Extras – The Internet Roundtable #30: How Can Law Firm Web Sites Make Themselves Easier To Use?

Jerry Lawson is a lawyer and author of The Complete Internet Handbook for Lawyers (ABA LPMS 1999). Mr. Lawson operates the Internet Tools for Lawyers Web site.

Brenda Howard is the owner of CreativeWriting.com, LLC, a Web design firm in the Metro DC area. Ms. Howard is also a Corporate Software Trainer specializing in the Internet.

Dennis Kennedy is a lawyer in the Intellectual Property and Information Technology Department of Thompson Coburn, LLP in St. Louis. Many of his articles on Internet and technology topics may be found at his web site.

Link to LLRX.com Marketing Resource Center for all previous issues of the Internet Roundtable


Useit.com is Jakob Nielsen’s Web usability web site.

Home Page Usability: 50 Websites Deconstructed is the follow up to Nielsen’s classic book Designing Web Usability: The Practice of Simplicity.

Nielsen’s recent column called Top Ten Guidelines for Homepage Usability is a great starting point, as is his earlier column Avoid PDF for On-Screen Reading.

Sylvia Hsieh, “Is Your Law Firm’s Website ‘Usable’?”, April 29, 2002 Lawyer’s Weekly USA, page B16 (2002 LWUSA 304).

Web Pages That Suck is the web site that spawned the deservedly popular book of the same name.

Want to learn more about IE security patches and service packs?

Jerry Lawson (JL) : Let’s start with one of the more controversial sayings of usability expert Jakob Nielsen: “Web site design must die.” What is he talking about, and why does it matter to lawyers?

Brenda Howard (BH): This is an extremely important topic. I recently taught an advanced FrontPage 2000 course where everyone in the class had inherited the company website. Every web site had declining web traffic. The biggest concern was how to get their web traffic back up to original numbers. While most of the students were doing great jobs marketing the site, they couldn’t keep visitors. There’s a good reason for this: their sites were not user-friendly. People won’t come back to a site that is too hard to use.

Dennis Kennedy (DK): People talking about the “death of web design” tend to approach the topic in a couple of different ways. The first is the notion that advances in technology, XML, .Net and web services will allow us to access information in a variety of ways that are not dependent on traditional web design. For example, standard web sites with splash pages make no sense when visitors are retrieving information from your site over cell phones. My sense in that in a few years, we’ll be looking at the notion of the standard Internet browser as a quaint starting point, much like the command line in DOS. Of course, if not for the Microsoft antitrust suit, we might already be in the post-browser era. The second approach is one in which the experts see that standard web designs have become stale and boring and that rather than providing access to information, traditional web design elements actually raise barriers to that information. In other words, it’s not our fault as users that we can’t find what we are looking for on the Internet. It’s because of poorly designed sites that play “hide the ball” with the information we want. Out of these two approaches, the best designers are evolving us toward a new web experience that provides both innovation and a combination of the best practices that have proven to work for users. Your site actually becomes more useful as you design it to take advantage of what people expect.

JL: Excellent explanation. Law firms need to understand that “hiding the ball” can hurt them. Even if visitors can find what they are looking for after only a few seconds, even the slight delay can make your site less attractive to visitors. It may not be exciting if every page of your web site has a logo in the upper left hand corner that links back to your home page, but that’s what people expect, and that’s what they want. It works.

BH : It’s the same as software development. We expect every software package to have the File Menu and within the File Menu, you should be able to find the Print Command. The web is no different. While there aren’t any “written in stone” standards, design standards have evolved over the years. Keep the logo in the upper left hand corner for 2 reasons: (1) users expect it to be there, and (2) we read from left to right and the logo identifies the site as a first step to explaining the site to the user.

JL: Here’s another simple example of what we are talking about:




This illustrates why it’s bad to violate the convention that the hypertext
link should be the name of the destination (in this case using as examples: LLRX.com, Findlaw and Law.com). It’s a mistake to use some abstract symbol, here, the red ball, as the hypertext link, absent a good reason. The sites are selected as desirable destinations, with the design making navigation unnecessarily difficult.

The convention is for the name of the destination to be the hypertext link. In an attempt to be “innovative,” the designer decides instead to turn the symbol into the hypertext link. Every time I try to use a layout like this, I try the customary approach, clicking on the name of the destination. When this does not work, I rapidly figure out what the designer intended, but it is extremely annoying. The designer wanted to do something a little jazzy, but it was a mistake. Innovative navigation schemes could add value in some situations, but whatever value they have is almost never worth the added few seconds of delay. This is the kind of “design” that needs to die.

DK: One of Nielsen’s best tips is to do your homework on the ten or so most highly trafficked sites. For example, people are used to the way Amazon.com works. Think about what you can learn from those high-traffic sites. Here’s a nice little experiment for you to try: Go to a half-dozen or so of your favorite popular sites on the Internet (the ones you use every day), and then go to your site with fresh eyes, as if you were a new user. What do you learn? How can you make your site more like your favorite sites and build on what they are doing right?

JL: Steve Krug, author of “Don’t Make Me Think,” says something similar: “Conventions Are Your Friends.” Both he and Nielsen are on to something important. Now let’s move from theory and look at a few specific practices that hurt usability. For example, people who like to use Flash graphics sometimes say that the ability to create navigation aids in Flash is an asset. What’s the problem with this practice?

BH : The problem is that some people do not have Flash installed on their computers, Flash isn’t handicap accessible (even though Macromedia has taken great strides in this area), and finally, even for the users that do have Flash, they may be connected at 28.8 and the page loads too slowly for them to wait.

JL: Right. Many Flash animations can download too slowly even over 56K modems. Flash proponents like to downplay the availability factor you mention because newer browsers often come bundled with a Flash reader, but this is deceptive. Not everyone has a newer browser, and even those who have a relatively new browser may not have the newest Flash version. I frequently get messages asking me if I want to download the newest version of the Flash reader. I always click NO, and I’m glad when the animation does not start. Many other users behave similarly.

I agree with all of Brenda’s comments, and I’ll suggest one more objection: The only way a navigation scheme implemented in Flash could add value would be if it were something novel that could not be accomplished in HTML. For the reasons explained above, novel navigation schemes are nearly always dubious.

DK : At the risk of too much “me-too-ing, ”I’ll second Brenda’s comments and add that it’s pretty easy to fall into an over focus on Flash and an under focus on navigation by concentrating on how things look and, worse, adding animated navigation elements just to make things “interesting.” Navigation is one area where form must be the servant of substance.

JL: Here’s a new question: How can lawyers make the search engines on their Web sites as useful as possible?

BH: Make sure that each page on your web site has the appropriate page title. Some people forget to add the page titles and when the search engine results come up, the listings only show the file name – which may or may not be intuitive. A good title also makes your site easier to find in someone’s bookmark or favorites list. On one site, we actually dumped the typical search engine approach and instead created our own database indexing system. Then we searched the index instead of the web site. Each page, as it is added to the site, gets listed in the database. It contains the Page Title, File Name, Date Submitted, Keywords and a brief document description. When visitors search this database, the results that come up are extremely relevant to the search criteria.

DK: Testing your search engines is a must. You actually can tinker with how results get ranked in terms of relevance when using some of the third party search engines you can place on your site (e.g., Atomz), and that’s definitely worth knowing for those who use third party search tools on their sites. But, as Brenda points out, if you build your own search engine, you can customize the relevance factors of your search. It’s not rocket science – the first search to test on your web site’s search engine should be your name. If the number one result is not your bio, your most recent article or the latest news article about the case you won, you need to think about the initial impression visitors who use your search engine get about you when they run that search on your name. You may be unpleasantly surprised.

JL: Does the use of PDF (“Portable Document Format”) raise any usability issues?

BH: Again, you have to make sure that the user has the “viewing” software available or they won’t be able to view the document. I recently went to a government web site and they had their older documents using one Adobe Acrobat Reader version and their newer documents using a newer version. Unfortunately, the files were not “backward compatible”, so there were documents that I could not view. Having said this, if you have an Intranet and you know what software is on every computer, Adobe’s PDF format is excellent for long user manuals, operating procedures, etc.

DK: I’ve noticed that, after heightening my browser security settings after one of the more unnerving Internet Explorer security scares, I now have to click “yes” on a pop-up window just to see a PDF page. That makes PDF files less “usable” for me. PDF files are great, though, for longer articles (especially those with footnotes) and for items that you know people will print and you want them to see the item in the way you formatted it. On the other hand, I’m pretty comfortable with the sites that simply provide “printer-friendly” text versions of articles. The use of PDF is an excellent example of giving your users a choice and letting them make the best choice for themselves. Again, if a user accesses your site through a cell phone or PDA (becoming a bit more common these days), a PDF-only approach won’t make sense.

JL: Keeping the user in mind is the key principle, and it applies to something as mundane as “file not found” error messages. Instead of letting visitors get a generic “404” error message when they make a mistake like typing .htm instead of .html, you can create a customized error message that lets visitors know they are still on your site, with links to navigation aids. You can do this if your web server supports it, right?

BH: This is correct. You have to contact your ISP and ask them to list that file name as the file that you want to have shown when a 404 – file not found message is displayed. Keep in mind that this works only with a dedicated server. If you share your server with other web sites, then they would all see your personal error page and the other sites won’t appreciate it. Your web hosting company will let you know if you are sharing your server or if you have a dedicated server.

DK: I have also done duplicate versions of key pages at both the .htm and .html addresses. It can make it a bit harder to update your site (twice as much to remember), but it’s a pretty simple fix. If you pay attention to your traffic reports, especially the error logs, you may be able to spot where these errors are commonly occurring and make adjustments. A custom “404” page is a great, user-friendly addition to any site. Dealing with the common irritations is something that you’ll want to spend some time with. Jerry, as we get older, there’s one usability feature we all start to notice more.

JL: You can’t use a site you can’t read, right? This is a problem more often than you might think. For example, fonts look smaller on Macintosh screens than on Windows screens. If you specify an 8 point font when designing a page on your Windows computer, it may be readable to you, but too small to be legible on a Macintosh computer. It’s more considerate to readers to use the general “large, small,” etc. font size tags than to specify point sizes.

BH: This is a common problem. As webmasters are required to put more information on one page, they reduce the font to accommodate the extra text. While it met their immediate need, it’s a bad decision for the user. Rotate text on the page with new text every week instead of trying to get all of it on the web page at once.

DK: More modern-looking sites have smaller fonts, so there’s a bit of a tradeoff. You can take the approach, as I do, that most users know how to increase the size of the fonts displayed on their monitors (in Internet Explorer, you can make that change by going to the “Text Size” options under the “View” menu), but many people still don’t know how to do that. I’ve started to think that it might make sense to do some “large type” versions of pages. For those law firms that have a lot of elderly clients, and older people are big users of the Internet, this approach might be well-appreciated.

JL: The font size example demonstrates a key mental blind spot that is at the root of many problems: the tendency to assume that if something works on your machine, it will work on all machines. Here’s just one example of many: Since most designers have fairly fast Internet connections, they frequently fail to understand how damaging large file sizes are to those with normal speed connections (normal today being what most users have—56K modems). Is there any solution to this “But it works on my machine” fallacy?

BH: I’m guilty of this. I was developing sites using a cable connection back in 1997 and my sites did get “heavier”. Even though our development tools allow us to test for various connection speeds, it’s tempting to ignore this when you have a fast connection yourself. It’s for that reason that I force myself to test my sites using a dial-up connection. I also test my sites on a friend’s computer, since he is using AOL and sites look different in the AOL browser. Since AOL has 20 million users, we do have to consider how a site looks in the AOL browser. Government agencies also do not have the best browsers or connection speed and it’s good to look at the site using multiple computers, connection speeds and various browsers. Dennis, how do you test for multiple browsers?

DK: I usually wait for a Netscape user to send me an e-mail saying, in a highly irritated way, that one of my pages is showing up blank to them and that I should have considered Netscape users. Seriously, though, I’m moving to the DreamWeaver platform and some of the browser testing capabilities built into the current generation of web design tools are quite appealing. At a minimum, you will want to look at your site in at least the current versions of IE and Netscape before launch.

BH: Like Dennis, I also test in multiple browsers. You’ll find that Netscape is less “forgiving” of design errors than Internet Explorer. However, it is imperative that you test for both.

DK: With the overwhelming market share of Internet Explorer, and the fact that the steady stream of security problems in IE makes it crazy to be running anything other than the most current releases (with service packs) of IE, I think that compatibility with older browser versions has become less of a concern these days. It’s worth noting, however, that new versions of Netscape (especially given recent rumors about AOL switching to Netscape as its default browser for its user base), the Mozilla 1.0 browser, Opera and Open Source browsers on the Linux platform, have opened up the browser market a bit as people have become afraid of the IE security issues and look for alternatives to Microsoft.

JL: You could be right, but I can’t get that 5 or 10 per cent using other browsers or older browsers out of my mind. I just don’t want to write them off. My sense is that despite the security issues you mentioned, the pace of upgrades has changed, partly because the incremental benefit of upgrades had changed. I remember that when Netscape moved from version 1.2 to version 2.0, that was a big deal. The later version had significantly better functionality. That’s not as true when you are moving from version 5 to version 6 of a more mature product.

DK: I don’t want to belabor this point, but Jerry makes a good comment that the incremental benefits of new browser versions do not, in and of themselves, typically give you much of a reason to upgrade versions any more. My big concern is that it has become vital that IE users in particular install the latest service packs and security fixes. As a result, that process tends to move most careful IE users to IE 6.0. Brenda, there’s another important topic we wanted to discuss because of it can have a significant impact on site usability.

BH: Right. Another detriment to usability is site organization. What makes sense for employees might not make sense for the consumer. I recommend that sites categorize their information in 10 sections (navigation buttons) or less. Some site owners have a hard time doing this. If people cannot find the information with 3 clicks of a mouse, they will become frustrated.

DK: The number one problem with law firm sites is their internally-focused structure and organization. On the Internet, people are looking for answers to practical questions. They want to find out if your firm has an entertainment lawyer who does music contracts. It makes little sense to require someone who is looking for a lawyer to review a standard recording contract to know that they must first look at your “Departments” page, then click on “Litigation,” then “Intellectual Property,” then “Media,” then “Entertainment,” then “Music,” then have them distinguish between “Partners” and “Associates,” then look at separate bio pages that don’t even link to the attorney’s articles or other materials. That type of site organization and structure probably makes great sense to people inside your firm, but I think that the people looking for a lawyer for their practical problems will bail out long before they ever find the name of the lawyer.

JL: It’s a question of being client-oriented vs. law firm oriented. Go with what makes sense to clients and potential clients.

BH: Another problem is beta testing the site before it is launched. Smaller sites don’t feel that they need to invest the time. The webmaster usually gives the site to their manager and it is approved – if it looks good. Unfortunately, a site can look good, but not be usable. That’s where beta testing comes in. Take 5 to 10 people and have them perform 5 exercises on the web site. For example, a law firm site would have an exercise that asks the user to find the names of the 3 attorneys that specialize in bankruptcy for the firm. The user then performs the exercise and provides the answers. More importantly, they explain any problems they had in getting the answer. Sometimes users never get to the answer because they simply cannot find the information. It is best if the beta testers are NOT members of the law firm, but regular people who would be potential clients. You could even ask some existing clients to participate in this test. It is extremely worthwhile and the results will probably surprise you. Users do not think “like” the webmaster and their skill set is usually less technical.

DK: Another great lesson from Nielsen is that you can get good usability testing from a small number of users, as long as you use actual users in the testing. Probably the last people you want to usability test with are people in your own firm. Find people in your likely audience. By the way, Sylvia Hsieh wrote one of the best articles on law firm web page usability I’ve seen in the April 29, 2002 issues of Lawyers Weekly USA. The article is called “Is Your Law Firm’s Website ‘Usable’?” and it includes great comments from some of the bigger names in law firm web site design and from Jakob Nielsen himself, as well as quotes from Jerry, Brenda and me. Until the publication of collected and updated columns of The Internet Roundtable are published in book form Sylvia’s article is one of the handiest ways to learn about usability in the law firm web page context.

JL: Conducting a focus group, before you design/redesign your site, is also helpful. Ask users what type of sites they like. Which ones are the easiest for them to use and why is that? You’ll find that they often pick some of the most visited sites on the Internet. Most navigation will be across the top and the site has easily identified categories of information.

DK: These results are fascinating. Do the most popular sites have the best usability or does the fact that we visit the most popular sites the most make us believe that they are the most usable simply because we have gotten used to them? The same question might be asked about Windows. Consider recent cases about privacies policies and terms of use agreements for web sites. Some courts have focused on the necessary “conspicuousness” you must have for links to policies and agreements to make the terms enforceable. Some of these opinions certainly can be read in a way that suggests that the first and largest items on the home page of your site should be statements about privacy, terms of use and the like. Not only does that make for ugly, unattractive and uninviting sites, but it also ignores that fact that many users have been conditioned to look for small print links to privacy policies and terms of use at the bottom of a page. If you move the links we are used to in an effort to make them more “conspicuous,” users won’t be able to “see” them because they are so used to looking at the bottom of the page. Usability studies often lead to interesting paradoxes.

JL: Many of the worst usability problems stem from a failure to understand the differences between television and the Web, a problem we’ve discussed previously. I was interested to see that Nielsen himself using the phrase “TV Envy.” What is he talking about, and how does it relate to usability?

BH: That’s easy. TV is fast. You can stream anything, anytime, to anyone. Wouldn’t that be great if the same thing was true for the Internet? We’ll get there someday. Dennis, do you think the envy extends to anything besides bandwidth?

DK: TV is more narrative. You’re telling a story. You can integrate video and audio and you can work within people’s expectations. There’s a history of what people like and don’t like, expect and don’t expect, on TV. There’s not that much history on the web, but learning your users’ web expectations and working within that framework of those expectations is a very good way to improve your site’s usability and success. Jerry said it best when he said, “keeping the user in mind is the key principle.”

Posted in: Internet Roundtable, Law Firm Marketing, Web Management