Interview with Stefania Passera, one of the pioneers of legal design
Last post covered the work of Stefania Passera, who designed a Visual Guide to accompany the General Terms of Public Procurement in Service Contracts (JYSE Services). JYSE Services are the general terms of public procurement, that need to be used in every service contract signed in the public sector. As shown by the previous post, Passera’s Visual Guide proved to be more useful, usable and pleasant for civil servants than the original textual document. But what are the nitty-gritty details of creating such a visual guide? This post will answer some of those questions through an interview with Passera.
Seungho Park-Lee (SPL) How did the collaboration begin?
Stefania Passera (SP) The project was a small part of a larger research project called Pro2Act, which was funded by the Finnish Funding Agency for Technology and Innovation Tekes from 2010 to 2013. My fellow researchers from SimLab discovered the JYSE document was not fully and clearly understood. My colleagues and their partners at the Association of Finnish Local and Regional Authorities (Kuntaliitto) decided to follow this incidental lead, and try to do something about it, even though this wasn’t the main goal of their project. So, when I was asked to join the effort, we did not start with a grand plan for creating a whole new explanatory guide for JYSE, but rather with an agile mind-set to see if and how visualisation could help solving this problem. In the beginning, I visualised just one clause and had a feedback session and a good discussion with the lawyers at Kuntaliitto on how we could proceed. Later, they asked me to look at another clause and visualise it — and so we continued.
SPL That’s an interesting start. Can you mention some of the most interesting experiences you had through the process?
SP I think that designing a visual explanation for each contractual topic has been a journey of discovery of some sort for me, as well as for the lawyers. For example, we often had hands-on sessions, in which we would take a couple of early sketches and develop them further, or we would start visualising a completely new topic. Sometimes when the meaning and the intent of the clause was not too clear, I asked the lawyers to pick up the pencil and sketch themselves the issue exactly the way they see it. So, it was a collaborative, multi-disciplinary, and very hands-on way of working, with a designer trying to interpret legal text and lawyers trying out sketching as a way to think and communicate more clearly their expertise. Through these activities, we could identify not only some better ways to visualise certain clause, but also some holes in the logic of the JYSE Terms. The text was sometimes not as clear or comprehensive as the lawyers previously thought it to be.
SPL Visualisation as an activity that helps to straighten the logic!
SP Exactly. As a designer, I had known by instinct and experience that sketching, visualizing, and prototyping helps thinking and reasoning. And, of course, the work of psychologists on visual-spatial reasoning and collaborative cognition such as Barbara Tversky has strongly indicate this is the case. What was interesting was that the legal experts, who have been working with purely textual information for their whole careers, only managed to discover these problems after seeing the content presented in a new way. What may be subtly hidden in the text suddenly becomes apparent and transparent in a diagram. The lawyers discovered that visuals are very effective “auditing tools” to check and support their own thinking and understanding, and I think that at that point they became completely sold on the visual approach.
SPL It is great that it was a learning process for both parties. Was there any particular challenge during the process?
SP The use of plain language, which has now been researched and advocated for almost 40 years, was surprisingly still a hard sell. Initially, I was afraid that visualisation would be received with suspicion and a conservative attitude, because that has never really been done. I was wrong. The lawyers were ready to try out new, alternative ways to visualise the clauses, but did not want to change any word in the JYSE document. Their concerns were related to liability issues and legal correctness because the document, though mostly used by civil servants, in case of a dispute still needed to work in court, as a ground for lawyer-to-lawyer communications.
SPL Fair enough. Was there a radical turn in the visual design itself?
SP Yes, there was. In the beginning we tried to visualise the full and complete process for every possible outcome in JYSE. We wanted to make it extensive and exhaustive. For example, the flowcharts that represented the remedies for defective or delayed services were very complex in the first few iterations, as we tried to map out all the possible directions and consequences in one comprehensive diagram. However, later we realised that it would be easier and clearer to create visual explanations of distinct scenarios. We also realised that remedies to problems are more based on negotiation and choice — the same problem can be solved in different ways, depending on the gravity of situation.
SPL Can you take an example for the readers?
SP Sure. For instance, even if municipalities have severe problems with the supplier, they often refrain from terminating the agreement and prefer to choose “softer” solutions, like claiming discounts or penalties, because termination would mean starting a completely new procurement process to find a replacing supplier. And that takes up more time, resources, and money. So, we decided to show which remedies to problems are available to the municipalities and carefully leave the actual choice to them.
SPL That’ll be a great reference for those who’ll follow your path. A bit of flexibility with careful consideration for better outcome. By the way, I also found the test results fascinating. How did you design the test?
SP Thanks! The lawyers, my colleagues and I together came up with open questions that a civil servant may really need to answer in his/her work. We also set up very clear criteria to judge whether an answer was correct, only partially correct, or incorrect. In some cases, the test participants could simply find the clause where the relevant information was and reference its number, or write verbatim the relevant part of the text.
SPL Were there different degrees of difficulties between the questions?
SP Yes. We had a mix of easy and hard questions in the questionnaire. For example, one of the easy questions asked if the service provider has the right to transfer the contract to a third party, or what the possible consequences are if the service has a non-repairable defect. Then, there were more difficult one, for example, that asks if a service provider has right to suggest price adjustment in a non-fixed price agreement, and if so, what the legitimate grounds are.
SL What was the most difficult one?
SP We had questions that specifically probed the participants on some clauses which were presented in an outright confusing manner in the original JYSE because we wanted to know whether the visualizations helped clearing the fog around these topics. For example, under JYSE, either party can terminate the agreement if they cannot agree on new prices during a renegotiation. The contract is terminated after 2 months, but how one starts counting those 2 months differs on which party suggested the price change in the first place.
SPL That hurts my brain! Was there any challenge during the experiment itself?
SL In the previous post, I covered the result in the simplest way for the general public, which is already interesting and promising. But, what else did you pay attention to, or what else do you want to add?
SP We also considered individual differences in expertise, educational background, and thinking styles among people. I wanted to be able to identify any potential difference on how individuals may or may not benefit from visualizations. For example, I wanted to see whether visualizations equally benefit a government lawyer with 20 years of experience in public procurement and a novice civil servant with a technical background. Or, people’s cognition style — if the difference in their cognition style have an impact on the results. What we found was that the only factor that has major impact on the accuracy and answering time was the experimental treatment. Not gender, not age, not expertise or experience. Effective information presentation and design trumps all the other factors.
SPL Now many years have passed, what is your wish for the next steps for JYSE Terms, or other similar legal documents?
SP One obvious step is perhaps to include some explanatory visualization into the JYSE Terms itself. This was a wish of the research participants, too. But Kuntaliitto understood that changing the JYSE Terms themselves in any fundamental way could take years because it is under the responsibility of the Ministry of Finance, not Kuntaliitto. So from Kuntaliitto’s point of view, creating a separate Visual Guide that would accompany JYSE Terms was a more agile step that would benefit the civil servants at the municipalities immediately. Now, a new version of the JYSE Terms has been introduced since 2015, but the Visual Guide has not been updated, which I find regretful. Perhaps it comes from the funding structure of Kuntaliitto, or simply from top-level public servants who don’t pay enough attention to these issues. It is a pity because updating the guide would not be an expensive project, especially considering the clear benefit.
SPL That could be frustrating. What other works have you done related to law and design?
SP I have initiated and been running Legal Design Jam, a type of workshop that brings together stakeholders from different fields — such as designers, lawyers, policy-makers, coders, innovators, business people — with the goal of giving an “extreme makeover” to an existing legal document. During a jam, the participants ideate and prototype a new version of a document, creating visualizations and better layouts, rethinking the structure of the document in terms of good storytelling and user needs, and where possible, simplifying its language. With brilliant partners and colleagues around the world, I have run over 20 Legal Design Jams in total in countries like Switzerland, the Netherlands, the United States, Colombia, Belgium and Greece.
SPL Super interesting and inspiring. Where can the readers find more resources around this topic?
SP My website has links to the publications I have been writing in these years around this topic. Helena Haapio, my main “partner in crime” in both commercial and academic work, collected several resources on the webpage of her consultancy, Lexpert. In addition to our work in Finland, legal design is alive and well at Stanford University in the United States under the efforts of Margaret Hagan and the Legal Design Lab she leads.