Designing a new service to improve the experience for vulnerable people attending Court in NSW

Child victims of alleged sexual assault are uniquely vulnerable. Support services can help them know what to expect in court. There are opportunities to enhance this support using interactive technology. But how does one engage with this user group to do true human-centered design and deliver an appropriate user experience?


Child victims of alleged sexual assault are uniquely vulnerable. Support services can help them know what to expect in court. There are opportunities to enhance this support using interactive technology. But how does one engage with this user group to do true human-centered design and deliver an appropriate user experience? 

Who are the users of the service?

Would they use the service?

What considerations need to be made in order to deliver a service like this? What Government agencies would need to be involved?

What is the current system for dealing with these problems? How big are the problems? Who is involved in these issues?

How does the current system scale across the State of NSW?


This project was commissioned from within a Capital Funded project, the AVL project. AVL is a system (audio video-link) that connects the areas within the Justice system (prisons, police and Courts), much like a proprietary Skype type-system.

It was noted that during the very early-stage qualitative research for the AVL project, that there was huge potential to improve how the Justice system handled vulnerable witnesses. At the very start of my work on this project, I was led to believe it may involve some child interviews and may involve some interesting and complex ethical quandaries.

Early kick-off meeting

My very first meeting was a member of the witness support team in ODPP in Sydney. I was lambasted for 1-hour. After hearing about all the reasons why this person shouldn’t help me, I explained to them that my intent was purely just to understand and to help. They had met many people ‘like me before’. They were tired of false promises, and rightly so.

Understanding the current system and processes that are in place

In Metro areas, the current process involves meeting vulnerable witnesses at least 4 weeks before they attend Court.

In rural areas, however, this is much more challenging. Regular cases in rural areas involved 4 hours of flying, followed by 6 hours of driving, in extreme conditions. In Willcania, a large-Aboriginal settlement, the nearest cell tower is 15km away.

As a result, WAS officers prepare vulnerable witnesses the day before, in the Police station. At worst preparation happens in a corner of the local Courthouse, whilst waiting for their case to be heard before they deliver their evidence.

Understanding the key people, their roles, their mindset and their problems

The Witness Assistant Support team (WAS) were responsible for meeting and briefing vulnerable witnesses for Court. It was a very tough job, with 22 WAS officers in NSW. To give an idea of the size of NSW, it’s the size of France, Belgium, Switzerland, and the Netherlands combined. From my research, the average WAS officer had on average 130-180 cases on at one time. They were responsible for the delivery of key case-related information.

I was introduced to a Senior member of the WAS team, Brona (name changed), who allowed me to shadow her and meet with her regularly. Brona provided me with materials, and reference material and also helped guide me through the process of building momentum with the project.

The majority of the supporting material was in a leaflet format. Paper material is not engaging enough for children. The pages are regularly left behind.

“…I ask if the kid wants to take the printouts with them they say “ergh…no not really.”

There was a DVD created, but it took a few years to produce and was never used. It was also more targetted towards adult survivors of child sexual abuse, so as a result, is not suitable.

Determining the value-proposition

I agreed with the Program Director for AVL, that I would time-box this effort over a 6-week period. After this, I would present back to him and the Design Principal my findings.

After interviewing 10 of the WAS officers, I began to create concepts (see below) to help with framing what this was or what this could be.

The power of visualising these concepts was extremely valuable in such a low (design) maturity setting as it allowed me to bring the stakeholders in ODPP, and the AVL project along on the journey.

Drawings always excite people, but in particular, in this project, it really allowed me to articulate meaning and intent much easier.

I held 1:1 workshops with Brona (not real name), to help flesh out a typical customer journey map of a vulnerable witness in Metro, and also in Rural areas.

Workshop preparation with Brona to capture Metro and Rural AS:IS process
Sample of a Journey Map created with Brona

These two artefacts allowed me to bring to life some of the stories, whilst also allowing me to drill down deeper into the understanding of this area.

I flew to Melbourne and learned how the Victorian Government handle these types of cases.

Explorative service concept

One of the first concepts was a content-driven concept that allowed the participants to imagine a few hundred pieces of content living inside. They were able to refine content based on tags (age of victim, type of content, specific areas of interest) applied to the content pieces. The service concept was they could curate a ‘content script’ much like the script that the doctor gives you when you are ill.

This personalised ‘content script’ could then be sent via text message, and/or email for reference at a later date.

When this was tested 8 participants across the state, it was found that 90% of the responses were in favour of a digital-first delivery method. Of course, the WAS members were not the end-user of this service. If anything, they the service providers and also back office. The real quandary was getting something like this in the hands of the people that needed it the most.

Understanding the people accessing the existing service

It was at this point that I started to engage further with ODPP, to understand the volume of cases in NSW, and the nature of the cases that the DPP were processing. For confidentiality reasons, I am unable to disclose any more information of the nature of crimes but at a high level, a service of this nature would be released for users;

  1. Release 1 – (10-16 year olds)
  2. Release 2 – (5-10 year olds)
  3. Release 3 – (< 5 years old)

Definition and Framing

The main obstacle that was faced in delivering a service-beta, was the involvement of multiple Government agencies. I realised that the project at this stage was going to require serious collaboration across multiple verticals;

  • Police
  • DPP
  • Courts
  • NGO’s
  • Health

High-Level Stages

  1. Suspicion and Presentation at Medical Centre
  2. Case Commences (Police informed)
  3. Pre-assessment and first contact with WAS and ODPP
  4. Conference with Guardians and Counsellors
  5. Court Date set
  6. Preparation for Court
  7. Court Case Begins
  8. Victim Impact Statement
  9. Post-Case

I had gained a relatively good understanding of the process to date between Stages 3, 4, 5, 6, 7.

It was agreed with all the key stakeholders that greater understanding was required to the first two stages and final two stages, and where possible, go deeper into Stages 5, 6, 7.

Example artefact of the AS:IS journey for a child in Metro areas

Attending Court

At this stage in the project, I had read and met with many people across the state and began to be asked to present to various institutions, such as the NSW Law Society, Royal Commission, DPP, UNSW Law Department as well as Senior members of NSW Justice Department.

It was at this point, that I was granted access to attend a case in person over 2-days, and witness a child being cross-examined in an abuse case. I was also granted access to a daily video archive of AVL videos that allowed me to watch cases remotely. The information that I was gathering by doing this, allows me to get a much better perspective of what is contextually appropriate.

I was still struggling with validating anything without actually having direct access to end-users.

I began the process of creating a diary study and had a number of agencies interested in helping assist me with this piece of research.

Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to child sexual abuse

I was invited to attend several days of hearings with the Royal Commission in Sydney. This allowed me direct access to the stories of victims relayed in retrospection. I was introduced to several key people who have dedicated their lives to researching this topic. These were Dean of Law and University at Sydney, Assoc Prof and the University of Sydney as well as Joyce Plotnikoff in the UK.

Diary studies

On a Skype call, late one night with a consultant on this matter to the British Government, I relayed my intent to conduct a diary study, only for her to explain the legal implications to me about conducting such a piece of work. If the Defence heard that I had conducted a diary study with a victim, it would be likely that I’d be subpoenaed and it would be used as evidence in the case.

As a result, this method was not going to be possible.

Next steps.

At this point, I was at a particular low-point and was really found the design process and tooling lacking in these situations. I was unsure of my next steps as a practitioner. How can we validate without end-user engagement?

I realised that I had all of these remarkable people, who collectively could help with this. I coined this term, Supergroups.

‘Supergroups’ are made up of people who have direct access to end users. In this illustration, Supergroups refer to people in blue. These are different to subject matter experts, but in some instance, they may be both.

‘Supergroups’ are made up of people who have direct access to end users. In this illustration, Supergroups refer to people in blue. These are different to subject matter experts, but in some instance, they may be both.

I held 4 Supergroup Workshops with member from;

  • Courts
  • Police
  • Health
  • Justice Health & Forensic Mental Health Network
  • Transcultural Mental Health
  • WAS
  • DPP
  • Adult Survivors of Child Sexual Abuse
  • 4 x NGO’s
  • External psychologist(s)
  • Victim Services

What was incredible about this experience was all of these roles made up large parts of the front-stage and back-office functions of the existing service model. I spent a few weeks preparing individually and getting them up to speed. I sent preparation emails to help the people get up to speed. I bought everybody breakfast, and lunch and bought them nice cakes – all things that they never really see when working with Government agencies.

Some of the attendees had never spoken to each other before. This was the first time that they had come together, to realise the potential and power of mediated collaboration.

New insights were gathered.

New relationships were formed.

I tried a lot of things in these workshops. Some worked really well, and some failed really badly. But I managed to capture enough to continue with helping shape what a Service Beta might look like.

Helping shape Release 1

After the workshops, it became clearer what was being articulated.

Interaction Model of the new Service (Communication, Education, Caring, Evaluation)
High level needs analysis of content requirements.

A list of potential features was outlined in Supergroups.

I fleshed each of these ideas out with Brona, to try and understand what affects each of these features would have both for the end user, and also for the organisations involved.

I then used Kano Modelling to help derive the basic service needs.

List of service features


The Service Ownership was a massive piece that unfortunately I was unable to tackle on my own. The AVL Program Director had left his position and I wrapped this project up for Justice NSW to take to the next level of funding.

In the video below, you will see a service interaction with Sandra, a mother/carer of Billy who has been presented via hospital with signs and symptoms of external abuse.

What is being proposed here, is that Health has access as an Entry point to such a service. Through my research, the pain, confusion and anxiety extend right to the moment of presentation. A tool to prepare someone for Court is part of a larger system of preparation – called InSight.

Going to Court is difficult, but so too is meeting many people who you have no idea who they are, or what they do, or what they want from you.

InSight was designed with the intent to be a collaborative and shared experience. The parent/carer is still the gate-keeper of information. The reason for this being that the carer can decide the most appropriate time to present the information to the child – and not leave it to technology to decide.

This is as sensitive as it comes in terms of delivery and contextuality of information. From many of my workshops, it was stated time and time again, that there was a large amount of guilt visible with parents and/or carers that this awful thing has happened. By designing the interaction to have the carer as a gate-keeper of the information, helps reinforce that relationship somewhat.

Obviously, all of this is contextual and every entry into InSight would be treated on a case-by-case basis.

Supporting tool idea as part of InSight.


The prototype was extremely well received by all stakeholders involved, but the project, unfortunately, has no dedicated resources working on it. However, the Royal Commission has recently released a series of recommendations, some of which align with my thinking outlined above.

The outcomes though on a more personal level, is the Government agencies realise that they need to work together to help ‘minimise the gaps’ between the service layers. These are huge pitfalls and are resulting in highly traumatic experiences for the most vulnerable people – our children.

I spoke about this project in a long-form presentation at UX Scotland 2017, and also a 20-minute overview UX Australia 2017.

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