Design Thinking Part One: The role of empathy in legal design

Legal design – the art of applying design thinking. Stage 1: Empathise

Legal design is where design thinking and legal come together to create solutions that work. These solutions work not only to solve the legal problem or need that the client has asked for, but they go further.  They think about the people who are going to interact with the solution, and the benefits in doing that are far reaching.

You might be thinking: “Ok, but I am still not sure I get it!”.  So, in this series of blogs we are going to bring to life the stages of design thinking with the help of our fictitious client, Awesome.

Before we begin, let me introduce you to Awesome.  Awesome are a Digital Bank. They offer an alternative to traditional banking for customers looking for a simpler way of doing business.  Think facial recognition vs. scanning in documents and trips to the high street.

Awesome operate in a regulated industry. The regulation helps them maintain the trust of their customers – even customers looking for face recognition want their money to be there when they need it! BUT, the regulation can result in a raft of contracts that can be a barrier to the fast, efficient and cutting edge image that Awesome want to portray.  Well, if they go down the traditional route anyway……

Back to design thinking for a moment

Human-centred design is about understanding the people you are designing for and creating solutions with and for them.  It is about understanding the people the design serves.  As you might expect this isn’t about rigid processes, so the standard stages of design thinking aren’t linear. The stages might not happen in order and designers may revisit stages in order to refine or develop different iterations.

However, there are stages that designers go through to help them design with the user in mind.  We are going to focus on each of these – starting with empathise.

What is empathy?

Simply put empathy is the ability to put yourself in someone else’s shoes.  It is about understanding the needs of another.  Legal Design is human-centred. It requires an understanding of the people you are designing for.  It starts with the premise that you can’t create solutions if you don’t know the people who the solutions are there to serve. It is only by understanding their motivations and needs that the solution will work.

Ok, that’s great, but lawyers don’t build cars, we are talking about contracts here surely.

Let’s welcome back Awesome. Awesome are a company and they need contracts to meet the regulations that cover them.  A traditional firm would dust off their precedents, fill out the square brackets and add in a few additional clauses as required. Job done.

This approach meets the need that Awesome has.  BUT, what it doesn’t do is stop to empathise with the people who are going to engage with the contracts.

First, there are the people within Awesome. The busy executives who will be asked to sign-off on the contracts that are being used.  Some might have some legal knowledge, but even those that do are likely pushed for time and will require more than one dose of coffee and a couple of hobnobs to get to the end.  And, that’s before we ask the rest of Awesome’s workforce to know what’s what.

Then, there are the customers. Remember them? Those people who cringe at the thought of having to stand in line at their local branch of whatever bank it is that their parents, and their grandparents banked at.  They don’t have a copy of their last utility bill stored neatly in a filing cabinet. Maybe there is one underneath the pile of recycling over there….

But, those customers have chosen Awesome because – well – they’re Awesome!  Awesome have a lovely marketing team who have carefully crafted a tone of voice and who have made sure that every touch point in the customer journey is as seamless as possible. Yes, they know that they will be faced with a contract at some point. But wouldn’t it be lovely if it cut to the chase and flagged the things they needed to know, rather than have them hunt for them with a virtual magnifying glass. Oh, and a dictionary. What does ad idem mean again?

What does the empathise stage look like?

Once the user has been identified, there are lots of tools that designers (and legal designers are no different) can use to empathise.  Some of these tools involve thinking about the user with the client.

The Empathy Map Canvas designed by XPLANE

The designer might use a format such as an empathy map or they might use more general brainstorming sessions.

Other tools think about the user with…. the user! That might be through interviews or observation, and exploring extreme personas (people who have a very basic understanding or no understanding at all of the product that is being developed for them as one extreme, and experts in that particular field as another).

There are lots of techniques that can be used to better empathise with your clients and their customers but the simplest, and arguably the best, is to listen to them.

How do we do it?

We ask. We listen. We don’t assume that we know what you need before we understand what you are trying to achieve.

Natalie Murray, Legal Designer at Lawbox Design, sums it up nicely in this short video.


OK, that’s all great, isn’t it more expensive to do it this way?

While you might be able to get a firm to dust off an old precedent and give it to you for a reduced fee, the reality is that there is still work involved and the old precedent will need to be amended. The firm will still need to ask you questions and the time needed to wade through the documents will cost you money.

Legal design asks much of the same questions as traditional firms, but because it thinks about the user, because legal designers empathise first and design/draft later, the questions can be framed differently to add more value.  Legal design recognises the need to spend more time at the earlier stages in order to save time later on.

Sure, the contracts for Awesome could be done in the old way. But the other Digital Banks who have woken up to the fact that legal design provides them with a solution that works not only for them – but also their users – will be using that to their advantage.

To find out how you can be like Awesome and use legal design to delight your customers, contact us.
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