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
Brenda Howard (BH): After driving your car for a few years, you’ll find many reasons to buy a new one. Better cars, better technology, the old one simply doesn’t function well, the paint is fading or chipping. You might even be embarrassed and decide that a better model more accurately represents your image. The same goes for your web presence. There comes a time when your firm has to decide whether to redesign.
Dennis Kennedy (DK): Serious web users can identify sites by the era of their design. I’ll hear “oh, that’s a 1998 look” or “that’s last year’s Flash intro style.” The message usually is that the site looks old and tired, or has even become a cliché. Brenda makes a good analogy to cars. We all have a threshold at which we decide we must get a different car. The same with web sites. To continue the analogy, you certainly don’t want it to give the same impression as Lieutenant Columbo’s old Peugeot, unless that’s really the image you want.
Jerry Lawson (JL): Stylistic updates are enough reason for upgrading a web site, but substantive upgrades are probably even more important. Is your web site accomplishing what you want?
BH : Most of my clients are interested in redesigning their web sites because they are adding some feature or functionality that they did not have before. Some have come to realize that they need to pay attention to market research and design their sites based upon users’ needs and not their own designs. Finally, some clients are simply tired of the design and want a fresh look. What else should cause a law firm to consider a re-design?
DK : One good reason is that your web site is out of step with your branding and other marketing initiatives. For example, it does not use current slogans or logos. Another good reason is to keep up with, or, even better, to stay ahead of your competition. Many large law firms have redesigned their sites in the past year. How does your firm’s site compare to the newer sites? What message is that giving people who visit both your site and those of your competitors? The answers to those questions may be scary for some firms. The best reason, though, is because you want to provide a better way to get good information to your clients and prospective clients.
JL: Sites that are performing worse than expectations are obvious candidates for a makeover. Sites that are performing better than expectations are also prime makeover candidates, though. How can you exploit and expand on your success?
Evaluating Your Existing Site
BH: Does your site even need to be redesigned? You might not think so, but it would help to have an expert give you a hand. There are quite a few services out there that will help you evaluate your existing site. An example is Web Critica is one example. Its emphasis is on usability, but it will provide you with other suggestions. There are also individuals that will conduct evaluations.
DK: I go a bit further than Brenda – I think it’s essential in all but the rarest cases (some small firms and solos) not to employ an experienced designer to evaluate your site and help you understand what is possible with a redesign. Lawyers are generally not web design experts, and the most significant redesign changes may happen on the back end of your site. You want to be working with someone who understands both what you want to accomplish with a site and the cultural, ethical and professional design limitations for legal web sites.
JL: I’ll go a bit further still: I agree that having a knowledgeable, objective eye evaluate your site is a good idea. It may be even better if that person has experience with the special needs of law firms. Try hiring someone good to evaluate the site and give you ideas, even if someone else will do most of the renovation work. People like Mark Pruner, Larry Bodine, Dale Tincher are possibilities, and there are many others.
DK: A good rule of thumb is that if your site has been up for more than 18 months in its current form, you need to be considering a significant update, if not a complete redesign. Many of our Internet Roundtable columns provide great tips and resources for evaluating a site.
JL : Vince Flanders, co-author of the popular book Web Pages That Suck, has a lot of good links and articles at Fixing Your Web Site. Larry Bodine’s American Lawyer article entitled “Why Law Firm Web Sites Don’t Bring in Business” doesn’t cover much we haven’t covered in previous Internet Roundtables, but it is a concise summary of some of the recurring problem areas.
Maintenance Just Isn’t Enough Anymore
BH: Not all web sites need to be redesigned. Sometimes you can add an entirely new section to the site and it fits well. It’s hard to believe that it’s a new section. Other times, changing one part of the site can knock the whole site off balance.
DK : Fresh content is still king, but it must be presented in a way that people can find it. Web users instinctively feel that a site that looks old is also not up-to-date. You may think that it is “obvious” where new material has been added, but your visitors will not. For example, if you are presenting links to new material by using older web navigation design conventions, current users may not even “see” the links to new material. Usability, findability and catering to current user conventions are all key considerations in the redesign process. One more thought: consider creating a separate web site with a separate domain name for a new section of your site that can stand alone. Doing so will avoid knocking your site off balance and may draw a higher number of users.
JL: Right. “Spinoff” sites can be very valuable. If well conceived and executed, they will also draw additional traffic to your main site.
BH: The growth of the site might result in a time where maintenance is a nightmare and is no longer efficient. You could decide to create templates to decrease the maintenance cost and improve efficiency. If you have to create whole new pages, you might as well redesign them while you are at it.
JL: The added complexity involved in switching to a database driven site means that this option is not attractive for many, maybe most law firms, but no doubt, databases can offer benefits to some law firms. Many of the benefits of databases, cascading style sheets and XML are incorporated transparently and simply into web design software like Microsoft FrontPage.
Cleaning Out the Closets
BH: As Dennis mentioned, sometimes a redesign does more good on the back end than it does for the viewing public. You might have directories of files that related to a maintenance change two years ago. These files are probably still sitting on the server and have never been deleted. Or you have image files of photos of associates that haven’t been with the law firm in three years. Either way, the server can get clogged up with all these old files and one can save disk space by getting rid of them.
JL: Those old pages can embarrass you. Even if no current page of your site links to them, they may show up in some search engine result.
DK: Your web traffic reports will typically show the least used pages and the most common user errors that occur on your site. These reports can be a great tool for determining what to clean out of the site. You might also keep your page files logically divided into separate subfolders. All of this can make any transition of administration of your site and movement to future redesigns much easier.
BH: Before you delete permanently, be sure to save an entire copy of the old site. You’ll want the new site to be up and running before dumping the old one forever.
DK: There are several points to remember here. First, you must be familiar with the applicable ethics rules before you delete old versions of your site, since there may be retention requirements. Second, please, please, please keep the same page naming conventions. People bookmark and/or link to individual pages on your site. Your naming change can result in a situation where people can’t find your existing resources on which they have relied. At a minimum, put redirector placeholder pages at the old URLs if you must change the names of page files. Third, consider keeping the old site in reserve as a backup in case something goes wacky when your new site goes live.
JL: All good tips. A CD or DVD burner can archive even large sites inexpensively.
Planning the Design
BH : Once you’ve made the decision to redesign, it’s time to surf the web. Take a look at your favorite sites to get ideas. Whether you design the site yourself or have a design team come in to do it for you, you’ll have an idea of what you want.
DK: Look at other law firm sites. Look at the sites that you visit every day. Visit the most-trafficked sites on the Web. You’ll begin to get a sense of what the current design conventions are, what you want to include and what you want to avoid. Then, it’s the case of asking the two familiar questions – “who are you?” and “what do you want?” What should your new site say about your firm and how will the site fit with your brand? And, what is the message you want to send, what is the audience and what is the tone? If you can answer these questions, you’ll give a good designer something useful to work with and increase the chances of a happy result.
BH: Make sure you check out competitors, both locally and nationally. What works and what does not?
JL: Asking for input can help you a lot, even if only a fraction of your people respond.
DK: Reasonable input is important, but many site redesigns have broken down over lengthy debates on colors or photos. It’s a much better approach to hire great designers and let them work their magic. You can also treat a redesign or a rollout as a phased process. That way you get the majority of site’s structure established and the site up and rolling, and then can phase in advanced features and personal pet projects in later stages. And, remember this, the smaller the committee, the faster things get done. The best thing about an outside design firm is that you can fire them if you can’t work with them. You’re stuck with the partners on your committee.
JL: Be sure to learn from your past experience. Fortunately, you’ve already been through this once and it should be easier the second time around.
DK: You will also want to be absolutely clear on who calls the shots.
JL: People with extensive experience designing law firm sites tell me that ambiguous lines of authority are their single biggest recurring headache. It’s hard to get decisions made, and this not only makes the process more difficult, it often results in a lower quality product.
BH: Here are two key questions. First, “when do we know that the project is done?” Second, “who gets to decide that the project is done?” If the person who really does get to decide is not in the process, nothing good is going to happen.
Before Launching the Site
BH: Generally, everyone is very excited when the new design is about to be launched and can hardly wait. However, the visitors to the site are not aware that their information resource is about to change on them. Your new design may be easier to use, but loyal visitors don’t care. They have gotten used to finding information on the old site and will be disoriented with the launch of the new design. Jerry, do you have any suggestions for handling the transition?
JL: Test, test, test. So many things can go wrong. The biggest single cause of problems may be the recurring assumption that if something looks right to you, it will look right to all of your users. For example, since over 80% of users today have their screens set at a resolution of 800 x 600, designers commonly assume that all users will have that resolution. They won’t. Test how your site looks at a variety of resolutions, on a variety of monitors, with a variety of browsers, and so on.
DK: I like the idea, if it’s feasible, of having actual loyal users of the site test the design for usability and give feedback on a working prototype of the site.
JL: Soliciting client feedback could be a marketing opportunity in itself, right?
DK: Absolutely. Usability expert Jakob Nielsen also makes a convincing argument that you can get excellent usability testing from a small number of users. I’d also announce a new redesign in advance of the changeover rather than simply springing it on people. The big thing for me, as I mentioned earlier, is not to change the location of existing content without giving users a clear way to find the old material.
BH: Dennis, you’ve redesigned your web site a couple of times. What steps did you take to make the transition easier for your visitors?
DK: To be honest, I had Jerry take a look at the site and try it out and give me his feedback. Plus, I showed it to my wife and daughter. I think that even if you don’t do usability testing per se, you want to show knowledgeable people a demo of the new site and get some input. Also, I was a fanatic about not changing the URLs of the pages. I also had spent time with Nielsen’s book and had looked at a huge number of sites before deciding on what I wanted to do. As all of us are, I’m currently “working” on a site redesign. I’m thinking in terms of the concept of “findability,” a more contemporary look and a stronger use of graphics, and mouse-overs for navigation, and I’m paying a lot of attention to what seems to work on the heavily-traveled sites, such as Amazon and Yahoo. They’ve learned a lot over the years and it makes sense to piggyback on the user expectations generated by those sites.
JL : Vince Flanders says the most important design tip is to ask yourself “Would Amazon.com use that design element on its site?” Not a bad question to ask, actually.
Winding it up, I think maybe the single best tip we’ve provided this month for people who are considering a web site makeover is to consider hiring an expert to evaluate your existing site. This applies even if you have already hired an outside designer. After all, you can’t expect the same person who designed your Flash animation or Mystery Meat navigation monstrosity to evaluate it objectively, right?
Further, knowing what needs to be done yourself is not always enough. Having a respected authority’s analysis in hand may make it easier to thread the political shoals inside your firm and convince the powers that be that changes must be made.