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Be useful: How to design a website experience that solves real clients' problems

Be useful: How to design a website experience that solves real clients’ problems

Attorney websites have progressed significantly over the past three to five years, with blogs, regularly updated content and rich media replacing static brochure-style pages. Improvements in design and interactivity help attorneys communicate with visitors and help potential clients better understand what they can expect when working with the firms they are reviewing.

Moving away from pointless, search-engine driven content is just the first step. Too may attorney websites still fail to place enough of an emphasis on the user. Website design is an exercise in solving problems. The trick is making sure you are solving the correct problems.

User experience design is the practice of improving satisfaction and outcomes by focusing on the entirety of a customer's experience with a product. Graphics, layout, information architecture, usability and interactivity — every point of user contact — combine to produce a positive exchange. Good design impels trustworthiness because it is useful.

How can attorneys be proactively useful?

1. Ignore trends. Just because a feature is popular does not mean it is useful. Many long-established design practices do not enhance usability. For example, research has consistently shown that drop-down menus, particularly those that contain long strings of nested items, can be difficult to navigate and do not produce a good experience. However, they are still commonly seen among attorney and non-attorney sites alike.

2. Place messaging before design. Pretty design cannot fix poor content or cluttered messaging. Know the brand story you want to tell before you work on wireframing and layout. Establish an information hierarchy first, then build a design that emphasizes your site's most useful features.

3. Understand why people visit your site. You cannot accurately solve visitors' problems if you do not know why they are coming to your website. Are they looking for information about attorneys? Do they need to understand legal processes? If you just broadcast information about your firm and assume you are answering all the right questions you may be missing valuable conversion opportunities. Talk to real people about why they go to an attorney website. Ask what features they find most helpful. Provide easy pathways to the outcomes your visitors want.

4. Minimize features. Place the myth that visitors want alternatives behind you. A website does not have to be complex to offer value. Effective design reduces cognitive load, or the overall mental processing power required to use your site. The human mind has a finite ability to handle information, and when you provide too many options people are less likely to make any choice at all.

5. Differentiate. Understand how you differ from other firms offering the same services. Really differentiate — think beyond years of experience or law school credentials. More importantly, understand how your clients differ from the clients of other firms offering the same services. This will help you avoid the temptation to “borrow” from the strategies of similar firms.

6. Build accurate user personas. User personas describe the people who are likely to visit your site. A good user persona will look deeper than basic demographics like age and gender. It will answer questions about the knowledge and background of the user. Are your visitors likely to have a basic awareness of particular legal issues? Do they understand technical or industry-specific language? On a design level, are they comfortable using technology? What are their expectations and ambitions?

A user persona should describe a real person, with values, desires, worldviews, educational and experiential backgrounds, expectations, needs and goals. You may want to develop multiple personas, but try not have too many. Limit personals to your most typical clients. Here is a very basic example:

Visitor A:

Background: Founding partner at local business, interested in new ventures

Immediate intent: Research attorneys, confirm firm reputation

Goals: Find firm with experience applicable to specific issues, plan and protect business from liability

Desires: Looking for value beyond competitors — this may be a fee arrangement, a particular service, or a partnership with professionals in associated fields. Open to a long-term relationship. Wants to know attorneys will think proactively to solve potential problems. Open to paying more for high level of service.

Knowledge: Workable web knowledge and familiarity with common navigation structures. Confident using search or exploring navigation to find answers, but impatient with sites that do not quickly offer desired information. Familiar with business development and growth strategies.

Visitor B:

Background: Contractor, works with businesses involved in commercial real estate projects, has been defrauded

Immediate intent: Understand process, research attorneys, contact attorneys

Goals: Find attorney with litigation experience, get help obtaining settlement and damages

Desires: Wants to feel secure in hiring a firm that can help immediately.

Knowledge: Experience using search engines to find products, services and information. Less trust for internal searches, less likely to use site tools to find solutions to problems. Familiar with contract law and running a business. Not familiar with litigation process.

One firm may be able to offer value to both of these clients. But generic attorney messaging will not make that fact apparent. Understanding the different paths a visitor may take allows you to build an experience that is useful to real people.

Align your goals with the desired outcomes of your visitors. People need to know you will work to solve the right problems.

Kristen Friend
Kristen Friend holds two bachelors degrees from Indiana University and an associates degreee from the International Academy of Design. As Art Director for Custom Legal Marketing, her work has been awarded Webby Honorees, WebAwards, Davey Awards, Muse Awards, W3 Awards, and many others. She is also a contributor to Entrpreneur Magazine through the Entrepreneur Leadership Network.