I see is one of coordination of all these various service-providers so that a layperson in search of help can journey between their services seamlessly — with all their personal information in tow, knowing how to get from one provider to the next, not getting confused or lost after one service’s offering ends, and having the different providers help her along to resolution.

To get to this seamless user journey & enjoyable online user experience, it might be tempting to call for a Mega Portal. This would be the one amazing, well-designed, user-friendly, comprehensive website that can get a person from problem-query to answers, appointments, and tools.

Ideabook -Mega Portal To Legal Help

This is a pie-in-the-sky dream, and also not that close to what different people actually want. There will not be the one almighty legal site that everyone in the country will go to. The closest we will get on that front is Google. There is simply no strong enough legal brand or comprehensive-enough resource that can cover all the many touchpoints a person must go through in a typical legal process.

Rather than bank on this one almighty Mega Portal, I see a future where we can build a whole lot of different ways to access this coordinated legal system. It would be full of different apps, websites, in-person stations, court and self-help kiosks, text messaging systems — and whatever new technology is coming our way in the next decades. We don’t need one perfect portal, we need a rich ecosystem of new & cutting-edge tools that can get different kinds of people to the same legal help.

Better internet for legal help coordinated system w many doors

And to achieve this vision, what’s the key thing — the first step? It sure doesn’t sound sexy, but I am increasingly obsessed with it: Data Standards. APIs. Getting all these different kinds of Internet-based legal service providers to make sure that their systems can talk to each other, that they accessibly present their databases of information about what legal help exists, who can access what, what rules apply to whom, what documents to submit, where to submit them, and on & on….

We can’t afford to live in the current siloed & proprietary world, where vendors and agencies hoard data & don’t talk to other service-providers. Where groups build a legal services tool and then don’t let this tool talk to other tools or pass a user over to next steps on her journey. We need to set requirements that providers must coordinate with each other, for the sake of the legal user. The layperson’s attempts to find help are going to be disjointed, confusing, and frustrating to the point of giving up if all these different providers don’t talk to each other, and help the person go from an Internet search to a trustworthy, supportive path of legal help.

Now’s the time to be investing in the infrastructure of the Internet for Legal Help. It will make Google search results better — surfacing jurisdiction-correct and public help resources, instead of spammy and irrelevant hits. It will allow for a new generation of legal tools to be built by young entrepreneurs and lawyers, who have ideas for better ways to present legal resources, or who just want to experiment in this space. It will foster innovation in access to justice, by giving a solid backbone of content and resources for innovators to draw from and a network of other tools to link to.

That’s how we’re going to get to “Simple in the Front and Smart in the Back” — with investment in coordinating the underlying system of how service providers present their info & share it with other providers, and by opening up the consumer law/access to justice space for more experimentation and creation.

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