"I filled out the wrong form and now I can't See my Son for Two Months"
-Unrepresented Litigant at Brooklyn Civil Court
Sponsor: New York Courts Access to Justice Program
Project: Court Wayfinding Service Design
New York Courts Access to Justice Program is a program that strives to increase access, improve the delivery of justice and promote public confidence in the courts . New York State courts have independent navigation systems and signs that can be confusing, leading to courthouse inefficiency as well as frustration for court-goers. About 2 million people go to a state court unrepresented every year and many struggle to find the right information and resources.
The challenge is to improve access to the NY justice systems and use human-centered design to create a more efficient experience for court visitors.
Working with 6 designers, I was a co-lead in this project -- I determined the research plan, led meetings and calls, allocated weekly tasks and communicated between stakeholders, Frog Design mentors, and teammates.
While the project began focused solely on signage to clarify unrepresented litigants’ experience in the courts, the scope of the project went well beyond just signs.
Before creating a research plan, we needed to determine what questions we had about courts and the legal system as a whole? What do we need to understand in order to solve this problem? Where are the large gaps in our knowledge?
- What were the issues unrepresented litigants were having in the physical space?
- How does the court accommodate for litigants?
- What resources do the courts have for unrepresented litigants to have access to the courts?
For this project, the team conducted site-visits at 6 courts across New York City. The court sites visited were identified in collaboration with the sponsor and included courts of different sizes and located in various regions throughout the city. Each court visit was structured so that the team would make observations followed by an extensive tour of the court with a court administrator or staff. During this tour we had the opportunity to get feedback from the staff to learn about opportunities for helping unrepresented litigants.
We interviewed 7 legal experts, including judges, clerks, Attorneys, court officers, to understand intricacies in the new york court system. and did secondary research on the court system, wayfinding methods and psychological factors influencing information comprehension.
- Demographics, Language & Cultural Barriers
- Often visitors do not like to ask questions because they do not know what to ask, or find it difficult to ask because of a language barrier as well as perceived unreceptiveness from court officers or other staff.
- Urgency for Efficiency
- f respondents fail to appear at their court hearing, they are at risk of losing their case, their house, and even their child. Visitors need to be able to find their courtroom easily.
- Court Jargon
- We’ve seen signs that say OSC, Pro Se, and Self-Represented. The copy on posters and signs are not consistent and not always easy to understand.
- Directories/maps are either not visible or not posted at all.
- Emotions are high at court. For example, at a State Housing Court, they might be there because they have been evicted from their homes. Hence, no one is paying attention to the signs; they want to go to a person who can help them.
- It’s important that the signs are flexible and can be changed easily. The information changes often and, currently, the easiest solution is to stick a piece of paper on existing signs to update the info. However, the layout isn’t consistent and handwritten notes aren’t always clear.
- Unintentional blindness: a phenomenon that causes people to be completely blind to really visible and obvious information just because they are hyper-focused on an inner goal.
- “negative emotional states impair the verbal working memory, but at the same time improve the spatial working memory.”
- “Greater visibility leading to greater legibility” - make sure signage is visible from far away and from angles where people can “follow-up” with a sign that is in front of them.
- You only really have 8 seconds to convey information before a person loses interest and walks away. Conveying the important information succinctly is key.
Designing for Problems
- Create a friendly environment that allows people to ask questionsCommunicate respect, create welcoming atmosphere through signage
- Offer minimal signage near the entrance that directs the visitor to the Help Center or other help resources
- Provide a semi-private “Help area”, or “Information stop” where people can gather their belongings and find information without feeling watched
- Assign duties for guidance (or volunteers)
People are not receptive to information because emotions are high
- Create scripts for court visitors to speak to the Help Center, as a way to improve and speed up the exchange of information.
- Provide the Help Center with a flow chart procedure to help the court visitor.
Help center employees have limited time with visitors
- DecalsBinders hanging on walls with information about parts
- Slide-in/slide-out paper + plastic signs
- Design template for location of parts
Information about parts changes daily
- Create a style guide for court employees (the style guide will be discussed later)
- The style guide would be mindful of resources that court employees tend to have access to (e.g. Microsoft Office)
- It would include accessibility guidelines and it would be flexible for the different kinds of courts in New York state
- It would contain suggestions for fonts, colors, placement and best practices for signage around the courts, as well as broader recommendations about wayfinding
Inconsistency of signage and bad placement
Currently the team is in the prototyping phase. We will create prototypes, test, and apply for grants to expand our project beyond it's current scope. As we move forward we are creating reports to address current issues in the New York State court system's wayfinding.