UX Research And Design Is Crucial For Justice Technologies

By Sarah Mauet | December 15, 2023, 5:12 PM EST ·

Sarah Mauet
Sarah Mauet
With technological advancement and digital transformation rapidly expanding within the justice sector, court systems and legal service providers are grappling with ways to operate remotely and online.

Online dispute resolution, e-filing, triage tools and digital self-help resources are just a few examples. However, in the rush to provide technology-based legal services, a user-centered approach is not always prioritized.

That's unfortunate, because the people who most need those services are often the ones who find them the hardest to access and use.

The challenge — and opportunity — now is to embrace user experience research and design methodologies to drive a new era of user-centered tech transformation that is in step with the broader movement toward community-driven justice.

What Is User Experience?

User experience, or UX, is a term that describes the overall perception a person has of their experience interacting with a product, service or system.

The field of UX research and design focuses on creating products, services and systems that are user-centered, intuitive and enjoyable to use, resulting in a positive experience for the user.

Applying UX methodologies when creating products, services or systems results in outcomes that are useful, usable and accessible for their intended audience because the users' needs, and often the users themselves, are at the center of the creation process.

The experience of using a product is affected by much more than merely the surface visual design of the user interface with which people interact. UX research involves the pursuit of understanding the needs, desires, pain points and barriers of the people who use the product, and leveraging that deep understanding of usability issues to strategically improve the product to better meet their needs.

UX design involves making strategic, data-driven development and design decisions about the product, its scope and its structure, which affect the resulting navigation, information and visual design.

The UX research and design process results in products that offer intuitive user interfaces, clear navigation, easily understood information, transparent processes and accessibility features that optimize the experience for all users.

Anything that has been designed — even the justice system and legal technologies — can be improved through UX research and design. For too many, this change cannot come soon enough.

UX and Access to Justice

The American justice system is built upon the principle of equal protection under the law. However, in practice, access to legal services and information has not been equal, with low- and medium-income individuals and those from marginalized communities facing significant hurdles[1].

Historically, the civil legal system was primarily designed to facilitate in-person appearances, which limit access for those with inflexible work schedules, transportation limitations, caregiving demands, medical issues or disabilities.

As a result, many would-be users of the legal system simply did not — or could not — engage with it. This is a usability problem.

Technology offers a promising partial solution to the justice gap by replacing in-person appearances with remote and online legal processes and information.

Successful use of technology has the potential to relieve barriers attributed to in-person attendance and deliver enhanced engagement with the legal process, improved court efficiency, increased knowledge and exercise of legal rights, and fairer outcomes.

However, that potential can only be realized if those technologies are designed to meet the needs of their specific users, which includes addressing barriers to accessing and using online tools.

After the COVID-19 pandemic rapidly transformed court systems across the nation, new technologies were found to have made the civil legal system even more difficult to navigate for many without lawyers.[2]

Optimism that technology can close the justice gap overlooks the so-called digital divide: the reality that many people must overcome educational, language, technical and access hurdles before using digital tools.

There are substantial disparities in access to smartphones, home broadband internet, and home computers in the U.S. by income and race,[3] and tribal and rural areas lag far behind their urban counterpoints.[4]

Moreover, people with disabilities are less likely to own a computer, tablet or smartphone,[5] and many may require technology that meets accessible design standards in order to engage.

In addition to the challenges presented by barriers to technology access, community members who can access justice sector technology may still experience barriers navigating its content.

In the U.S., 45 million people read below a fifth-grade level[6] and require very clear and concise messaging, and many individuals with limited English proficiency need multilingual websites and digital services in order to engage.[7] 

Navigating the legal system's complex processes and specific legal terminology can be confusing and overwhelming for many in the best of times, and it's important to remember that many people interfacing with the justice system are experiencing profound stress that can quickly lead to cognitive overload.

Indeed, 50 million Americans live in scarcity,[8] and 70% of adults in the U.S. have experienced trauma.[9] Both of these can lead to additional burdens on time, attention and cognition that can affect comprehension, problem-solving and decision making.

Appreciating and accounting for the varied and complex context of use for those interfacing with justice sector technology enables us to design content and tools that accommodate individuals with a wide variety of barriers and needs.

Technologies that utilize UX to prioritize inclusive and accessible design can reach a broader audience and provide an opportunity for more people to engage with the legal system.

Fortunately, all court users benefit from technologies that optimize clear user interfaces, intuitive navigation, clear language, transparent processes and accessibility best practices.

A commitment to UX can also help prevent existing systemic barriers from being transferred online into new justice sector technologies and can proactively address new obstacles that may emerge.

UX and the Courts

While good UX has an obvious benefit when it comes to access to justice, it is also beneficial to the administration of justice.

The only way to efficiently and effectively design and build justice tech that serves all individuals' needs is to change the way government technologies have traditionally been built.

Rather than investing in a huge effort to buy or build a tool that you hope will work for the public once it's finally unveiled, you can instead focus on involving a diverse set of would-be court users in the iterative creation of the technology.

Shifting toward an inclusive approach that is informed by multiple court user perspectives results in a more efficient, effective and lower-risk design process because it ensures that all court users — not only judges, attorneys and court professionals, but also the people navigating the legal system without the help of a lawyer — can understand, navigate and engage with the tool.

Designing something that works well for all users from day one is much faster and less expensive than retroactively redesigning an untested tool after launch when it doesn't work as intended for its users.

This user-centered, iterative UX design approach allows us to learn quickly, make data-driven decisions and embrace valuable insights to improve a design — and it works well at any stage in a product's life cycle.

UX methodologies can be used not only to build new technologies, but also to improve existing tools. Encouraging feedback from court users even after launch means technologies can be updated incrementally as needed, so they are always accurate and up to date, and can more quickly and easily meet court users' and court systems' evolving needs.

UX best practices encourage institutionalizing ongoing community feedback as a commitment to quality control and process improvement.

Another benefit of this approach is that well-designed tools are clear and intuitive for most users, prevent errors from occurring, and often contain their own help content that can provide users with answers to their questions. As a result, good UX often reduces the load on support staff.

Ultimately, UX is about risk reduction: UX reduces the risk of unintentionally transferring existing barriers into online technologies, reduces the risk that users won't be able to successfully navigate the justice system on their own, and reduces risk for court systems and legal service providers that are investing time and resources in the creation of new technology and the maintenance and continuous improvement of existing tools.

UX Methodologies

While utilizing best practices in UX,[10] accessibility[11] and plain language[12] are good places to start, they can't replace co-designing with real users and adapting designs directly to their specific needs.

While many people may already turn to website analytics and landscape data to understand their users, this information can only tell us what is happening — not why. UX methods provide a deep understanding of the "why."

To set yourself up for a successful user-centered UX research project, it's important to determine three things before you begin: (1) your overarching goal for the project, i.e., the design challenge; (2) what you want to learn, i.e., the research questions; and (3) who can best answer the questions, i.e., the participants.

Design Challenge

It's helpful to begin a project by defining your design challenge, which is the framework for your human-centered research project scope and goals, and guides all future research activities.

For instance, design challenges might include: "How can we empower domestic violence survivors in a rural jurisdiction to easily and safely file petitions for domestic violence protection orders?" or "How might we advance technology to help a particular state's low-income community members apply for Social Security disability benefits?"

Research Questions

Research questions typically focus on answering an unknown or testing an assumption about your users' needs.

This important step in research planning allows you to identify the more pressing questions that exist, and determine the best research method and the best audience to answer them.

For example, the research question, "What challenges exist in the current protection order petition process?" would be best answered in an interview with a variety of diverse community and court stakeholders, including lived-experience experts. And the task-based research question, "Can users complete the form in one session?" would be best answered through observation in a usability test with representative target users.


Choosing the right audience to answer each research question and recruiting representative participants for user research is crucial to user-centered design. Understanding who your users are allows you to be more effective in recruiting representative users to be participants in your research.

When you know who your target user is, you can more easily reach them through efforts that meet them where they are, or by reaching out to community organizations that serve the same audience.

For example, say you are working on the hypothetical tool discussed above to help low-income community members apply for Social Security disability benefits. You'd want to reach out to medical, community, tribal, disability and elder care organizations that employ caseworkers, social workers and other professionals who are already helping clients with their applications as part of the work they do.

Plan to compensate lived-experience expert participants for sharing their time and expertise.

You can't do user-centered design without input and feedback from the people who are experiencing the problem. When designing justice sector technologies that broadly serve the general public, identify which populations are most likely to utilize the product or service being tested, are most critical to reach, or can best address your research questions at this stage.

When you are serving multiple audiences, you can and should plan to do multiple rounds of testing with multiple user groups.

UX Research 

Once you know your design challenge, research questions and your users, you can get started with UX research.

There are many methods in the UX toolbox to address myriad questions that arise during research, but the qualitative research methods below are a good place to start because they can quickly and easily surface rich data and robust insights that lead to data-driven decision making.

Community Stakeholder Interviews

Conducting semi-guided interviews with a diverse group of stakeholders who represent various roles across the system can lead to new knowledge about users and the system as a whole, while in-depth interviews with a particular user group can result in a deep understanding of a specific experience and problem space.

Interview guides should be tailored to answer research questions while allowing participants to share what they find most relevant and useful.

Interviews generate attitudinal data and can reveal pain points and gaps, as well as potential bright spots to leverage.

Data analysis techniques such as affinity mapping can surface actionable insights that can be used to better define the problem and goals for solving it.

Concept Testing

There is a messy middle ground between research and design that can be navigated through concept testing. This early-stage, low-fidelity prototype testing method generates feedback on basic concepts and assumptions.

Concept testing is a good place to start the iterative design process because it generates actionable data prior to investing too much time or resources into any particular design solution.

Solid data from concept testing leads to a faster and better-informed prototype design process.

Usability Testing

Moderated usability testing using the "think aloud" method is the gold standard for understanding how well a product design works for its users, and how it can be improved.

This technique involves observing representative users as they attempt to complete standardized critical tasks using the technology while narrating their thoughts, feelings, questions and ideas. This technique reveals both where and why people face challenges, and provides ideas for how to address them.

It's important to note that the task-based scenarios you create for usability testing must be driven by research questions, and intentionally avoid leading or judgmental language in order to provide rich and robust results.

The best part about qualitative usability testing is that large numbers of participants are not necessary to glean impactful insights. In fact, testing with five representative users surfaces almost as many usability problems as testing with many more test participants.[13]

However, it's important to note that testing with five users only works when they are representative of the typical user, and multiple rounds of iterative design and testing with five users are conducted.

Plan to conduct multiple rounds of iterative testing with small groups of representative populations to refine the design and optimize it to best meet users' needs.


Technology is becoming an immutable part of the justice system, so a commitment to access to justice and community-driven justice must also include a commitment to UX.

Incorporating UX methodologies into justice sector technologies enhances access and accessibility, improves efficiency in processes and service delivery, and reduces risk.

By putting court users at the center of the design process, the legal system can build a more responsive, efficient and accountable framework that meets the evolving needs of its citizens and the courts.

In order for courts to be as successful as possible in their digital transformations, they should invest in UX throughout the design and development process, as well as after launch, to ensure technologies continue to meet the evolving needs of the courts and their users.

When people find it easy to obtain information, access services and complete transactions, they are more likely to engage with the justice system.

Sarah Mauet is the UX4Justice Director and a professor of practice at Innovation for Justice, housed at the University of Arizona's James E. Rogers College of Law and the University of Utah's David Eccles School of Business.

"Perspectives" is a regular feature written by guest authors on access to justice issues. To pitch article ideas, email expertanalysis@law360.com.

The opinions expressed are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of their employer, its clients, or Portfolio Media Inc., or any of its or their respective affiliates. This article is for general information purposes and is not intended to be and should not be taken as legal advice.

[1] The Justice Gap: The Unmet Civil Legal Needs of Low-income Americans | LSC APRIL 2022, https://lsc-live.app.box.com/s/xl2v2uraiotbbzrhuwtjlgi0emp3myz1.

[2] How Courts Embraced Technology, Met the Pandemic Challenge, and Revolutionized Their Operations | The Pew Charitable Trusts https://www.pewtrusts.org/en/research-and-analysis/reports/2021/12/how-courts-embraced-technology-met-the-pandemic-challenge-and-revolutionized-their-operations.

[3] Digital divide persists even as Americans with lower incomes make gains in tech adoption https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2019/05/07/digital-divide-persists-even-as-lower-income-americans-make-gains-in-tech-adoption/.

[4] Some digital divides between rural, urban, suburban America persist https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2021/08/19/some-digital-divides-persist-between-rural-urban-and-suburban-america/.

[5] Americans with disabilities less likely than those without to own some digital devices and 8 facts about Americans with disabilities https://www.pewresearch.org/short-reads/2023/07/24/8-facts-about-americans-with-disabilities/.

[6] Literacy Statistics https://www.thenationalliteracyinstitute.com/literacy-statistics.

[7] Improving Access to Public Websites and Digital Services for Limited English Proficient (LEP) Persons https://www.lep.gov/sites/lep/files/media/document/2021-12/2021_12_07_Website_Language_Access_Guide_508.pdf.

[8] The Justice Gap Report https://justicegap.lsc.gov/resource/executive-summary/.

[9] How to Manage Trauma https://www.thenationalcouncil.org/wp-content/uploads/2022/08/Trauma-infographic.pdf.

[10] 10 Usability Heuristics for User Interface Design https://www.nngroup.com/articles/ten-usability-heuristics/.

[11] accessibility.digital.gov https://accessibility.digital.gov/.

[12] plainlanguage.gov https://www.plainlanguage.gov/,

[13] How Many Test Users in a Usability Study? https://www.nngroup.com/articles/how-many-test-users/.

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