With support from the Open Society Foundations, Pro Bono Net’s Legal Empowerment and Technology Initiative seeks to advance the strategy and practice of technology-enabled legal empowerment efforts in the US. Our initiative strives to expand access to justice and build legal capacity in local communities, in partnership with civil justice organizations from across the nation. In Alaska, we are making it easier to apply for disability benefits. In Puerto Rico, we are helping homeowners identify their risk of foreclosure. And in New York, we are simplifying the wage theft claim filing process.
Over the past few months, I’ve had the pleasure of leading a range of virtual engagements with our Legal Empowerment and Technology cohort. These virtual engagements blend participatory action research methods with design thinking to co-design legal empowerment technology solutions. In today’s blog post, I’ll be sharing my three takeaways from running a virtual design sprint.
Low-income and disabled Alaskans are often left to navigate the public benefits system with little or no help. Geography and poor connectivity provide additional barriers. Submitting a successful initial Social Security Disability application is extremely difficult. Applicants often submit incomplete applications, leading to delays. Without a successful initial application, an applicant may be denied and forced to face an arduous appeals process, or be frozen out of SSD benefits entirely.
The sprint took place over the course of 5 days in June. Before the sprint, we researched the context of the problem and prepared a journey map of the disability application process to guide our discussions. Although originally meant to happen onsite, COVID forced our team to pivot to a virtual design sprint. We ran the sprint with 6 members of the ALSC team, as well as myself and our designer, Ángel López. Our goal was to brainstorm a diverse range of solutions as a team, identify the riskiest solution to test, and then produce a prototype that we could present to real users for feedback. After a full day of co-design and 3 days of prototyping, we successfully delivered and validated a high-fidelity prototype of our disability benefits tool.
Our Keys to Success
Design sprints are an exciting way to identify, brainstorm, and test solutions to a problem. Design sprints are also exhausting. An important consideration that to keep in mind is how such a demanding and time-sensitive experience feels virtually. In addition, most of our sprint team members had never participated in a design sprint before.
Given these needs, here are my three key takeaways from running a virtual co-design sprint:
Know your tech
It is critical that at least one if not two members of your team feel fluent in whatever tools you use to facilitate the experience. Technical troubleshooting is inevitable when everyone is online. Anything you can do to make successful troubleshooting happen faster will help keep the group on track. In our case, we used the following tools:
- Go To Meeting for video call and recording
- Google products like Docs, Slides, and Sheets for documentation
- Mural for virtual white boarding
Take the time to onboard your users onto any unfamiliar or complex tools that you’re introducing. For example, Mural is effective but does come with a learning curve. Most of our sprint participants are comfortable with technology but don’t necessarily have exposure using a creative and collaborative tool like Mural. I made sure to include an easy ice-breaker that also served as a mini-training on how to use Mural before we dove in. I also tried to scaffold our activities in Mural by difficulty, so each task we did together built on an interaction we had already done before.
Both verbal presentation and listening comprehension tax our bodies differently in a virtual environment. Without physical cues, our mind has to adjust for the lack of information by zeroing in on what you can see on your screen. As a result, it’s best to slow down any instructions shared so that your participants have time to process what you are asking them to do.
Adding detail to your instructions will also help orient your participants. Instead of saying, “Mute yourself when you’re done,” you should lead your participants and say “When you’re finished, you can click on the button on the left-hand side of your screen to mute yourself.” If you can, add your instructions somewhere to your doc so participants refer back to it at their own pace. Bonus points if your verbal instructions follow your written ones almost verbatim, making it even easier for participants to follow along.
Practicing how you explain an activity is also crucial. If you’re using a script, don’t assume that writing or reading that script alone will be enough. Being intentional about your language will make the information you share easier to digest. As a participant, it is easy to sit alone in your room and feel frustrated when someone’s instructions don’t make sense or if you feel like you’re doing something wrong. Avoid this friction by practicing your directions. Ask a colleague or a friend if they are willing to listen to you explain directions.
I recommend preparing mentally for the week. Design sprints are hard. Careful preparation will go far in making the process as smooth as possible. Nonetheless, the time and effort it takes to participate are draining, to say the least. Spotty wifi can exacerbate frustration. Be ready to wait out bandwidth problems, and set this expectation with your team at the top of the sprint. Above all, take breaks!
Design sprints are a wonderful way to problem solve. With careful planning and thoughtful facilitation, you can ensure your team has the best possible experience.
This is the third part of Pro Bono Net’s three-part blog series on legal empowerment and co-design best practices. If you missed part one or part two, click here.