In with the old, but with a new sense of purpose – innovation with users

The recent HMCTS Court Hackathon, led by the estimable Susskind and Vestbirk, got me thinking about newness in innovation and the role of users in the process. As did an exchange with in-house lawyer Chris Simkins (@hum_drums) about where innovation comes from. Chris’ was inspired by this very interesting talk from Alistair Parvin of WikiHouse.

Part of the talk involved showing how planning regulations could be broken down into a decision tree that interacted seamlessly within a computer aided design tool. The design would (probably) be planning compliant as a result without lengthy to-ing and froing between architect and planners. One of Chris’s points was that it was fascinating to see the embedding of law in the WikiHouse process being led by non-lawyers. That innovation was, as he put it, demand not supply led. Seeing this comment, and the WikiHouse approach to planning law, reminded me of a floppy disk I saw back in the early 1990s. That floppy disk was for a DOS-based programme designed to take non-expert advisers through complex welfare benefits calculations. It had a sticky address label on it with the words Lisson Grove typed across it in the Courier font. Both to support Chris’s point, but also to cause mischief, I wondered aloud how old Lisson Grove was, and to my delight, I discovered that it appeared to be still going, with all the visual pzazz of the old version intact.

My request for info on Lisson Grove’s age was answered by James Hand (@JamesAHand), who came up with this beauty.


Turns out that as our politics is taking a distinctly 1970s veneer, the 1980s are making a bit of a comeback in LawLand. The kind of managed pathway which one sees in the Canadian solution finder is one example, and it looks like the online court here may head in a similar direction. To be clear, we have far greater technological power now to build Lisson Grove type systems, and AI promises – at some point – other possibilities. The point of Wavelength’s Hackathon winning entry using Alexa is not that Alexa is the right interface. Alexa can’t even get my shopping list right. The point is that better interfaces than a computer keyboard are possible or imaginable. Lisson Grove also reminds us that these decision-tree systems can be resilient but it also reminds us of where innovation may need to come from. User needs have to be central, and perhaps chronic or strong enough to motivate action. As the 1989/90 piece tells us:

[This is] a program originally developed by Professor Brian Jarman in the
early 1980’s. A GP at Lisson Grove Health Centre, he started work on it after finding that some of his patients, in particular the chronically sick, were not receiving the benefits they were entitled to, and that their poverty was a contributory factor to their ills

The doctor was not trying to make more for less, he was trying to make his patients better. There was a higher social goal, a pressing social need, and the wisdom and skills to see a better way of doing something. Finding these axes of maximum potential is crucial to innovating for access to justice. Deep engagement with users looks essential.

What Alistair Parvin’s talk also suggests is a step change in thinking is possible when knowledge is embedded in systems: he shows how cost, environment, build, regulation (in this case planning)  and delivery can be linked in a system that raises our eyes from the prosaic (getting something done) to the social (building for a purpose – in this case sustainable living). There’s a really cool example of a farmhouse being designed and built before your eyes. It is inspiring, I heartily recommend it.

There are a whole range of interesting ideas in there: what are the design patterns of law, for instance, but the most important is – what is the overarching purpose we are aiming for, what are the values we promote in seeking to embed justice in systems, and who contributes or owns that process? As Mr Parvin says, when hearing of an innovation, one should think: that’s an interesting future – who owns it?  This is both a policy question and an ethical question; a technical question and a process question; a principled question and a consequences question. I, as many people seem to be right now, am beginning to work more seriously on these issues. James’ contribution forces a reminder that they were doing that too in the good old 1980s.

One final point, that guy from Pointless, Richard Whatsisname, pointed out this week that Tainted Love the 1980s Soft Cell classic was released closer to the Second World War than today. The Lisson Grove approach is more PostWar than it is Millenial. Let that serve as a reminder that we need to focus carefully on what constitutes progress.

Oh, and here’s one from their back catalogue, because – as you can plainly see I am feeling nostalgic and because the Hackathon is also a reminder that it is important to have fun along this particular journey

3 thoughts on “In with the old, but with a new sense of purpose – innovation with users

  1. … beautiful and sensitive. I think you may be looking for ethical design? Spot on about the present opportunities – are you hopeful we can shorten the 20- 40 year ‘take up’ for 4.0?

  2. Interesting to see this, albeit a year late.

    On Lisson Grove, I think we did the many of the things we were interested in fairly well, including things which we found really quite difficult and which took a long time to work out:

    * breaking down results so that people had a chance of working out what had gone wrong with their benefits, rather than just seeing how much they might get – and so new advisers would understand how benefits were calculated.

    * minimizing the acquisition of unnecessary client data (some might laugh at this claim)

    * re-using the information acquired across several different benefits with slightly different legislative underpinning (e.g. what counts as earnings for income support is not quite the same as for working-age housing benefit)

    * storing cases with sufficient contextual data to make it possible to efficiently update them when the law or client circumstances changed

    We tried to avoid language and interface elements that might impute intelligence or empathy to the program. One program in a related field would put up a screen saying ‘thinking’ – an entirely artificial delay intended to deceive customers into imagining that something clever was going on. Another would say:

    “We are delighted to tell you that your total benefit benefit entitlement is £157.35 per week”; or

    “We are sorry to tell you that you are not entitled to benefits”; or

    “We are delighted to tell you that your total benefit benefit entitlement is £0.10 per week”

    It’s true that we weren’t concerned much with visual pizazz (though we were interested in usability and accessibility). Initially we had the luxury of a fairly long development process, with intensive feedback from a small user group. Once the program was openly distributed, it was essential to keep it up-to-date, undoubtedly leading to compromises along the way.

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