Conversations on Legal Design (2/4): Ontologies in the legal design process

Sebastian Greger

In the second seminar of the “Conversations on Legal Design” series, Prof. Monica Palmirani introduced the concept of legal ontology — more specifically the requirement for legal design artefacts to maintain the detailed information of the legal context.

“Conversations on Legal Design” was a seminar series by UCLouvain in spring 2021. These are my selective and opinionated seminar notes, not a comprehensive documentation.More on #legaldesign

Previously: In the first session, Dr. Arianna Rossi challenged participants to consider legal design from different perspectives

In her presentation “Legal Design methodology: from the legal analysis to the visual design passing through legal ontology”, professor of Computer Science and Law at Bologna University Monica Palmirani made the case for a strong methodology in Legal Design (which she presents as to be considered a discipline, rather than a practice) that ensures a reliable transfer of complex legal documents to user-friendly digital artefacts.

Legal ontology for transparency

The problem with simplification

Simplification inevitably creates a disconnect between the original complexity and the final outcome which in a legal context is of course much more problematic than in other domains; not only does it open room for interpretation, including in court, but if the “lawyer-readable” version differs from the “human-readable” design there is an imbalance. Even more so, when advanced technology consumes already simplified legal information to again build upon. And if the transformation from legal text to designed product is not transparent and reproducible, we are facing a “black box risk”.

Ontologies to the rescue

The solution presented in this session is the use of legal ontologies as a thinking process; as a “bridge between legal text and visual representation”: How can the legal construct be represented in an ontological model that may then be the basis for various representations but can always be backtracked if needed?

This methodology, presented by Monica Palmirani and colleagues in their paper “A methodological framework to design a machine-readable privacy icon set” is based on a “formalized conversion of natural language into conceptualization and, in turn, into visualizations”. In other words: the legal text is first abstracted into a logical model (concepts, properties, relations) which is only in the next step utilized in a traditional design process involving prototypes, iterations, evaluations, etc.

An example

The Creative Commons licenses served as an example to illustrate how the underlying ontology can be used for a variety of outputs: while “humans” are served icons, lawyers can access the legal text (certainly not intended, but I did smirk at the accidentally introduced distinction between “lawyers” and “humans” here) and for machines, the CC license can be embedded using semantic technologies.

Workflow and story flow

Screenshot of one page of a comic explaining how corona tracing apps shield personal data.
The comic created by the DP-3T project probably was not created as a “legal design” artefact, but served well to discuss why legal design is more than simplification.

The seminar then proceeded to an exercise, looking at a comic created to communicate the privacy-first concept of a Covid tracing app. The comic illustrates the technicalities of how the app protects privacy, but would not qualify as “legal design” (which I believe was not its objective in the first place), as it omits key details to understand the background of the privacy goals.

The use of storyboards, and assuming different perspectives, e.g. by modeling the process based on events and actors or using design personas, may help when developing a developed ontology into an artefact. With a nod to Einstein, the presenter reiterated: “simplification does not mean simplistic”. What the legal designer wants to simplify is the interaction, not just the language (and, as we established above: the language may only be simplified as long as we don’t lose relevant details).

Designing for “legal” is different

The workflow of analysing complex circumstances, creating an all-encompassing model, and only then iterating on the design artefact is in itself a well-known process for design professionals, engineers and computer scientists alike. But in the context of designing representations in the legal domain, there is more at stake than UX, usability or the fit-to-market of a product: we are dealing with great responsibilities with a potentially grave impact on human beings.

Through the various examples and references, Monica Palmirani essentially introduced three core requirements for Legal Design:

  • explicability: the robust legal analysis and model
  • accountability: the legal ontology encoding this model
  • accuracy: simplification cannot come at the expense of completeness

This goes beyond a systematic concept design process in its established form, as even the intermediate steps are an essential part of the outcome; in average UX projects, the mental scaffoldings used for conceiving the solution likely vanish once the final product is published. In the legal domain, however, it is not only crucial to create — and make available — a ontological representation of the designed context, but this ontology may have to consider temporal aspects as well: as laws change, an ontology’s history may be just as relevant as its present state.

Another important point brought up in the discussion is the requirement for legal design artefacts to remain machine-readable: asked about this, the lecturer highlighted that the law needs to be observed by machines as well. Transforming the legal ontology into machine-readable formats enables comprehension and compliance by code as well as by human readers.

What I took away from this session is mostly the methodological approach, but also the deeper insight into easily overlooked aspects. Depending on the subject at hand, I feel that this can get very complex very quick — it can’t be stressed enough how designing legal artefacts is about much more than decorating cookie banners with the photo of a chocolate chip cookie (this last point is not from the lecture, but one of my many pet peeves in the privacy context of digital design where “designing legal elements” is easily mistaken as an act of simplification and decoration).

Read on: In the third seminar session, Prof. Helena Haapio introduced her work on designing contracts.