Designing for disputes: 3 lessons I learnt creating an online dispute resolution system 

As editor of the Blog for November, I have invited ‘pracademics’ and leaders in the field of ADR to contribute a blogpost to share the interesting work they are doing.

Our first guest is Winona Wawn who currently works at the Fair Work Ombudsman in the Behavioural Economics Education team. Winona is a mediator and has a Masters’ in Dispute Resolution (DR) from UNSW.

I invited Winona to write a piece about her work designing and implementing DR systems and mechanisms, which she initially undertook for AirTasker (Australia’s largest online marketplace for services).

Over to you, Winona…

By Winona Wawn

‘Conflict is inevitable’ is one of my favourite sayings. As our world becomes increasingly digital, so does our need for resolving disputes online.

After becoming a nationally accredited mediator, I joined a tech startup to develop an online dispute resolution system. It was an amazing opportunity to create a new online DR process from scratch for an open marketplace app. I was so excited to be able to help hundreds (if not thousands) of users each year resolve their conflicts.

But how do you create an online resolution experience for two angry customers who you’ve never met? How might you resolve disputes only via email?

I found by combining learnings from both dispute resolution and human centred design, it’s possible to create a purely online dispute process that works. The research which most influenced this approach was Steve Krug’s ‘Don’t make me think: A common sense approach to website usability’, the ever useful Fisher and Ury’s ‘Getting to Yes’ and Georgia Murch’s ‘Fixing feedback.’     

Below are my top three learnings from the experience. Even if you’re not into ODR, hopefully it helps you keep your practice client centred.

  1. You need to understand your clients’ needs 

Your mediation process is focussed on your clients’ needs, not yours as the mediator.

When I was starting to design the online dispute resolution process, I wanted to understand how disputes were currently being handled by the tech company. I conducted a number of user interviews with our customers who had been in disputes. Hearing first hand experiences of customer’s disputes and how we did (and did not) meet their expectations was illuminating and challenged a lot of my assumptions of what they needed.

This taught me the importance of not falling into the trap of believing your own assumptions of what your clients need – actually go out and talk to them. Survey them before your dispute resolution process starts. What are their underlying interests and expectations? What’s preventing them from resolving their own conflicts? Then start to consider how you can incorporate this into your own practice.

If you can’t survey clients (e.g. for confidentiality reasons) imagine you have a ‘best case’ scenario client. They understand each stage of the mediation process, is willing and able to negotiate with the other party and articulate their interests. Then imagine you have a ‘worst case’ client – who doesn’t understand the mediation process, who isn’t able to negotiate with the other party or articulate their needs. Channelling Fisher and Ury’s ‘Getting to Yes’, consider how their underlying interests might differ, and what positions they may typically take. How might you design a resolution process which caters for both best case and worst case parties interests equally well?

  1. Set clear expectations 

Do disputing parties demand they just want you to make a decision and get it done? How many times have you had to (patiently) explain what your role is, and isn’t as a mediator?

To help get them on the right path, your disputing parties need to know what to expect at all times. They probably need to be reminded more than once what your role is (and isn’t) and what their role is. In Krugs ‘Don’t make me think’, he emphasises the importance of websites helping users achieve their goals as directly and easily as possible, with minimal friction and frustration.

Applying these principles, I found setting clear expectations helps move the online dispute resolution process along smoothly. I had a 4 stage process that was clearly written on our website and was constantly referred to when parties were resolving their disputes. Being reminded about what’s coming next I found helped keep disputing customers engaged and aided in their understanding of how to achieve their goals of resolution as painlessly as possible.

Think about how you run your pre-mediation conference and how you move parties through the stages of mediation. Do parties know what they need to do at each stage to move onto the next? Don’t be afraid to be explicit in writing up your process so parties can follow it along before and during your mediation.

  1. Be open to feedback 

Has a client ever told you they weren’t expecting something during the mediation process? Have they mentioned they didn’t know what to say or do?

Nobody is a perfect mediator and being open to feedback and constantly improving your practice will put you in great stead. Taking on board constructive criticism can be hard for your ego but very beneficial for your mediation process and your client’s experiences. Georgia Murch’s ‘Fixing Feedback’ discusses the importance of being open to feedback to ‘nip issues in the bud’ and preventing issues from spiralling out of control quickly. Creating space for disputing parties to be honest with how their feeling (for example – if they don’t know what to do next) can help transform your practice to be truly client centred.    

For example, when conducting customer interviews, I discovered our disputes team was often asking for the same information on multiple occasions. This led to incredible frustration by our disputing customers – they didn’t feel heard, that their concerns weren’t taken seriously and they were tired of sending the same evidence again and again. This feedback led to the creation of an online form where all information and evidence was uploaded in one place before the online mediation began. This meant all the information could be easily referred to by the team, was kept confidently and resulted in a reduction in resolution time.

From my experience, having a party-centric ODR process meant faster resolution times and less frustration for all parties involved. Leveraging DR and HCD research helped me create an ODR process that aimed to better understanding party’s needs, set clear expectations and be open to feedback. Being in conflict is hard enough – and as practitioners we can take steps to design processes to make resolving conflict as painless for parties as possible.


If you would like to discuss ODR or user experience design, contact Winona at  

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