Collaborating with our Northern Ireland Colleagues on Human-Centred Design

Categories: Access to Justice, convening, customer journey mapping, Empathy, human centred design, Innovation, Uncategorized, User Centred

In the summer of 2019, the Lab received a very warm invitation to work with a group from Ulster University in Northern Ireland. Led by Professor Gráinne McKeever, the group was eager to use a human-centred design process as part of their research project to create and test supports for litigants in person (“LIPS”) in the family courts. They had read the Story of the Lab, published in the Windsor Journal of Access to Justice in 2017, and concluded that our Lab’s approach was the best fit for what they envisioned.

We then discovered that the Ulster team had received funding from the Nuffield Foundation which included travel and accommodation expenses for Lab representatives to join them in person in Belfast for a week! This invitation was enormously encouraging for our Lab team and we eagerly responded with a rounding yes!

The team (Gráinne, Lucy, John and Mark) were a pleasure to work with. We began with web conferences using Zoom to allow us to learn more about their context and the problems they were hoping to solve. We had the benefit of both Professor McKeever’s comprehensive report and the application for funding which described very articulately the challenges faced by LIPS in N. Ireland’s family courts, namely:

  1. Intellectual: not understanding the process
  2. Practical: not being able to access help or support
  3. Emotional: the process itself generating frustration, upset, fear and anger
  4. Attitudinal: being stereotyped as difficult to deal with.

The report provides many helpful recommendations and also highlights the goal of shifting the culture of the system to be more user-centred.

Sound familiar? We discovered that Northern Ireland was experiencing very similar access to justice challenges as Canada, and BC in particular. We also had a rare opportunity to learn from their experiences and approaches.

We decided that it would be advantageous for two Lab representatives to be involved so Jane Morley QC and I packed our bags and arrived in Belfast on November 1, 2019.

We began our adventure with a wonderful tour of the area including the Giant’s Causeway and the Old Bushmill’s Whiskey Distillery! We didn’t have much time for sight-seeing, but we made the best of it. Belfast is a fascinating and lovely town with a rich (and often tragic) history. If you have a chance to go, don’t miss the famous Black Cab Tour during which the driver tells the story of the “Troubles” adding many personal experiences and details.

It was a pretty intense week as we worked with the team to prepare for the first human-centred design workshop. We drew heavily on our experiences and learnings from the Youth Voices initiative, including the importance of working deeply with well-crafted personas. We provided a coaching role since the idea was to support and equip the local (and very capable) team with tools and guidance so they could carry on after we left!

The process that followed is well described in a recent blog post by Professor Grainne McKeever and Dr. Lucy Royal-Dawson entitled “Understanding the support needs of Litigants in Person through Human Centred Design”. This post details the process but also includes very helpful observations, particularly about the response of the diverse group of participants. They gathered an impressive multi-disciplinary group of 30 people, including LIPs, who devoted many hours to the three workshops. We observed first-hand that it is difficult for some people to resist the urge to immediately jump to solutions (based on one’s own experience and analysis of the situation) and, instead, to begin by understanding and developing empathy for the perspective of the person representing themselves in an often fraught family matter. And yet, most of the participants stuck with it and trusted the process enough to experience a freedom to think differently about the problem.

This was consistent with our experience in Youth Voices and it illustrates the importance for our system to try to understand what taking a “user-centred approach” really means in practice. The best way to do that is to roll up our sleeves and try it out! As we have said before, hearing first from the young people who experienced parental separation and focusing on personas, each of whom represented an amalgam of real experiences, was transformational.

Another significant point raised in the team’s post was that they are taking the opportunity to test the use of human-centred design as a way to influence attitudes and create culture change that will pave the way to overcome barriers to participation in the system for LIPs. This is also part of the Lab’s mission and we are continuing to work with and improve the human-centred design model we use.

Our colleagues in Northern Ireland completed all three workshops and will soon be focusing on the prototyping phase. We are cheering them on from afar!