Why we commissioned this research
Online self-help resources can help people solve common legal issues independently. They are especially important for people who can’t afford a lawyer or access free public or community legal assistance. In Australia this group is often referred to as the ‘missing middle’. With an ever-growing number of people in this cohort, we have renamed it the ‘missing majority’. As the missing majority progressively adopts technology, there are increasing opportunities to find new models of providing cost-efficient and effective free legal assistance at scale.
Justice Connect has already carried out user research on general interest in online resources, and a number of our projects provide service access points in online settings as well as static and interactive self-help resources. In this latest research, we were particularly interested in better understanding the opportunity to assist the missing majority through online resources.
This research was funded by the Victorian Law Foundation to help better understand the attitudes and behaviours of people looking for and using legal self-help resources online to solve common civil law problems. Our aim is to inform better design and deployment of digital self-help resources across the legal services sector.
The Seeking Legal Help Online: Understanding the ‘missing majority’ report was designed in early 2020, then revised in response to the COVID-19 pandemic so that all research activities were carried out remotely in July and August 2020 with 15 participants from Victoria, Australia. We recruited participants from priority groups that are made vulnerable to legal problems and often assumed to have lower capability or limited access to online resources. This includes recent migrants, people living with a disability, single parents, and people living in a regional, rural or remote community. We learned from a diverse range of people about what they found useful in online resources to help them begin to resolve legal problems related to debt, work, housing, and accessing courts remotely during the COVID-19 pandemic.
This comprehensive human-centred report outlines the context, rationale, methodology and findings of this almost year-long research project. It describes the hypotheses, strategy, tactics and assumptions of the research design, as well as its outcomes in the form of insights, recommendations and design principles. These are illustrated with words and images directly from research participants. The quotes interspersed throughout this report ensure that readers never lose sight of the people at the heart of this project and ensure that the research participants’ thoughts, needs and experiences are presented in their own words. Visual diagrams, tables, illustrations and screenshots help to bring the research to life and provide specific examples of the methods used and actual experiences of people in these priority groups.
The report also references other literature on legal self-help. While some of this project’s findings confirm those from similar research, the conclusions of this report also differ from existing research and assumptions. In particular, our research found that demographic features such as education level, language spoken, disability, location and migration status did not determine a person’s likelihood to use online legal resources. A key barrier to engagement isn’t capability, but rather poorly designed legal information. Other individual influences were a person’s level of legal knowledge gained through prior experience, as well as their sense of self-efficacy in resolving legal issues independently.
Part one provides a rationale for the focus on certain priority groups and the types of legal problems and online self-help resources explored. It introduces the participants and describes the methods and resources used to better understand the journeys of people in the ‘missing majority’.
People in the missing majority use online resources not only to understand and resolve their legal problems but also sometimes to help others. This research highlights the strengths and frustrations of this highly capable and determined cohort. The insights in part two include:
How people search for legal help online
A Google search is the first step in a help-seeker’s attempt to resolve a legal problem on their own. While most people initially search by describing their problem in everyday terms, some search specifically for organisations to help them. The first set of insights describes the variety and mixed results of searching techniques used by participants in this research.
What the self-help journey is like
The challenge of solving legal problems on your own is explored in the second set of insights. Legal jargon is confusing for most people who haven’t studied law; the rules and procedures of the legal system can be opaque; and the process to understand and resolve an issue can be incredibly time-consuming. Even if help-seekers have interacted with the legal system before, and have a high level of English literacy and digital capability, they tend to find themselves in a highly stressful situation and are anxious about the outcome.
How different resources can help and how resources are consumed
Help-seekers in the missing majority can identify which online legal self-help resources will work best and when they would use them. The third set of insights presents the results from a card sorting activity along with key themes to show how each type of resource had different ways of supporting the help–seeker. These insights draw on participants’ own analyses and explanations of why they would select certain tools, when they would use them, and what combinations of resources would work best for them and their issue.
Our research participants had confidence in who to trust and what to avoid. If self-help became overwhelming, they would start looking for a professional to help them.
How resources could be improved
The fourth set of insights covers some of the shortcomings of existing legal resources and the behaviour exhibited by people as they try to decipher and then apply new knowledge. These insights highlight issues of access, trust, accessibility, appropriateness and usefulness.
Unfortunately, for the missing majority, many of the legal resources they can access online today do not meet their expectations. Looking for practical knowledge to start the process of self-help, or at least to understand their options to make informed decisions, people are quickly overwhelmed by an avalanche of text and information. The missing majority becomes stuck when language is unclear, they don’t have the ‘evidence’ they need to continue their journey, or resources do not work as they should.
Despite huge advances in digital technology and inclusion, many online legal resources remain limited in their design, mirroring segmented procedures, bureaucratic paperwork, and folded information handouts. Some people with disabilities cannot access or use online legal resources at all because the resources have not been designed with their needs in mind. Resources often also contain overly technical and complex language.
How help-seekers define a legal problem
The fifth and final set of insights takes us back to the beginning of the self-help journey: the moment when a help-seeker determines they have a legal problem. These insights draw attention to the mental model and challenging circumstances of a diverse range of people who find themselves in need of legal information or assistance.
Overall, the stories from participants and examples from live searches and testing of resources highlight the differences and commonalities of searching for legal help and information online.
Part three of our report presents a series of recommendations and design principles to help improve online legal self-help resources. The recommendations focus on how to involve people with lived experience and relevant professionals in funding, researching, designing, testing, implementing, promoting and evaluating online self-help resources. Suggestions are tailored for this report’s different target audiences: funders, service providers, and resource makers, in five main areas:
Listed in full below, the design principles offer research-informed, best practice guidelines for the development and deployment of online resources.
Part Three closes with acknowledgement of the gaps and limitations of this research and practical suggestions for future research to build on the findings presented here.
Our design principles for online self-help resources
We have developed a set of design principles for online self-help resources that provide a concise summary of learnings and offer research-informed, best practice guidelines for better design and deployment of digital self-help resources.
Good online self-help resources must:
be easy to find first by those who need them, when they need them
have names that describe what they do
set clear expectations
be as easy to read as possible
work equally well for everyone
be quick to use
connect to other resources and services
build in extra support
allow some people to speak to a human
be designed with communities.
Finally, part three closes with acknowledgement of the gaps and limitations of this research and suggestions of practical focus areas for future research to build on the findings presented here.
The appendices provides further details and examples of the research and recruitment design, including images of the actual materials used, pre-interview activity guide and interview questions, and example responses from participants representing each key archetype: the Cautious-Traditionalist and the confident Do-It-Yourself ‘super searcher’.
To ensure the biggest impact, you need to involve the people who will be using a resource or tool in the initial design process. We shared our insights on designing this research project using best practice methodologies and working with communities.
This practical webinar covers:
We learned that our ‘missing majority’ are extremely persistent and committed to resolving legal problems by themselves. They are also genuinely interested in contributing to projects like these, if it can help the next person or make things better in the future.
We didn’t have too many preconceived notions, apart from one huge one, that almost stopped this project from even happening! When we started this, we almost assumed that that people were busy, vulnerable and unable to participate in this type of research during a pandemic.
Before we threw the towel in, we decided to talk to some community members. See how they felt about our project, if the timing was off, if they thought it was a worthy pursuit. Going and having those conversations with communities blew our ‘vulnerable people’ myth apart. Not only were our participants able to participate, but they also wanted to. Many told us life felt like it was on hold. Activities and jobs were paused or over, so they wanted to contribute to something meaningful.
We were fortunate to have past participants (and friends) we could check in with to bust our wrong beliefs, in a gentle way. When in doubt or figuring something out D.N.A – Do not assume. Always talk to the person or community directly.
User feedback or community input can fit into all stages of the design process.
The hard part is often we only get the chance to ask for feedback once, meaning we don’t get the check if you’ve understood their wants and needs correctly — and acted on them correctly, too.
The biggest challenge with gathering users’ feedback is creating a safe and open space to collect it. Often people don’t know what is ‘good feedback’, what to respond too, or are too shy and don’t want to hurt the designers’ feelings.
A way to navigate that space is to present ‘unfinished’ or sketchy designs. They look a bit rough around the edges and are easy to shoot down or add to if needed.
Using a mix of different feedback approaches to test the issue or product from multiple angles. That way you can find out what feature is valuable but also what it sounds like, looks like or the ecosystem it is in. Some examples of different approaches are:
Sharing power can be scary and it’s a wild change from how things have been done in the past. The best thing to do to make it less scary is to start small and build relationships and capability/confidence as you go. That is why testing and observing might be a good start, instead of jumping straight to co-design.
It also helps to create pathways for consumer voices and feedback in the organisation. This helps you gain momentum and value through the process. The last thing you want is to run a co-design project that no-one knows or cares about, as you won’t have support implementing the feedback you gathered or design you created.
Another good place to start is to get your concerns about sharing power out in the open. Create space to ask yourself and your organisation what is stopping you and what you are worried about. This will help you surface concerns that you can mitigate with a good plan or identify opportunities where you need a bit of help from someone who has done it before.
Risk aversion around co-design is not unique, so if you find yourself being the lone voice for community involvement, find others in different places to support you get there. You aren’t alone.
We prepared a video to accompany our recruitment efforts for two reasons:
Having now analysed the online pathways people took before filling in our expressions of interest form, we have concluded that the video was not the most impactful way of driving people to fill in the form in this instance. Instead, it was our direct marketing, organic social media posts to existing sector partners and sharing the call out in closed online communities that resulted in more interest. However, we still acknowledge that recruitment videos can be useful, depending on who we are reaching out to and the purpose for that outreach. We will continue to test, analyse and iterate, and share those learning with our sector colleagues.
Many of the research activities would work when working with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, but the big thing to ask is “am I the right person to be doing this work?”. You might want to have a co-design practitioner as a coach, but the research and facilitation should be led from within the community. If you are not an Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander person, you should actively seek guidance from someone from the community. You should also ensure that the person is adequately reimbursed for the work they are contributing to your project. You want the skills, knowledge and power that comes with running this thing to be where it belongs — in the community.
In any consumer centred research project, it is important that you intentionally set down frameworks for ethical research before commencing the project. These frameworks may change, depending on the needs of the people you are intending to work with.
For more guidance on conducting ethical research with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and communities, you can have a look at the following resource published by the National Health and Medical Research Council: Ethical conduct in research with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples and communities | NHMRC