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Some thoughts on designing a course (on design), iteration, and feedback.

by Prof Moon

Periodically I'm sharing thoughts and a self-assessment of sorts on my journey with 24 Vanderbilt Law Students in Legal Problem Solving, my version of a legal design course. These are said thoughts on Class #2.

Perhaps you can call Legal Problem Solving a meta-design experiment, as I endeavor to teach students the methods and process of human centered design, while using these same methods and processes to design both the content and delivery of the course.

True to this endeavor, it's in a constant state of iteration. And while this is kind of overwhelming (!), I think it's also the way things have to be. Most anything can be improved with iteration and this is most certainly the case with a brand new law school course.

So I've intentionally built flexibility into the syllabus, so we can shift if and when shifting seems prudent. Case in point: after Class #2, I decided to shift the how and what of Class #3 (but more on that in a later post).

Some thoughts on designing a law school course. On design.

Some design tools I've used so far: a mind map — this helped me get out all of the ideas accumulated during the inspiration phase. The first version was on paper, drawn with colored pencils. I moved it to a digital version using, to share with my co-teachers Tony Threatt and Larry Bridgesmith, for their input and feedback.

I'm also working on a journey map, that takes a student through the entire semester in LPS. This is turning out to be an interesting exercise. I plan to share the map eventually in a post. Part of my motivation for making the map (other than the obvious value in doing so for designing a course with my student users at center) is to share the map as a design artifact, modeling how to use a journey map as design thinking tool for my students.

I also started creating personas, but this didn't happen until after the class started and I had a better sense of the students enrolled in the course. A primary goal is to make the design thinking heuristic as relevant and applicable to the work the students will be doing.

From the pedagogical perspective, research shows that the learning is in the doing — and reflecting on the doing — which is why LPS students have a weekly journal assignment that requires reflection. On the many things we are doing in class — design thinking really should be renamed design doing.

This is also why I'm blogging about reflections on my experience in designing and executing the course. I learn more when I reflect on the doing.

Some thoughts on iteration.

I'm constantly asking my students for feedback on what we're doing and what they think about what we're doing. Why? Because I want to demonstrate iteration. And also, waiting until the end of the semester for their feedback isn't at all helpful in improving the here and now.

If something isn't working, or if it's working okay, but not great, then let's iterate. Let's change it up. Let's do something different.

I received some feedback this week. I posed the question to a student, "What is one piece of constructive criticism you have about the class so far?" She was quick to respond that when we get into the really meaty discussions toward the end of class sessions, it feels like we're just getting to the good stuff, and then ... class ends. Too much left hanging.

Which inspired me to use this blog as a place to discuss the things left hanging.

Which leads me to ...

Thoughts about client feedback.

A bit of context: Class #2 was devoted to an exploration of the current state of the legal profession, primarily from the business of legal services perspective with a dose of lawyer well-being thrown in. Overall, much of the data show that the business of legal hasn't rebounded from it's post-Great Recession decline. Also, millions of people who have legal problems either don't know they have a legal problem, can't afford legal help, or choose not to hire a lawyer. And, on top of all of this, lawyers suffer to a much greater degree from anxiety, depression, substance abuse, and suicide risk than the general population. Overall, it's not a terribly rosy picture.

As we're teasing out some of the finer points, one challenge identified was the failure of lawyers to know the business of their clients.

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Digging into a deeper reflection on clients' dissatisfaction with how many legal services are delivered led us straight into the importance of gathering feedback in the human centered design process. When we create a solution for clients, it's imperative to seek intentional and meaningful feedback from clients on how well the solution is meeting needs, and how it can be iterated to meet needs even more fully.

Which led to an inquiry into how lawyers aren't hardwired to seek feedback from clients. My experience suggests there are many reasons for this. One? The tendency for most lawyers to see the world as composed of two kinds of people: lawyers and non-lawyers. We lawyers are the experts and non-lawyers really aren't competent to judge whether our work product or delivery is good or not. Because. They're not lawyers.

Perhaps this sounds trite. But consider that our discussion in class eventually touched on this very question, "How can the client, who isn't the legal expert, judge the quality of our legal work?"

A valid question to ask in our inquiry, yet not the only valid question we should be asking when it comes to assessing and iterating on our delivery of legal services to clients.

Yes, our work product — the quality of the legal work we perform — is part of what we should be seeking feedback on. Does the work meet the client's expectations? This is the ideal time to learn if we properly gauged and/or set expectations. Did the work product match the level of service the client was expecting? Or did we (over)deliver at a Bentley level when an Audi (or even a GMC) would've sufficed?

But work product is only part of the services delivery equation. How was the service delivery experience for the client? The experience can matter as much as the work product delivered. An expertly executed transaction is great — but if the client's human needs weren't met (adequate level of communication, transparency in the process, etc.), it's possible if not likely that the quality (or lack thereof) of the experience will be the primary take-away. NOT the quality of the work product.

Just so we understand the point: It is entirely possible, if not likely, that a lawyer or firm can deliver a stellar legal work product and yet have very dissatisfied clients. Because the delivery of this stellar work product was terrible. We lawyers should care deeply about this disconnect, and be proactive to address it.

To put it yet another way: there are two firms. Both deliver stellar legal work product. One sucks at meeting clients' human needs in delivering said services. The other excels. Who do you think is going to get the business?

Yes, the application of feedback and iteration in delivering legal services to clients is a nuanced one. It is precisely this nuance that human centered design and its tools address. In the feedback and iteration phases, we can take practical steps to be curious about clients' satisfaction with the services being delivered. We can ask probing questions. We can listen more and talk less. With open minds. We can choose to act on the feedback we receive.

When we do these things, we strengthen our relationship with clients. And magic happens: clients receive better service. And thus they are happier. And as a result, lawyers are busier (and happier) doing (more) work for happy clients.