What Does a “user-centred” Approach Really Mean??

It is common now for those promoting justice reform to urge a “client-centred” or “user-centred” approach. But what does it really mean to take a “user-centred” approach? Is it enough for justice insiders to take their own understanding of the client experience into account or to invite one or more ‘users’ of the system to participate in reform discussions? Just how do we truly obtain the perspective of those using (or wanting to use) the justice system?

Once again, we can look outside our own sector for clues.

Example #1 – Business

The business world has been focusing for hundreds of years on meeting the needs of their customers for goods and services. A relatively recent innovation identified the need to focus on “customer-centricity”. The idea is that whatever the organization offers must be designed from the perspective of the customer and engage with the entire customer experience.

Colin Shaw says: “The experience you provide to your customers is a direct reflection of your organization. If your organization is ‘product-centric’ or ‘internally-focused,’ you will provide an internally-focused product or experience. If your organization is ‘customer-centric,’ you will provide a customer-centric experience.”

The key questions are: “Is the process designed for the good of the Customer or was it designed for the good of the company?” Is the process “inside out” or “outside in”?  “Inside-Out orientation refers to a process that is reviewed through the eyes of the company, looking out at customers as they go through, resulting in a process that is oriented on the needs of the organization. Outside-in orientation involves walking the process as if you were a customer looking in at the organization through a Customer’s eyes, enabling a process focused on the needs of the Customer.”

Let’s face it – the current justice system was designed primarily by and for the professional users (Judges, Lawyers and court services). How can we redesign it to be “consumer-centric”?

Shaw suggests that you don’t just focus on the rational “what’s” of the system. Since 50% of a customer’s experience involves their emotions, it is not just the process but how they felt about the process that is key. As an example, the National Self-Represented Litigants Project findings document how important it is to SRL’s to be treated with dignity and respect and to be cared for as individuals, not as case numbers.

Shaw identifies five requirements to move to customer-centricity:

  • Definite ownership by an individual or cross-functional team of the Customer Process.
  • Belief that all the parts of the system affect the Customer Experience.
  • Creation of a detailed Customer Journey Map that includes the emotions of the Customer at each moment.
  • Incorporation of the Customer into the design process. The most Customer-centric companies include the Customer in the design of the process to get their view of the changes.
  • Commitment to exceeding the Customer’s Expectations at every interaction.

Telus implemented a Customer First policy in 2011. Senior leaders in all departments across Telus spend time on the front lines in the field, in retail stores, in call centres and with service technicians to really understand customer experience first-hand.

This approach is challenging in a complex system where there is no “CEO” and there are many moving parts. However, doesn’t that make it even more important to walk in the shoes of a variety of members of the public, for example, who are trying solve their legal problems? A “journey map” would be very helpful to help identify the weak points.

Example #2: Systems Change Theory

I’m enrolled in a MOOC through MIT called U.Lab – Transforming Business, Society and Self. It is led by Otto Scharmer, the guru of the ULab, a fascinating process to encourage truly innovative change in complex systems of all kinds. In the first week of the MOOC we watched a video about the Apollo 8 mission – the first manned mission to fly to the moon. All preparations and attention was on the goal of getting to the moon, the stars, the universe. However, when the astronauts in orbit began to send back pictures of the Earth, the scientists were awestruck. It was the first time anyone had seen what our home Earth looked like from space. This was an unexpected discovery of beauty and profound mystery. They called it “a grand oasis in the vastness of space”. This was the first opportunity for humans in the “human system” to see that system, from a new perspective. Otto suggests that this is how we need to view any system we seek to influence and change. The ULab approach advocates resisting the strong temptation to move immediately to solutions based on surface level observations but to take time instead to go deeper, to explore the underlying root causes and to gain understanding and empathy for the experience of human beings who participate in the system. How to do that? He recommends “empathy walks” (real conversations between people from very different parts of the system) and “learning journeys” (visits to the edges of the system that are unfamiliar). It is empathy that will open new doors of opportunity.

Closer to home, the most profound learning I gained from the CBA Envisioning Equal Justice Summit April 2013 was the poverty simulation. While it involved role-playing it gave participants a glimpse into the actual experience in the social welfare system of human beings struggling to make ends meet for their families.

Example #3 – Design Thinking

David Kelley (founder of IDEO) has worked for years on ways to bring real human experience into design (of products, services and organizations). David insists that design must be done through collaboration across disciplines AND that it is essential to have real empathy for the consumer to uncover real human needs. You figure out what people want and value in their products and services through careful observation of their experience. At IDEO, David worked closely with Apple for many years to design the Apple mouse. He watched people’s reactions when they used the products and when he saw a grimace he knew a change was needed. He recently started the Hasso Plattner Institute of Design at Stanford which focuses on “human centred design” to bring students from a wide variety of disciplines (including law) together to learn how to solve problems collaboratively.

What can we learn?

  • The justice system is both an organization and a system (a big, hairy, complex system)
  • Those who engage with the justice system can be called its “customers”
  • We need to focus more on the end to end “customer experience” (head and heart) of the justice system
  • The focus should be on “customer centricity”
  • That means trying to turn the camera around so we can look at the entire system (including ourselves) from the customer’s perspective. It is a good start but not enough to invite a few members of the public to join our discussion tables (after all, they are “our” tables, “our” language, “our” agenda). We need to map their journeys and to foster empathy for their entire experience with the system
  • We also need collaboration across disciplines (not just the legal fraternity).

Experience in other sectors shows that these approaches will result in more effective and lasting change. Worth considering.


  1. Re “Empathy Walks”: one doesn’t gain empathy for human experiences of others by observing them or inviting a conversation. “Empathy” comes from when something within your own life experience can resonate with the life experience of another. Not an intellectual observation.
    One example that comes to mind on that latter point is from Dr. John Bradford, medical legal expert in trials. In interviews, he has said that prior to his own “break”, he did not think that “post-traumatic stress disorder” was an actual phenomenon, (even tho’ he was Head of Forensic Psychiatry!). He was emotionally-removed from the experiences of patients. He experienced PTSD first-hand in connection with a grizzly legal case wherein the client had chopped up bodies. Therein came the “crack” in Dr B’s awareness; the lived-experience, that has seemingly expanded out into greater compassion, insight.

    “Poverty simulation” — There will always be a difference between an actual life-experience and role-playing.

    I liked how you articulated how an organization can query whether their approach is serving the company, or serving the customer, Kari. (the current justice system is serving the company, not the customer.)
    The very design of the justice system is such that is difficult to negotiate unless one has a law degree; the very design puts up obstacles to common users. (Imagine if you couldn’t access the internet unless you had technical expertise; if you had to enter “code” rather than just having user-friendly clickable options; if there were techies posted all along, berating users that they hadn’t entered the proper “code”.)
    And the label, “Self-Represented Litigant” is a label from the inside-out; I recoiled the first time, (and many subsequent times) that I heard it; the term had not existed when I went to law school; it’s a creepy term that certainly does not come from a place of empathy. The label allows attention to be diverted from a system that is troubled, onto those who are having trouble negotiating the dysfunctions.

  2. Excellent points Sue. You illustrate well why this is such an important question to ask! It raises serious and vital questions about how we approach justice reform. Thanks so much for taking the time to comment.

  3. There are quite a few examples of lawyers who are engaging with social justice issues, etc., not just at arms-length, but rather participating in the process as well. Coming from a fuller perspective. If one’s only perspective is from within the system that one operates … and if that system has always served one well … then one is missing the entire piece of what it is like to be on the receiving end of the dysfunctional aspects of that system. (That becomes part of a legal education that many lawyers do not have; they think they know the system, but they only know the system from a position of power.) The stories from those who normally benefit from the system, who are then captured by the system, are powerful and compelling.
    On that last point, there was more than one lawyer who was captured with G20 protestors; one female lawyer specifically commented that she had only known the legal system from a position of power, and it was a totally different experience to be on the receiving end. A different female lawyer was jailed along with G20 protestors and had the experience of interacting with law enforcement from the other side of the bars — asking for water, etc.. I think she described the anxiety she felt. (therein comes “empathy”: feeling the anxiety of being on the receiving end.)
    The female lawyer who was handcuffed while she was in robes in a Toronto courtroom, I’m sure is gaining some empathy for what it’s like to be on the receiving end of the system. (wishing her much support and I imagine it will make her a more powerful advocate for others; knowing how important it is to use one’s voice for those who do not have a voice.)
    Lawyer Jesselyn Radack, (one of Ed Snowden’s lawyers; also represented Bill Binnie, Thomas Drake, John Kiriakou), made a commitment to represent truth-tellers after she herself was a whistleblower re the first “American Taliban” — she had direct knowledge that the young American had been “interviewed” (tortured) without his lawyer. Jesselyn has heart (empathy); she relates to the issues with great humanity. The full-length of award-winning film “Silenced: The War on Whistleblowers”. (I think this is one of valid links for 66 min. version; not just the trailer:
    Former Crown-Attorney/author Rupert Ross, has spoken of how the western system of justice freezes the perpetrator and victim into the time of the crime; this is compared to the aboriginal justice approach which is process-oriented, and allows participants to shift out of the conflict-zone, and into healing. Former Chief Justice of the Yukon Barry Stuart is also very active in this area. (My experience is that aboriginal justice circles are empowering, healing … it feels like there is movement in the process, rather than parties being locked into a fixed power structure.)
    And then there are American lawyers like Stanley Cohen and J. Tony Serra who have (both?) done jail-time for tax issues, when they were harassed by powerful forces for various reasons. They aren’t arms-length kinda guyz. (yes, “guyz”).
    In the last year, I have heard a number of times where judges, lawyers, court clerks have proclaimed, “You don’t know the Rules!” to people who don’t have law degrees … . (“we know the rules; you don’t; therefore we win, and you don’t”. ) These utterances are made to the “customers”. (a possible analogy would be if, in an aboriginal justice circle, those who knew how the circle was conducted, said to newcomers, “you don’t know how the circle operates!”, to alienate the participants. That’s not what happens of course. Everyone is equal in the circle, everyone’s voice is heard; no lying, no manipulation; no power games. Sacred space is created, wherein the energy can shift.) Man oh man, what a difference from the alienating culture of the western system.
    One’s entire consciousness can participate in an aboriginal justice circle, whereas western culture tends to be “talking heads.” The intellect alienated from the rest of one’s being.
    That’s a wrap, Kari. Thanks for being receptive. Sue.

  4. I am a self-represented litigant who agrees there could be a better term for this status, but having also some background in organizational analysis, find a lot more here that I disagree with in both the article and the comments. I think there is a tendency for lawyers to think they’re smarter than other people and so I worry about them renovating the justice system without fully consulting appropriate analytical expertise. I hope you don’t mind my saying it’s facile to equate litigants with clients and to superficially scan the management literature and assume there are parallels where few to none in fact exist.

    The relationship of the courts to the public is a complex one and the law is a professional system; duty, not empathy, need to be among the foundational principles of system redesign. The law itself and the rule of law, not to mention the adversarial system, do not lend themselves to customer-centric organizational design. At the same time, customer torture is not a necessity!

    With respect to the last comment, it is extremely dangerous to equate so-called social justice law (really just activist lawyers with ideological agendas and patron funding) with justice system reform or access to justice. It is nothing of the kind; indeed, social justice activism hijacks the law from the public realm into the legal fraternity (not the profession, but the fraternity). Finally, law enforcement is not the justice system; lawyers are not the system. They are both parts of the system that upholds the rule of law, and while both have flaws and push boundaries, they are both the way they are for a reason.

    I’m sorry to sound negative, and I’m sorry to make such sweeping statements but this isn’t the place for a longer essay. I think the important message is that organizational design is no simpler than the law is, and requires at least as rigorous an analysis as a case does. This piece falls short of that standard, and there is so much at stake in justice system reform that I hope a higher standard will apply.