The A2J Lab’s First Hackathon

Jack Frost’s Boston relative might have covered the city in snow and forced several flight cancellations, but the A2J Lab pushed through with its first “hackathon” on Monday, February 13! Thanks to videoconferencing and collaborative technology–not to mention the dedication of expert colleagues–we assembled an energizing mix of Lab staff, designers, UX experts, behavioralists, lawyers, and, most importantly, a former guardianship client. Their charge was simple: brainstorm designs for self-help materials applicable to service of process in Massachusetts guardianship matters.

As discussed in a previous post (by way of a visually overwhelming flowchart), service of process can be a very complicated, vexing step in obtaining legal guardianship. If it is not completed properly or at all, the petitioner winds up frustrated, and legal service providers spend more time explaining the requirements. But service isn’t just a legal formality; it’s a crucial part of the petition. If interested parties, i.e., those who might want to contest the petition aren’t notified, due process concerns would arise. Therefore, failing to serve within the prescribed timeline will stall the petition.

Hackathon attendees first heard from a three-time petitioner, a veritable pro who had sought two minor guardianships and one for her older adult brother with disabilities. She explained in vivid detail just how winding the path can be, especially without formal (or any) legal assistance. For example, she spent money to publish in a newspaper even though that option wasn’t necessary for all of the interested parties. She also received confusing messages from organizations caring for the respondents and still hasn’t received formal guardianship papers from the court long after the petition was granted.

Two critical lessons emerged from her story. First, the paperwork involved was overly complicated, repetitive, and time-consuming ways than the ideal procedure. Second, the experience was emotionally draining and perhaps would not have been successful without the support of others.

Two participants joined remotely, and we were able to communicate and brainstorm via Mural and Skype.

A user’s account, as opposed to just the opinions of lawyers and researchers, added a much-needed human element to the discussion. The subsequent brainstorming session was greatly enriched; everyone grappled with how to explain the procedure visually, or through technological solutions, the procedural steps. Most of them involve far too many “if, then” pathways that transform service into a nightmarish “Choose Your Own Adventure.” The group first diagrammed a “happy path,” i.e., what the process ideally would look like if everything unfolded smoothly and satisfied legal requirements. Everyone agreed that the self-help materials should not duplicate the overwhelming effect of the existing paperwork and should minimize instructions that aren’t applicable to a user’s specific circumstances. The materials nevertheless should recognize the likelihood of straying from the “happy path.” Users need helpful directions for when something goes wrong. Color-coded paper, striking dividers, and encouraging cartoons emerged as promising methods for keeping users engaged. Others emphasized using plain language that is more familiar and less daunting than “petitioner” or “fiduciary.” One participant suggested using metaphors to illuminate service: imagining oneself as preparing to host a party and then shopping for the necessary items.

The A2J Lab sends out huge thanks to the NuLawLab, the Graphic Advocacy Project, the Boston Bar Association’s Volunteer Lawyers Project, the Boston Court Service Center, and Suffolk Law for their input, expertise, and interest. Over the next few weeks, the A2J Lab, with the input of those involved in the Hackathon, will develop prototypes of paper and digital self-help materials for iterative review and design. While guardianship service of process, legally speaking, hasn’t become any less complicated, the Hackathon provided much-needed insight and clarity. Participants now view the procedures through a more user-oriented, human lens. We are determined to generate materials that can reduce confusion and make guardianship law more comprehensible for those who need to call upon it.

[Read more about the day in post by Hackathon participant and design guru Margaret Hagan!]

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