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Implementing a trauma-informed system for Allegheny Family Court

ABOUT: The Allegheny Family Court and Department of Human Services (DHS), located in downtown Pittsburgh, partnered with the Carnegie Mellon Design School to develop a visual communication system intended to improve the Family Court experience. It became clear early on that there were many problems in Allegheny Family Court that we could tackle, but which would be the most impactful? With my partner, Josh LeFevre, we discovered that the courthouse serves 120,000+ Pittsburgh residents each year and 75-100% of those individuals have experienced trauma. Through a user-centered and research-based approach, Josh and I developed a trauma-informed solution that addresses Allegheny Family Court's most pressing challenge: their processes do not recognize and respond to the effects of trauma, creating a potentially harmful environment for a majority of their visitors. 

PROJECT TYPE: Service Design | UX Design | Communication Design 

ROLES: UX Designer | Service Designer | Design Researcher


DIGITAL: Decreasing anxiety with a digital notification system

Court Connect is a digital notification system that provides greater transparency between visitors and Allegheny Family Court. Upon first court notice, visitors will be sent text message reminders that provide the time, date and location of their hearing. Through automated reminders and simple response options, visitors can more flexibly check-in, wait and navigate the court experience. The Court Connect notification system is designed to increase the number of meaningful touchpoints between the Allegheny Family Court and visitors in order to reduce triggers of trauma.  

PHYSICAL: Creating community with Pittsburgh-inspired wayfinding 

Building a strong community is important to prevent and ease the effects of trauma. Through co-creation with users of the Allegheny Court, we developed recommendations around waiting room updates and wayfinding signage. By naming the waiting rooms and courtrooms Pittsburgh sports teams and landmarks, the Allegheny Family Court staff can capitalize on the local community’s history, assets and culture. By integrating Court Connect’s physical updates with the digital notification system, Allegheny Family Court can create a space that promotes satisfaction, health and well being.


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01 USER RESEARCH: Understanding how the family court functions

We kicked off our research partnership with Allegheny Family Court and DHS in November. Josh and I held our first group of exploratory interviews on-site with a variety of court staff. In these interviews, we uncovered three major challenges:

1. The departments within the Allegheny Family Court are siloed. Since there was almost no communication among the departments, it was difficult to provide accurate information to visitors of the courthouse.

2. Many departments have insufficient resources, which means they can not take on more cases or make major changes to their processes.

3. The majority of the court’s processes and systems have not been digitized, which creates several problems, including that adults and families are notified of their hearings by mail and often it is not received or opened by the families until after the hearing date. 

With these findings, we began to consider how the court system could better communicate with visitors without having to reorganize their entire internal organizational structure or processes. 

We held our next set of interviews at DHS where we spoke to an Educational Liaison, who works with kids in foster care ages 14 to 24, and two Youth Support Partners (YSP), ages 18 and 16. During these interviews, we learned more about the experience of going to family court from the youth and visitor perspective. Both YSPs had grown up moving in and out of the foster care system, so they were able to provide a unique and very important perspective. We also went to court to observe a trial &interviewed Judge McCrady.

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02 TRAUMA RESEARCH: Learning how trauma affects behavior & health

After completing the first stage of user research, we returned to our design brief document and reviewed the purpose of our assignment. We realized there are many aspects of the Family Court experience that needed improvement, but we wanted to focus on developing a solution that purposefully addressed the effects of trauma and the stressors of trauma because 75-100% of clients have experienced at least one of the factors of trauma.

During our research, we discovered the Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) and Kaiser Permanente’s study on Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) – largest data-collection study of its kind on trauma. 

Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) recommends principles to serve people with ACEs:

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03 SYNTHESIZING & PICKING AN AUDIENCE: Making the most impact

Our target audience is what some in our interviews called the “missing middle": teenagers and young adults. We knew that by targeting this audience, we would be helping the largest percentage of people using the court building and system, in addition to their families. 

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04 IDEA GENERATION: Brainstorming possible solutions

Working from our ACE research, we began generating ideas about how to alleviate stressors for youth and families at the Family Court. In tandem, we also dove deeper into trauma research, specifically focusing on trauma-informed design and care. Through whiteboarding exercises, service blueprinting and storyboarding, we focused on developing a system that addressed wayfinding & waiting—the two areas we believed caused some of the greatest stress for visitors.  

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05 CONCEPT GENERATION: Giving a sense of control back to the visitor

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Our goal was to increase trust and transparency between the court and client, which is one of the factors vital to decreasing ACEs. We also wanted to empower individuals by giving them the control & flexibility they need to take care of their personal and family needs when waiting inside the courthouse.

With this narrowed direction, we began to work on a robust notification system called Court Connect that would connect and notify all major participants in court hearings. Our solution incorporates a mobile text message service to provide reminders, hearing updates and a mobile check-in option for visitors. To alert visitors who do not have a mobile phone, there would be a digital notification board in each waiting room. Court Connect increases the number of meaningful touchpoints between visitors and the courthouse, lowering stress (around lack of information) and increasing flexibility for visitor throughout the experience. 


06 GENERATIVE RESEARCH: Codesigning the waiting room space with teens

Once we identified our core audience, we conducted a second round of interviews that honed in on the needs and desires of youth who use the building. We coordinated with DHS to schedule five interviews with teenagers living in an emergency shelter. We developed three participatory and co-design design activities to engage the teenagers in creative exercises instead of conducting a traditional question-and-answer interview. 

As a result of these interviews, we used the teenager's anonymous feedback & insights to make recommendations to the family court about how they might update the physical waiting room space. We also shared the user journey map with the court during our presentation. 

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07 DESIGNING & TESTING: Prototyping the text messaging system

After visualizing the messaging and check-in experience for the user, the court, lawyers, and judges, we developed a low-fidelity prototype to show DHS and the court staff. We received specific feedback regarding language and cancellation options. From there, we created a digital prototype and tested it with designers, DHS staff, court staff, and community members. 

Our ideas evolved into finding a communication and visual thread that could connect the pre-court, check-in, waiting room, and post-court process. We began developing our Court Connect notification system that integrated the physical placemaking recommendations made for the waiting room space. We used the framework of a service design blueprint that shows a visual sequence of a specific use case or scenario and touch points between users and spaces coupled with a narrative. This is used to visualize interactions and relationships that might exist between a user and a solution in the context of the user’s full experience.  


08 PRESENTATION: Sharing our solution with Allegheny Family Court 

We shared our solution with Allegheny Family Court staff and judges, as well as the Department of Human Services, and received overwhelmingly positive feedback. As a result of our work, the family court has expressed interest in adopting our notification system! In addition, the court is in the process of updating their 2nd floor waiting room, as suggested. 

In our presentation, we recommended a 3-phase implementation:

Phase 1 - Notify & Calm

  • Implement text-based notification reminders

  • Provide a whiteboard scheduling “notification board” in each waiting room

  • Remove informal signage

  • Move check-in desk next to main rotunda

Phase 2 - Community Informed Redesign

  • Build private collaboration spaces for families, lawyers and caseworkers

  • Repaint walls according to recommended color palette

  • Install courtroom and waiting room name plaques

  • Create courtroom door wraps

  • Integrate visitor recommendations

Phase 3 - Integrate Court Connect System

  • Install waiting room notification system

  • Integrate check-in processes with notification system

  • Connect check-in data with tipstaff

  • Give tipstaff access to update judge status