The team was tasked to understand and visualize the experience of accessing the legal system from the vantage point of the underserved population. Mapping a user’s journey from this particular perspective is a step to illuminating and identifying areas of gap and design opportunities. It speaks to the ecosystem at large and the plethora of decisions one is asked to make with uncertainty at each step.


The US legal system is not made for the everyday person, let alone for someone who is at a disadvantage, socially, economically, or educationally.

Some facts:

  • Estimated 900,000 people in Cook County, IL living below the poverty line.1
  • Only 300 attorneys for over 1.3 million low income Cook County residents2
  • 1 in 5 (60M) people living below the poverty in the US qualify for free civil legal aid, 50% are turned away because lack of resources. Additionally, tens of millions of moderate income Americans cannot afford legal help.3
  • 30 probono and legal aid providers serve low-income people in Cook County4
  • Poverty increasing in Cook County and in Chicago; this is a suburban as well as an urban problem5

[US Census, 2 Chicago Bar Foundation, 2010, 3 Dept of Justice, 2014, Chicago Bar Foundation, 2012, 5 Social Impact Research Center, 2013]

This large underserved population confronts additional challenges when seeking justice with layered constraints of everyday living.

Guided by a faculty member and a non-profit attorney, three design research students spent 6 weeks uncovering the pathways that a user would take through the legal system. Research methods used are: secondary research, direct observation in Daley Courthouse, interviews with legal aid organizations and a worksession with legal aid professionals.

[US Census, 2 Chicago Bar Foundation, 2010, 3 Dept of Justice, 2014, Chicago Bar Foundation, 2012, 5 Social Impact Research Center, 2013]


Overwhelmingly, the underserved population is not able to get the legal assistance they need, or once they do, they lack the means to follow through to gain the justice they are entitled to. The complexity of the system, the mistrust the users have towards the system, the lack (or overload) of information, their already constrained living situation and other factors contribute to this population receiving a disproportionately low amount of assistance.

Proposed User Experience


This project focuses first on revealing the complexities of a system, with the eventual outcome of improving the users’ experience.

This version of the map is an open draft that we are sharing with the public. As we are not legal experts, there are bound to be areas of omission or ambiguity. We hope to learn from the feedback for further improvement.

For the interested parties, we hope that the map can help:

  • to identify user gaps and needs,
  • to serve as a strategy map that points to opportunity areas for design and intervention,
  • to serve as a tool for alignment among stakeholders,
  • to foster system-level thinking by externalizing the complexity


Our entire workspace environment became a sketchpad for understanding the relationships and processes users are required to take. Multiple versions of stakeholder maps and process maps were iterated.


Resulting from the worksession with legal aid professionals, the team used a collaborative digital tool to gather the complex web of information.

Final Results


This is a highly general descriptive diagram of current pathways for individuals in civil cases in Chicago. Due to high variability with cases, it does not account for particular paths. Where appropriate, user concerns and voices are indicated.

The team grappled with issues of generality/specificity. Our challenge was to seek a level that was sufficiently informative but not overwhelming, in order to keep the map useful. We would need many versions to accommodate for the many varieties of cases.

This is version 1.0 and is shared publicly using the Creative Commons Attribution/ShareAlike license. We are asking for feedback for improvement, as well as stories of how people are using this map and the outcome it’s generated.

All Artifacts