When Making Technology Investments, Think Like a Designer

In this age of technology, we are expected to do more with less. Convenience is demanded. Companies like AirBnB and Uber have responded to these societal trends by transforming entire industries. And while both Uber and AirBnB are delivered through technology platforms, their success was largely a result of their ability  recognize needs, and to develop solutions that met those needs in a user-friendly way. Technology for its own sake is not a saviour. What might be a boon for one organization, could be risky or even damaging for another. 

Similarly, law firms will need to understand the needs of their own users if they are to make effective investments in technology. However, because lawyers are trained in the law, and not the social sciences, or design, or business, this is where many fall short.

Design in law is not a new idea. Larger firms in particular have recognized its benefits, but as more technology products become available to a greater number of firms, a formal approach to user-centred decision making will need to be understood by a greater proportion of professionals.

In the context of law, the term ‘user’ is often assumed to mean the client. But another group of users are equally important to the success of an organization – those delivering the service. Without taking into consideration the day-to-day habits and processes of associates, law clerks, research staff, and others, firms risk making investments that are out of touch, which can severely hamper the overall effectiveness of those investments.

To properly appreciate the need for, and impact of potential technologies on firm operations, decision makers need to think like designers and start by asking themselves a few important questions:

  • What are the needs of our users? How are those needs currently being met?
  • Where do unmet user needs align with the strengths and capabilities of our organization?
  • How can we offer value in new or better ways?
  • What is the cost of the new value to old forms value?
  • Who will lose from this trade-off? What resistance might we encounter?
  • How does this procurement fit into the short, mid, and long-term vision for the firm?
  • Does this technology challenge or complement our existing business model?
  • What might be a sign that we need a new model, or that the technology could actually harm our business?

The tools of service design offer organizations a way to answer these questions, and a method for ensuring that investments will produce lasting value for all stakeholders.

Take contextual inquiry, for example. It is the process observing or shadowing service delivery ‘actors’ in their environments in order to make hypotheses about their experiences, and their ability to deliver favourable experiences to clients. The process can be employed early in the technology procurement phases by identifying needs of service delivery personnel. Conversely, it can be used to assess the impact of a new or legacy system on an actor’s day-to-day. Often, actors develop their own work-arounds for systems. These work-arounds are signs that the system is creating friction, and that changes are needed. Some sure signs that systems are in need of review include post-it note reminders, or functionalities being used in a way other than their intended purpose.

From a client-centric view, journey maps can help organizations visualize their services from discovery, to post-service. They can help firms make decisions about technology investments based on where they are likely to have the greatest impact on value perceptions, or conversely, where they may cause friction.

When implementing new systems, wireframes and other prototyping exercises can help the organization identify potential issues before the investment is made, reducing the chance of costly design issues once the technology has been procured.

Technology investments are essential. But to reap the benefits of those investments, think like a designer. You might be surprised by the results.