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Four common misunderstandings about attorney website design (and how to fix them)

Four common misunderstandings about attorney website design (and how to fix them)

It happens to the best attorneys, designers and marketers. You embark upon creating a website together. You brainstorm, you prototype, you test, and you build what you believe to be a great new product. Then, at some point, you realize that something has gone awry. Online conversions are down, bounce rates are up. Time on site is suffering. A mistake has been made, and it is more than a mere typo — the design is not functioning as intended.

It is easy to get caught up in a project bubble and forget the people for whom you are designing. Similarly, it is easy to draw inspiration from other attorney websites that are suffering from the same misunderstandings. Fortunately, no error is undoable. Through testing and incremental modifications, you can better your website's performance. Here are four common misunderstandings about attorney website design and some tips for avoiding (or fixing) them.

1. The visitor needs to see everything right away.

People approach an attorney website from a variety of different places within the decision making process. Some may have received a referral and are browsing the site to validate the firm's ability to handle their issue. Others may have had experience with attorneys before but are looking to hire a different type of lawyer for a new concern. Many others will never have worked with an attorney but are aware they need a lawyer for a specific matter. And still others may not yet realize they need an attorney and are performing research so that they can try to resolve a problem themselves.

It is tempting to throw everything on the table in an attempt to meet the diverse needs of your website visitors — multiple calls to action, crowded menus, forms, textual links — anything that someone might find useful. But this type of kitchen sink design clouds your website's purpose. You run the risk of losing visitors who have trouble understanding how to navigate the site or who cannot see immediately where the value in the site lies for them.

Since the now famous 2000 jam study, in which drastically reducing consumer choice led to a ten-fold increase in sales, the idea that too many choices will cause people not to buy has become widely accepted. Psychologist Barry Schwartz expanded on this phenomenon and the relationship between choices and happiness in his book, The Paradox of Choice - Why More Is Less.

Recently, this theory has come under some fire, particularly in the area of retail sales. However, while controversy may exist concerning whether or not the paradox of choice applies universally, many test cases confirm that reducing choice specifically on websites and in email does increase click-throughs and conversions. The browsing environment and mindset seem to lend themselves to a need for reduced cognitive load in decision making.

What can you do?

1. Limit calls to action.
Find the thing that most people do — or that you most want people to do — and promote that. Make it obvious that the visitor can scroll to see other options or learn more about you, but not at the expense of marginalizing the most wanted action.

2. Hide less popular menu options.
A couple of years ago, HubSpot tested removing the menus entirely on five of its most popular landing pages. The results of their test showed that removing the header and footer links increased conversion by up to 28 percent in some cases. Obviously, your website will need some menu links; try to condense them to the most important three to five. Introduce secondary navigation on subsequent pages. This helps give all users an obvious first step regardless of their reason for visiting.

3. Funnel people by need.
Consider directing people based on what they want to accomplish. An estate planning attorney, for example, might create a feature that begins with “I need to...” and then provides options like: establish a trust, administer an estate, or plan for long-term care. This takes the jargon out of the process and easily directs visitors straight to the information they want.

Testing and feedback are critical to designing an effective website. Try having different groups of people perform common tasks, and see how they accomplish these tasks. What paths are they taking? If they are getting stuck, what is the barrier? Is your site directing them to the most obvious path?

2. Visitors do not want to read a lot of information.

Variation: Giving away too much information is bad for conversion.

This myth is rooted in many realities. Internet users are flighty and have short attention spans. A web page must grab the visitor's attention in fractions of a second. And yes, it is easy to lose a visitor — a slow loading page, confusing navigation, or irritating ads and pop-ups can cause a person to click away quickly.

Additionally, user behavior studies have shown that people tend to scan pages and may skip whole paragraphs and sections of text. All of these realities converge to suggest that web pages should be short and to the point, with little distraction and not too much in-depth information. However, the opposite is true.

Longer pages tend to rank better in search results and receive more user engagement. Multiple studies have shown that the average length of pages in the top ten search results is around 2000 words. As marketers have caught on, long-form content is proliferating.

According to the recent Avvo report, How to Adapt to the New Legal Consumer, people who are online researching lawyers or the law are looking for direct source material. Consumers value sites that contain actual laws, case studies or court decisions most. They are also looking to state and local government sites and non-governmental legal resources. These researchers are hungry for information and may not be satisfied with brief, shallow pages.

What can you do?

Be that legal resource for your visitors. Combine some long-form, in-depth pieces on niche subjects with shorter articles and even briefer FAQs. Do not assume everyone is a voracious reader, but provide deep content for those who are. Create a glossary of terms visitors can use as a reference, and link to it from within your page content. Cite actual laws and provide case studies or examples of how the law can be used to resolve people's issues.

Answering people's real questions about the law with valuable information is good for both conversion and SEO.

3. People want to see pictures that remind them of their issue.

This is a lawyer-specific website misconception. In many — if not most — cases, consumers do want to see pictures of the items or experiences they are purchasing. White, sandy beaches, bright blue skies, custom-built cars — these all evoke positive emotions in the people viewing them.

Images related to the law, however, evoke entirely different feelings. Someone who has been injured may not want to be reminded of the trauma. Someone who is facing bankruptcy is experiencing enough anxiety without looking at pictures of other anxious people. And no one really wants to end up in court. Pictures of courtrooms are particularly disquieting for most website visitors.

What can you do?

Leave the pictures of courtrooms and suffering stock subjects off of an attorney website. If you are able, consider hiring a professional photographer to capture candid photos of you and your staff. If it is practice area appropriate, look for aspirational stock images that show the result of a positive outcome, like protecting an estate or gaining custody of a child, rather than photos that evoke stress in visitors.

4. Everyone thinks like you.

One of the most common mistakes any designer can make is assuming that they are designing for themselves rather than for visitors. Similarly, an easy error to make on a law firm website is writing as though you are talking to colleagues, not potential clients.

You visitors will have different life experiences than you. Sometimes these differences will be vast. You must understand where your visitors are coming from, in terms of technical awareness (how easily can they navigate a website) and life experience (what kinds of questions do they need answered). Only when you understand your visitors can you design for them.

What can you do?

Test, test and test again. Create focus groups in the design stage of a project and make necessary adjustments based on participants' comments. Once a site is live, check page performance regularly to see which pages are doing well and where people are dropping off. If a lot of people are clicking away from or hitting the “back” button on certain pages, there could be an underlying problem. You may want to gather another group to investigate the "why" of poor page performance.

You can also make gathering feedback a natural part of the client intake process. Simply tell clients up front that you will be asking, and those who are uncomfortable giving feedback can opt-out. If clients expect to be asked about their experiences, they are more likely to be up front about them.

Understanding where websites go wrong is in most cases a matter of research and testing. Do not assume something that works for a competitor will work for you. Instead, put yourself in your visitors' shoes and answer their questions. And most importantly, never be afraid to admit an error, test and correct it.

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.