How Legal Professionals Interact with Mandated Software
As originally published on Medium
When a software development company couldn’t understand why attorneys weren’t happier with their new document submission software, researchers were called in to figure it out. Using a combination of in-context and lab-based research, we identified key misunderstandings and shortfalls in the offering, ultimately inspiring the development team to call for more exposure to users in future projects.
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Legal professionals were dissatisfied with an offering which had been positioned to revolutionize the way they submit documents to the court.
Legal teams must send documents to a judge in advance of any court hearing in order to proceed with a case. In the past, this was a strictly in-person process, but, in 2014, the state of Texas mandated all documents must be submitted electronically. Software was adopted by courthouses to facilitate this, at no cost to legal professionals, but very little research had been done on the non-courthouse side of the interaction.
In addition to general resistance by legal teams, a budget shortfall meant the company providing the software to the courthouses needed users to fall much more in love with electronic filing in order to increase traction for related services.
Assumptions Were Made
A lot of thinking went into explaining why the software wasn’t being accepted. The general consensus was:
- The “old way” of filing court documents manually is time-consuming
- Filing electronically is easier and faster
- Legal personnel are primarily unhappy with the product because they lack technology experience
- OK ... and MAYBE the interface could use a little TLC
Decision to Act
One way to respond to this would have been to leave the software as it was, since its use was mandated. Seeing that as a poor long-term strategy, the company decided to seek out customer-centric and domain-appropriate ways to enhance and add to their electronic filing offering. This is where my team at projekt202 comes in.
Phase 1: Fieldwork
Our plan of action began with in-context observation complemented by semi-structured interviews. Remember that anytime you observe people and record their behaviors, you first need to obtain informed consent. We visited legal teams at their offices and watched them work, including interactions with the electronic filing software. To maintain a nimble pace and keep the scope reasonable, we focused on small- to medium-sized law firms, observing attorneys, paralegals, and legal secretaries for a total population of 10 individuals. This is a fairly small sample size, but it gave us ample exposure to the major problems that were occurring.
The following were quickly apparent:
- It’s true that the UI needed improvements to be up-to-par with modern applications
- It’s true that some users of the software lacked technology experience
- However, many users are quite adept, some embracing tech in home, office, and mobile environments
- The assumptions that filing electronically was faster, and easier, were fully unsubstantiated
Realigning with Reality
Several field-based insights helped us better understand the current environment of document filing.
Paper was not a problem: It turns out many legal professionals, in fact, did not view manual document filing as a waste of time. Quite the opposite; they found the process of visiting the courthouse, often to “butter up” the court coordinator, a productive use of time. Aside from using court visits to their advantage, many document filers clung to the comfort of a good old-fashioned paper trail.
Users needed a clear benefit in order to move away from their paper world. There are always early adopters, but the tactile aspect of manual processes are grounding and familiar, so most people won’t just leave it voluntarily. The software company did not understand its customers’ environments or their mental models. They had not sought what anthropology calls the emic perspective — the internal viewpoint.
Submitting electronically is not faster: Our second big finding was that, as it was currently designed, electronic filing simply was not faster than submitting paper documents, at least not the way users saw it.
The software company believed the need to collect all required documentation, drive to the courthouse, wait in line, receive approval, and drive back to the office was a clear loser to the electronic 3-step of log in, attach docs, and submit.
It didn’t work that way.
First off, submitting online means time first spent converting from paper to electronic. The legal world is still heavily paper-based. Faxes, subpoenas, and many other types of communication still happen on paper first.
Then, once everything is scanned into electronic format, located on the computer, and checked for correct formatting, the filer can finally turn to the filing software.
That gets navigated -- more or less successfully, based on the user’s knowledge of the system -- and then finally submitted to the courthouse of choice. But that’s not all.
Submitting a document isn’t the end of the process, as electronic filing assumes. Filers using the old process would know immediately whether or not the document was considered acceptable by the court, because the clerk standing in front of them will say so.
With electronic filing, clerks on the other side of the internet, or the other side of town, will review a list of submitted documents from various legal teams whenever they get around to it. They’ll approve them right away, or later, depending on how their process has now changed in this new electronic world. (That’s still an unknown as far as this case study goes.)
This leaves the document filer in a state of limbo.
We mapped the experiences of several filers and found this stage to be particularly anxiety-inducing. A legal secretary with an attorney literally yelling down the hallway asking when her file is going to be approved has nothing useful from the system at this point.
Given a choice, paper filing directly at the courthouse was still a clear winner. There was still one more reason why.
The Human Aspect: One theme that came up again and again in conversations with legal professionals was the importance of human interaction with their clients, obviously for customer service purposes, but with the courthouse staff as well for greasing the heavy wheels of justice.
The legal field, as we know it, has roots thousands of years deep, going back to the the orators of ancient Athens and then more formally with the orators of ancient Rome.
Relationships were a thing. That’s still true today.
Staff of all levels not only lamented the loss of person-to-person cooperation on the basis of making their jobs less satisfying, which it did, but this loss was seen as hindering their success.
There’s a saying that a good lawyer knows the law, but a great lawyer knows the judge.
Manually filing documents was seen as a productive use of time when it came to managing critical relationships.
Our work observing (and interacting with) legal professionals in their environments brought us important insights regarding how to re-design the electronic document submission process.
We needed to move attorneys and their staff away from the feeling that paper is the only way to track and organize their work, and we needed to convey that face-to-face is not the only way to build connection.
To find success, electronic filing and other services needed to be:
- Organized to match internal processes
- Connected to the human on the other side
The next step was to ideate on potential solutions and take them to the user population for testing.
Phase 2: Lab Study Using the Kano Model
Our team worked closely with the software company to ideate on several new features and offerings. Taking these to users to gauge reception before going deep into design was an important factor in continuing on a fast, nimble approach. We decided on a Kano Model Test. (Read more about Kano basics, how to use the Kano model to make better decisions, and how to optimize your Kano test in these other posts.)
In essence, the Kano model allows teams to distinguish between essential and differentiating features as they plan a product’s continued growth.
We took 20 features into testing with 20 potential users. This adds to the 10 participants from the in-context research, so we’re building up a robust data set by enhancing the sample size over time. This increases our overall reach. I encourage you to think about iterative research and testing in this way.
The results of the Kano study were shared in a workshop, allowing stakeholders to combine user feedback and preferences with organizational abilities.
This led very naturally to a detailed product roadmap.
Impact and Organizational Change
With a product roadmap in hand, the software company moved forward with navigating the tricky waters of providing technical solutions to courthouses and legal professionals. It’s a slow process, but we’ve had check-ins on their progress and are happy to report a few great updates:
- New appreciation for end-user input — Stakeholders appreciated the insights from involving customers early on and developers greatly valued seeing users interact with their software/potential software and hearing their accounts first-hand
- Increased consideration of experience as a design factor — Developers also were impressed by the UX and visual design approach taken to create software prototypes, and expressed interest in learning how to incorporate such methods
Creative and iterative research is an inspiring story. It inspires insights — insights that are valuable because they were generated by the user; insights that are priceless for what they will contribute to your successful software development; and insights that paint a direct path between you and a successful product.
So check in with your users iteratively, frequently, and sincerely.
I could not call this case study complete without acknowledging the help of my team. Thank you, Ryan Breault and Jessie Webster, and Daniel Sanchez for helping me make the story make sense.
projekt202 is the leader in experience-driven software design and development. We are passionate about improving the experiences that people have with enterprise and consumer digital touchpoints.