Our Work


Rethinking Online Triage: Not Just A Front End to Intake

By Gwen Daniels on October 20, 2015

Last week I laid out a vision for online intake; this week I'm going to talk about triage. In our current website, triage is simply a pre-screener for online intake. It is a program-based tool, designed exclusively to determine if a user's legal problem falls within Program A's legal priorities or not. But I think a triage tool, especially one housed on a statewide legal aid website, should do more than that. It should be about getting the user to the best available known resource rather than just a front door to intake. I also believe it should include 4 core components:

  • automated navigation assistance to help a user find legal information
  • organization referrals to get a user to direct legal assistance
  • program-specific triage that leads to intake
  • a way to unify the three components together

Automated navigation assistance

Many of us legal aid programs use LiveHelp as a way to provide human navigation assistance to our website users who may have a hard time finding the right information on the website. But what happens when LiveHelp is closed? In some instances, a visitor can send an email and wait for a response, but for a motivated person in crisis who is looking for answers late on a Friday night, is the ideal solution really to wait until Monday to find the information they seek? Of course not. And in reality what will happen is the user will go back to Google and try again, maybe going elsewhere (even someplace less reliable) for their information.

This is where automated navigation assistance comes in. Legal aid programs in Maine and Massachusetts have integrated what I would consider to be a straightforward form of automated navigation assistance that includes two steps: 1) answer a few questions; 2) get directed to a resource.

Organization Referrals

Most of us who run statewide legal aid websites also provide some form of referral to legal services. I won't comment on websites in other states, but I will say that on IllinoisLegalAid.org and AyudaLegalIL.org, they basically suck. (Yup, I said it.) Our referrals are based on a program's text description of their service, a list of problem codes/legal problems that they accept and the zip code in which they work. Any guesses at what our search engine will spit out as the #1 result for a user searching for "criminal cases"? A program with a description that reads "we do not do criminal cases?"

Which is pretty much the opposite of a helpful organization.

So in the next version, we are moving away from a text-based approach for referral information and will instead capture organization data in a new way, built on the open referral standard. Rather than basing the referrals on a text description, programs will need to add services to their profile that indicate what types of legal problems they take, what level of service they provide (e.g. extended representation, brief services, or advice), and whether access to those services are currently open or not.

This shift will help us create a better algorithm, so that we can deliver more helpful and reliable referrals than our current system. For example, if a user indicates that they are not low income, we would refer them to self-help centers and lawyer referral options because we knowing they would not qualify for legal aid. Likewise, if a user has a legal problem for which multiple organizations are currently accepting clients/cases, we would prioritize the organizations based on the level of service provided.

We also are moving away from providing referrals based solely on a keyword and zip code. Why? Well, that approach simply doesn't give us enough information to give users a meaningful referral or referrals. If a user makes 100K a year, should we really be giving them a list of legal aid providers? If the visitor is a senior and one of our program partners has a project that gives priority to seniors, should their senior status weigh into the referral decision? These are questions we are trying to address with our new organizational data structure and referral algorithm.

Program Specific Triage-to-Intake

Online intake is still a critical piece of our system. One of the reasons I think our online access system has been so successful is because of the high level of customization and flexibility we've given programs that participate in online intake. Like rules for online intake, program triage rules require a technical resource to update. And while we are committed to continuing to provide a high level of program-specific customization, it has to be in a way that removes ILAO (read: me, Gwen) from the ongoing maintenance.

The multiple program issue

Another issue looming in the foreground (that we haven't yet had to address): two programs both offering online intake in the same zip code and for the same legal problem. That will change sooner or later and so the next version must provide support to both prioritize who gets first review of a user and to seamlessly transition that user from Program A's triage to Program B if they don't meet Program A's acceptance criteria. We've identified the following rules for picking the initial program when more than one exists:

  • Look at the program's triage exits within the problem area. A program with a higher ratio of intake exits over divert exits will take priority over others.
  • Look at income limits. A program with a higher income limit may be preferred over others.
  • Look at income waivers. A program that waives income limits for categories of users, like seniors, would be preferred over a program that does not when the user has indicated that they are a member of the category.
  • Look at available intake and callback slots. A program that has filled less of their available intake slots or callback slots may get a slight priority over one that has not.

When a user reaches "divert" in one program's rules and another program has rules, the system (ideally seamlessly) should move the user to the other program's rules and continue until all programs have been exhausted before diverting to self-help.

Tying it Together: A User-Centric Integrated Information Architecture

In order to get users to the best available resource, we need to be able to tie everything (including legal resources and helpful organizations). We did a series of user testing to create our top level navigation and ultimately came up with categories like Family & Safety and House & Apartment to make it easy for people to search for what they need. Using these categories, we've taken the triage rules currently in use by our legal aid partners, ILAO's legal content, and the triage taxonomy used by Maine (thanks Kathleen Caldwell for sharing!), to create our own triage vocabulary. This vocabulary will be used on all areas of our website, including legal articles, court forms, events, and organizations, to provide a consistent vocabulary for our information. (Editor's Note: I like to think of this vocabulary as a #hashtag that keeps important bits connected. #theglue )

It will also serve as a master blueprint for program specific triage, allowing us to provide a triage tree to any organization that wants to do online intake that they can customize to meet their needs. They will be able to customize with fields for exit messages, paths (intake, bypass intake, and divert), problem-specific pre-intake messages, and additional questions to ask the user. For example, many of our public benefits triage questions, on exit to intake, display a warning on the time limit to appeal. And for many family law matters, once we know they will go to intake, we also collect adverse party information.

And because everything ties back to a single master taxonomy, even when customized at a program level, it should enable us to deliver the best available legal content and legal help to users every time while still providing a high level of customization at a program level.

(Ed. Note: #BestofBothWorlds)

Stay tuned for more -