Consumer contracts are as much a part of the Internet as the apps and devices we use to engage with it. And while we embrace the information available at the touch of our mobile phones, the terms and conditions, even for the well-traveled tech enthusiast, can be a bit too much.

Applying Design Thinking to Law
Illustration by Mark Smith

And—the digital footprint we leave behind is huge. Moreover, it reveals a lot about our private lives—where we shop and eat and exercise and socialize, even what we read. At the heart of those consumer contracts is our personal information, raising some real questions about privacy: How will this information be stored and crunched and used? Will it be sold to third parties? But few consumers read these contracts, let alone understand the rights they may be relinquishing.

“We’ve found that there’s a kind of resignation about these contracts and privacy notices. Users are overwhelmed and don’t feel that they have any control, so what’s the point of reading them? It’s simply the cost of using the site. So they click ‘read and accepted’ without even looking at the terms,” says Jessica Hudak, JD ’16, who last fall took Legal Design Lab: Consumer Contracts, a new course that explores these issues.

As part of a new effort at Stanford Law School to integrate “design thinking” into the curriculum, the course offers new tools for a quickly changing complex world.

“It means taking a creative, experimental, and user-centered approach to how we provide legal services,” says Margaret Hagan, JD ’13, a fellow at Stanford Law’s Center on the Legal Profession and a lecturer at Stanford Law School and the Stanford Institute of Design (the, who co-taught the course in the fall quarter with George Triantis. “It’s taking the same design process that the d-school teaches and aiming it at the legal system, taking the human-centered design approach and applying it to the world of law.”

The class required law students to look at issues through a very different lens—focused on legal as well as user problem solving. Students studied the principles of contract design, theories of consumer consent, communication design, and privacy scholarship. They also delved into behavioral economics to understand the dynamics of how lay people interact with legal text and choices. But then they departed from a typical legal class to focus on design thinking—ultimately building a prototype of a solution as the class project.

George Triantis 2
George Triantis, Charles J. Meyers Professor of Law and Business and associate dean for strategic planning

“I’ve taught contracts design for 15 years, largely centering on negotiating a deal and how best to draft contracts with the court in mind. But this is the first time that I’ve expanded my teaching to other ways of communicating deal terms particularly between the parties and within parties. How does a company communicate its contract obligations and rights to its own management? What visuals can it use to aid that communication?” says Triantis, JD ’89, Charles J. Meyers Professor of Law and Business and associate dean for strategic planning.

After studying the issues, students identified a problem to be solved—digital contracts and privacy terms, something that both consumers and cell phone providers can—or should—care about.

“This is clearly a big concern for consumers, but it’s also an opportunity for companies,” says Triantis. “There’s a lot to be gained by reassuring consumers, who we know care about their privacy. It’s a big communications challenge. But one that, as our students demonstrated, can be addressed well and effectively.”

“Our goal was to make privacy policies more engaging and more understandable,” says Elizabeth Lowell, JD/MBA ’16, who took the course and was part of a team that dealt with location settings. “That was our broad mandate; we then tried to narrow down the problems.”

To do that, they surveyed students on campus—potential clients for the solution that they would design and build.

“We found that one big concern is location services and how location data stored on mobile phones is used,” says Lowell.

Stanford Center of the Legal Profession Announces New Legal Design Lab
Margaret Hagan, Lecturer in Law and Fellow at the Stanford Legal Design Lab


“Location privacy was major for women, especially young women. So we designed our solution for that demographic,” she says, noting that a solution designed, say, for older men might look quite different. “It was a process of going out and identifying what people were most concerned about and then coming up with a hypothesis on how to address that concern.”

The team’s solution shows the user how her location data is being used. “We found that people want to be notified about their location services policy when they are changing their settings. So we designed a pop-up that points to ‘see more’ about location settings,” Lowell explains. “It allows the user to focus on the point of concern at the time when it might be a concern, rather than being fed everything up front. And there’s also a ‘call-to-action’ button so you can turn location services on or off.”

Meanwhile, Hudak’s team looked at the larger privacy policy.

“Our user was young and tech savvy but she didn’t know how her data was being used and was overwhelmed by a lengthy privacy policy,” says Hudak.

The team aimed to redesign a mobile phone privacy policy from top to bottom so that it could be spoon-fed to users in bite-size pieces at key junctures in their engagement with their phone—enabling them to better understand it.

“The idea was to put the privacy policy, as well as other descriptions that the company made about how data was collected and used, all in one place,” says Hudak, who has a BS and masters in mechanical engineering.

First, the students gathered the company’s privacy policy information and put it in one location, where the user regularly interacts with settings. Once the user enters the app, she sees a landing page, which shows all the different ways to interact with the privacy settings.

“We wanted to make a native application that would reside on the home screen of the user’s device alongside existing setting applications,” Hudak says. “This puts privacy front and center and helps establish trust between the customer and the company.”

There’s a social element to the application too. “People may care about privacy, but may not feel informed enough to make a decision. But they can look to a group like Electronic Frontier Foundation to find suggestions for privacy settings and simply copy those.”

The projects progressed from ideas, to proposals, to stick-figure drawings and finally to real software-generated demos (developed with the help of programmers), which were installed on the cell phones. Finally, they demoed their proposals to fellow students and faculty, as well as to lawyers from Apple, who offered practical feedback.

In the end, the students developed real solutions to real problems—while learning to view a legal challenge in a new way.

“The basic principle of the class and in legal design generally is to try to make the law more accessible to individuals who are not trained in law,” says Lowell. “Most law school classes teach you what the law is. But if you’re a lawyer, you’re going to have to present that in an understandable way to clients, so this class was very useful. Beyond solving this specific problem, it offered us new tools to use in practice that could have many applications.”

“The class is different from traditional law classes in that you’re focusing on user problems first, as opposed to starting from a macro-view of what the law is. It was very hands-on. You’re learning from a lawyer’s perspective in most classes, but in this one it’s from the consumer of law’s perspective,” says Hudak.

“It’s also about helping our students to convert their way of thinking—teaching them to add another layer—and to actually act on a problem with their own hands, taking pen and paper or mouse and software, to discover what they can do in the sandbox,” says Hagan. “It was a lot of fun to see the creative solutions they came up with.”

Hagan and students participating in a new Legal Design Lab are now setting their sights on a new design thinking challenge: working with California’s Department of Justice to explore how, as a regulator, the DOJ might set new standards for 21st century privacy policies. “Insights from the contracts project insights and models are feeding into that new partnership—good things!” says Hagan.


1 Response to Applying Design Thinking to Law
  1. I am an academic and teach law, business and strategy in an Indian B School. I have also practiced as an Advocate on the civil, criminal and constitutional side for 10 years. The Indian legal system follows the British legacy. What has always bothered me during professional practice is the huge backlog of cases in courts that delayed justice to my clients. One way of addressing this is by establishing more courts to dispose matters. But, that has great limitations. Design Thinking has given much insights to me in reducing backlogs without tinkering with procedures.

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