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People  Design  Business

Improving the experience of clients of family court


I worked with TC Eley IV, a student at Carnegie Mellon University. 


Department of Homeland Security (DHS) in partnership with Carnegie Mellon University

problem space

When people visit the family court, they are typically going through a challenging time, and navigating the complex court system becomes an additional frustrating burden.


We took a service design lens to the problem, with backstage and touch points key considerations, since a number of variables and actors impacted the user’s experience.

new summon.png

The family court is a complex system with 5 different divisions -

  • Juvenile delinquency

  • Juvenile dependency 

  • Custody, child support, parental testing and divorce

  • PFA - Protection from Abuse

  • Adoption

These division work in silos, with multiple internal and external stakeholders. For users coming without knowledge of specific technical terminologies, the system is a maze to navigate through. The DHS wanted us to explore the difficulties the user faces, and create solutions that improve their experience.

The complexity of the ecosystem and problems faced didn't allow for a sequential process of research-synthesis-ideation-prototyping-iteration, but required a fair amount of back and forth between the different steps 

piecing the puzzle together



Users: Coming for different cases. Understanding their journey, pre-arrival to post exit.


Case workers: The links between the court and its clients, to get a unique perspective that comes from seeing both sides..

Line staff: The front end staff, including security and information desk, that interacts with users on a daily basis, to understand their role and training, the most common user queries.


Department heads and Key personnel: Including judges, tip staff and administrative staff to understand systemic macro issues, like the impact of the circular building structure. 

MULTIPLE METHODS: Our choice of methods were impacted by the fact that users are fairly stressed at the time, and may have selective memory, especially focused on functional, rather than emotional challenges they faced. The POEMS framework allowed comprehensive coverage and efficient analysis in a time constrained project. 

// Information sharing sessions to familiarise ourselves with terminologies and functioning.
// In-depth interviews to allow unbiased responses and exploration of individual experiences and stories.
// Role Play to experience the process as a user.
// Observations using the POEMS framework at different times and different days, including delinquency and dependency court hearings.
// Secondary research of summons, annual reports, and surveys.

My partner and I conducted the research in a diverge-converge-diverge fashion - Gathering information separately, then sharing our findings, and reflecting on gaps, thereby inspiring next research leads


Getting a tour and details about the system in the waiting area


Preparing for a juvenile delinquency hearing with Hon.Judge McCrady


level 1

The initial research gave us lots of individual pieces of information from multiple stakeholders. To make sense of the large amount of data, we started by clustering information into Affinity Maps.

Limited sample size, and relatively large variety of stakeholders meant pattern finding using traditional grounded theory approach would be difficult and unreliable. Hence, clustering and finding relationships between information to give themes became the choice of synthesis method.
The end of this Level 1 synthesis not only gave us key themes and possible directions to work on, but brought to light gaps and further, specific areas of investigation

level 2

Armed with additional information, we sought deeper insights behind what people said and did

CAUSE VS. EFFECT: Apart from helping define the problem statement and design principles, laddering revealed that some issues that appeared to be problems, were simply an effect or symptoms of other problems.


We laddered our key findings to understand the experience it creates, and the higher order value they were seeking.

For example, when a 17 year old girl calls her friends while waiting for a dependency hearing, what is she really seeking? Yes, it helps her pass the time, but it also brings normalcy

key insights and framework


There is a lot of uncertainty about the process to follow: necessary steps on arrival, where to go, form to fill, how to prepare. This is compounded by the language barrier between line staff trained in technical terms, and users, who describe the problem in layman terms.


The figure on the right depicts the cause and effect relationship.

finding 1.png


Uncertainty about time of hearing restricts movement beyond the waiting room, even to get food, increasing anxiety and perceived wait time.


The laddering, causes of the problem and its effect is shown in the figure on the right.

finding 2.png


There is a gap between expectations and actual experience which creates dissonance.



Absent / confusing signage, circular building structure, language barrier, non sequential rooms create difficulty in navigation.


Experience is impacted by inconsistencies in training of staff, high autonomy of judges and case workers.

the experience framework

I developed a framework to explain the varied experiences of different people, which
in turn became an effective way to create meaningful segments/personas among users. This helped the court consider different types of user needs rather than blanket solutions.

for detailed process and all findings view process documentation
problem definition
We focused on first-time users: people coming in with simply a problem, not knowing the technical terms or things they need to do.
build a system that keeps the first-time user informed about what to do and expect?
ideation for solutions


1. Given the overwhelming amount of information, we thought of a scavenger hunt and Just-in-time model while developing solutions. 

2. We used different Mash ups for inspiration: Airports, Restaurants, Parking spaces, metro stations, and hotels.

3. Combining best aspects of our individual work helped create stronger solutions .

to know more about the ideation process and all solutions click here
prototyping and iteration

We met the client to discuss our solutions on an opportunity matrix and understand their priorities. From about 20 ideas, we finalised 3 solutions to prototype, that could work well together as a system, supporting each other, at the same time stand as individual solutions:

  1. Redesign of summons

  2. Interactive kiosk to help understand court process 

  3. SMS service that keeps user updated


PROBLEMS we were trying to address:

  • Disorganised information in paragraphs

  • Redundant information

  • When users come for the first time, they have no idea what to expect




  • In the upper right corner of the summon there is a three-letter icon in color. This design element allows staff to easily recognise client need and direct them accordingly. Colour consistency is part of a larger system

  • Visual hierarchy allows clear identification of important information - date, time and exact location 

  • Chunked and point wise information allows easier read and assimilation 

  • 2 column format allows for quicker entry of information for person sending 

  • Gives users information so that their expectations of the court more closely match their experience


PROBLEMS we were trying to address:

  1. Language gap between users and staff - users describe their needs in layman language, the staff is trained to understand technically correct terms. Incorrect understanding of problem leads to incorrect information given, incorrect forms filled and lots of confusion

  2. Court is short staffed, and it becomes difficult to handle questions from such a large number of people effectively


  • Use of layman language

  • Step wise guidance, with option to skip steps through navigation bar for users looking for specific information

  • Colour coding - Different problems are coded differently, and this colour is kept consistent in the forms to be filled, indication of where user needs to go, preventing errors

  • Reduces load on staff

  • Possibility of a phased roll out of solution - We recommended a step wise roll out which would allow us to refine the content - starting with a flyer, then a tab, and finally the full kiosk

sms service 

PROBLEMS we were trying to address:

  1. Uncertainty - Not having any idea about when hearing will start

  2. Feeling of being stuck - Users are unable to leave the waiting area, since they don't know when their hearing will start. This ultimately leads to irritation, increase in perceived wait time, and a negative atmosphere, especially when people are hungry


  • Sends reminder one day prior and day of hearing

  • Allows person to move freely, and even go out of the building, thereby reducing perceived wait time

  • Introduces the kiosk as a resource, supporting another solution

  • Becomes a medium to get feedback from users, signifying importance of their opinion


We presented our detailed findings to the client. Our solutions found great traction with the client, especially the colour coded kiosk and summons. These were then presented to a bigger audience, with stakeholders in decision making roles, in order to start bringing these solutions to life.

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