Amicable by Design: why Minimally Vain Products might be the way forward

Every year I try to teach my students just a little something about legal design. A fledgling discipline, but one I think with the potential to reshape how law students and lawyers think about law and legal service in ways more meaningful than our rather tech-heavy debate. And as I often do on my Future of Legal Practice course I try to enlist help from the practice. So it was this year. Kate Daly, of Amicable, a divorce service provider, came and she had some unusually interesting things to tell my students about innovation, which I think might be of wider interest to those innovating in legal services, thinking about how to build online courts, even those running hackathons and similar initiatives.

Kate is a former management consultant, in her own words a ‘generalist’, who via two divorces, training in relationship therapy, and a background in psychology came to the view that divorce could be done much better than solicitors were able to do it for some clients. And she and her business partner, a ‘technology entrepreneur’ knew what they wanted to do. They wanted to build the world’s best divorce app.

So far so ordinary. One more disruptive thinker with an itch for IT.

The process of building their service, and why I had asked her to come to talk to my students, is that they are (they say) very user-focused in their approach. They see the user experience as central to designing and improving their service. Rather than concentrate on what they thought was best for the app, they experimented. They changed things. They were, to use the business speak, agile. They observed how users interacted with their services. They sought feedback, formally and informally. They made sure they observed users and asked lots of questions and, she said, really listened; listened in a way which did not negate the experience of the client. In a similar vein, she said it was really tempting to use feedback as a process of justification – to see the world through the service they wanted to provide rather than the one the user said they wanted. One way I interpreted that was that the temptation to discount unhelpful feedback needed to be avoided.

Now as I type these words, they might sound like so much blarney, but I don’t think they were because what Kate said next really caught my attention, she said,* I really wanted to build the best divorce app but that was not what our users were telling me they wanted. They were telling me they wanted something else. They really wanted to talk to someone. And so they built there service around the app, and Kate has not had the chance to improve the app in the way she wanted. To pick up on the design vernacular, it was a minimal viable product, in the sense that the app was good enough, not as good as she would like, but her users did not especially want or need it to be improved. It was, to underline the point, also a minimally vain product – a product not built inflexibly around the designer’s vision, around the desire to force tech on a problem, but one which aims to use tech to support the solution to a problem; a solution which is human-focused. A more tech-driven, less user-focused approach, might have insisted on perfecting the tech – missing what the user would really use and relate to.

There are interesting tech things going on under the hood; but it’s worth noting they have a human behind their chatbot not a series of managed pathways; although they also have lots of transcripts of these client-adviser interactions and are thinking about how to teach a chatbot to update managed pathways through such data. But in building the app, Kate seemed to come to an important realisation – the app is a parlour trick; a way of engaging people in a different way of thinking about divorce. Like the Rechtwiijzer it is forward-looking (interestingly the title of the business had changed from UnCoupled to Amicable); based on the importance of goal setting/integrative bargaining, and thinking about the future as the means of resolving divorce amicably.  It will not be for all divorcing couples, some need rights and lawyers, hard bargaining, and adjudication, but it is an approach which seems to work for some. Amicable presents as a nimble, user-focused, small player which seems to have the capacity to grow by listening to its customers and being willing to adapt its design, pivoting towards their needs, and abandoning sometimes grand plans because grand plans are might need to be built from the bottom up.

 

  • I am paraphrasing from my notes, not reporting verbatim.

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