Design Research and Strategy, Graduate Student at Carnegie Mellon University
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“What are we waiting for?”


The Family Division of the Fifth Judicial District of Pennsylvania continually seeks ways to act on emerging best practices and performance measures as it becomes a trauma-informed service provider. Processes and procedures are tedious and complicated and the Family Division has asked our team to investigate visual and communication design interventions that might help improve the overall courthouse experience. Over the course of six weeks, we explored concepts that not only aimed to satisfy this need, but also made sense in the context of a heavily silo-ed, resource-constrained organization.

research, contextual inquiry, concept development, communication design, service design, prototyping

“What are we waiting for?”

With: Raphael Levy
For: Allegheny County Department of Human Services
Tools: Balsamiq, Illustrator, Sketch, Principle, InDesign
Duration: Five weeks

Update: On February 9th, we were invited to present our findings and concepts to a steering committee comprised of key stakeholders from the Family Division and Department of Human Services. Our work is in consideration and under review. The group is currently discussing a pilot test of key ideas to improve the family court experience.

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The concept

"Tiny bits of information over tiny bits of time" was the problem we began solving for. We proposed a digital signage system for the courthouse's second floor waiting room, which immediately raises the availability of information from 0.002% to 100%. While the obvious recommendation would be to provide people with an exact scheduled time, this is simply not possible in our current context. Our solution, informed by several key insights during our research phase, offers staging for "order and progress" as a substitute for definite time. Being able to communicate, even at a very high level, how the current day is playing out will allow people to make certain decisions during their wait time.

The issue

The waiting rooms in the Allegheny County courthouse have a disproportionately large impact on the stress and anxiety experienced by youth and families. Important information regarding the progress of the day's hearings is currently delivered through a public address speaker. Each message is about 10.1 seconds of high-tempo, muffled sound and will only be repeated a maximum of three times. Someone in the waiting room is only provided 30 seconds of information, which over the course of a reasonably-expected four hour wait, amounts to about 0.002% of their time. We identified this as the root cause for the majority of the stress and anxiety experienced during the day (and even the days leading up to it).


“Options and guidance” extend the usefulness of the digital signage

The abstract nature of the notification system is resolved by providing actionable information based on the stages of the board.  Be present, be nearby, and be aware indicate the mindset with which to approach your current wait, as well as specific things that could be done during this time to meet basic health and wellness needs. For example, if you're starting to get hungry, depending on which stage you're currently in, you'll be advised that there's probably only enough time to get something from the vending, or that there's enough time to run downstairs to the cafe, or that you can leave to get food outside the courthouse.

The system is driven by a digital version of an existing practice

The way in which the digital signage is populated and updated is by way of an existing practice of the judge's tipstaff. By moving to a digital docket, not only can we use what already exists, but we also gain the ability to track and store operational data.

From system to story...

Building a useful amount of domain knowledge was the first challenge to overcome. Family Court was completely unfamiliar territory for our team (and it was the first time I'd ever even been in a courthouse). Not only would we have to be building an understanding of the people the Family Division serves, but we'd also need to develop an understanding of how the organization itself functions. And, perhaps more importantly, how successful change happens within or across departments—is there a model for successful change we can build off of?

Site Observation: We were invited to the courthouse after normal operating hours for our introduction to the project and a tour of the building. Even from the very beginning of the project, we were interested in different formal and informal signage that existed throughout the hallways and rooms—it communicates not only what should be happening in a certain room (formal signage), but also what tends to happen and how that behavior should be corrected (informal signage).

Expert Panel: Our first series of interviews consisted of representatives from across all the functions and departments of the Family Division. This was our opportunity to gather a high-level working knowledge of the entire system and organization. In order to be more effective in our research, we attempted to define several guiding hypotheses for focusing our interview questions. We created two “working hypotheses” from our initial site observation—not in an attempt to prove them, but rather to see how many of our assumptions we could test with information already available on the court’s website and documentation, as well as ask more meaningful questions. Our interviews were immediately transcribed and mapped out in affinity diagrams in order to see what kinds of themes were emerging.

Understanding our primary stakeholder needs: What emerged from our initial focus on process and procedure within the Family Division was a way to begin addressing the needs of our primary stakeholders: youth and families. We worked closely with the Department of Human Services to research the user journey with people who have had primary experience. We wanted to develop an appreciation for all the things that might happen in and out of the courtroom—so that we might develop a more appropriate intervention that addresses larger, system-level needs.


...story to scenarios...


In addition to sitting in and observing the waiting room on multiple days, we also developed several scenarios that helped us generate a variety of actionable insights from our observations. We started with a known: the case docket for the day and the times at which people were scheduled to arrive. From here, we extrapolated waiting times out to understand how someone can end up being in the waiting room for multiple hours. We then speculated on all the different things that could happen during these lengthy wait times.

...and scenarios to solutions.

What does it mean to be helpful? Our other breakthrough insight came from a conversation with an assistant administrator. We spoke at length about what it means to be helpful. And the varying quality of service that's offered when everyone has their own idea of what it means to be helpful. In such a stressful environment, many people are incline to tell people what they want to hear. While this may temporarily calm the situation, there are bigger downstream consequences. What we learned from our discussion is that what matters most is giving people what they need to make the best decisions. It might be harder, but it's a form of respect that should be embraced in the organization.

An appreciation of order and progress: We had a breakthrough in thinking about this problem in a conversation with an administrative judge. She shared with us a story about a party becoming increasing irate about how slowly things were moving. “What’s happening? When are we going? What are we waiting for? How much longer?!” It’s probably a familiar story, but what matters here happened next with her interaction with the tipstaff. The tipstaff assured her that the judge was currently listening carefully to a case. And this case, like hers, was very important. And that once the judge was done listening to that case, she would be extended the same attention and consideration.

How might we provide people with just the right amount of information about progress in the court so that they can make better decisions about how to spend their time in the waiting room?

Sketching: At some point, presenting research and findings becomes less productive, and even the simplest of sketches can bring about richer conversations. These two low-fidelity sketches led the entire first review with some of our stakeholders and generated some of the most useful bits of feedback throughout our iterations.

What resonated with our client was the idea of an alternate "appreciation" of time—driven by the creation of “stages”. They realized that this new approach to order and time would feel more user-friendly. It would allow people to take care of their basic needs while not getting attached to a specific timeline that may drastically shift one minute to another.

Wireframing: With a concept in mind, we were finally able to start considering the information availability and needs of the system. We stepped back from concepts and illustration and starting iterating through basic wireframes. We also had to start considering all the visibility and legibility needs of digital signage.



Iterating: One final quick sprint brought us to the concept we presented to our client. We solicited feedback on visual directions such as the association of color and order. Our two primary ideas were something similar to a traffic signal (very obvious and strong cues) and gradients of a primary color. We decided on gradients of blue—which we found through informal feedback and critique seemed to communicate, somewhat counterintuitively, both justice and calmness. Blue is also the international isotype for information.

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