Interdisciplinary Research Group in Socio-technical Cybersecurity
Arianna Rossi: “legal design offers a human-centered perspective to the law”
How would you describe and define legal design?
With my colleagues Margaret Hagan, Helena Haapio, Stefania Passera, Rossana Ducato, and Monica Palmirani, we attempted to provide a definition, that however might still evolve in the future: legal design is an interdisciplinary approach that promotes human-centered design to prevent or solve legal problems, by prioritizing the point of views of all the users of law. Three elements stand out from this definition.
First, many disciplines are at stake in this approach and they cross-fertilize each other. Today, it is almost unconceivable to conduct projects in a “mono-disciplinary” way, especially when it comes to law and technology. Domains are interconnected with each other, which means that it is valuable to combine the expertise of multiple professionals and insights from various areas of research and practice. The law is not only in the hands of legal experts, as today everybody has to deal with legally-relevant matters all the time.
Second, legal design emphasizes a preventive approach to legal problems. Instead of looking back to resolve problems that have already occurred as conventional legal research and practice do, proactive and preventive law focuses on the future to drive desirable outcomes and prevent problems from arising. This means to consider the goals, needs, and relationships of users of the law and create legal communication and services that are usable and engaging.
Third, legal design considers the many users of the law. They are not only regulators, judges and lawyers, but literally anybody: businesses, citizens and non-citizens, consumers… Each of them has different goals and needs, so standardized solutions designed for legal experts might not work for everybody else. If you look at businesses, whereas contracts are an inherent part of their functioning, they are not often usable tools due to their length and complexity. If you look at migrants that don’t master the language of the country they arrive in, it might be impossible for them to know and understand the procedures they should follow in order for their stay to be legalized. And so on.
What issues and limitations to legal design do you observe?
Some interpret legal design as making legal documents aesthetically pleasant. This is linked to the understanding of design in general: people not exposed to design tend to think of it as aesthetics and not in terms of a problem-solving attitude through the design process, corresponding to the ways of conceiving, creating and evaluating applications, products, and systems.
The growing number and variety of applications of legal design make it pervade many more domains of practice. People are increasingly aware that information design is more about functionality than making documents visually pleasant: for example, making it easy to find and use the legal information one is looking for. And legal design doesn’t stop at the information level! It has many other applications that have consequences on how legal products, applications, or systems work. For example, in the United States, people like Margaret Hagan are redesigning how the judicial system works, by considering how people feel and can go through difficult legal processes like eviction in a way that appeals to their dignity.
How can legal design be applied to data protection?
Data protection is a fascinating and vibrant field for the application of legal design. The GDPR has incentivized people and businesses to find out and experiment new approaches, methods and mindsets to answer to the new compliance framework.
Data protection stresses the importance of transparency and fairness of data processing. When you interpret these principles in a user-centric manner, you have to think about the kind of users you’re designing for and not a general and abstract audience. In order to produce a proper legal product addressed to your specific audience, you have to put in place an evidence-based intervention: you first have to identify who your users are and how to best reach them, and then demonstrate that the new design you put in place to improve transparency is actually more effective than traditional practice. The redesign of privacy policies is an obvious example. This process is made easier when from the beginning you think through the kind of applications and services you’re offering, and you plan how you’ll offer them and what kind of values are going to be embedded in the processing.
We can take the example of icons to illustrate this point. Icons are mentioned in the GDPR and most of the time the question is: how to create icons to explain my processing? The hypothesis of the GDPR postulates that if icons are used, the transparency of data processing will be ameliorated for the user. However, more relevant questions would be: are icons effective as transparency and informative measures? If icons are used, do they really improve the clarity of communication? And are icons the right visual elements to ameliorate the transparency of your communication? There, you’re trying to assess if icons are relevant or not to make your processing clear and transparent. You can only answer these questions by first of all creating a set of icons that is legible and comprehensible, and second run test to find out if the understandability of data protection terms is improved or not. The results of those test will either confirm or refute your hypothesis and help you decide if icons are a relevant transparency tool or not.
Are there other methods used in legal design?
Depending on the use case, different kinds of methods of investigation can be chosen. For example, you might want to use co-creation session where users are invited to co-design a service or product and the values it should embed. This is an approach particularly relevant for health-related applications where sensitive data are processed and for which people want to have a say in their making. Other methods might include interviews, focus-groups, online surveys, observation studies, randomized controlled trials, etc.
What is really central to legal design is the evidence-based approach that those methods help to produce. As the field is still new, we are trying to understand how to pose the relevant questions and how to answer them. We have not only to investigate a legal issue, but also to demonstrate why one intervention works better than another one. One of the most important insights that we can learn from a human-centred design approach is this evidence-based attitude enabling us to say that something works because we are able to explain how, why and for whom it works.
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