How to Find the Legal Software with the Best User Experience

The importance of user experience in improving efficiency has been well established. But not everyone has the same idea of what “user experience” means – or any idea at all. Here’s how this sometimes-confusing concept applies in the legal industry.

Whether you’re reviewing a legal brief or planning for a deposition, you want to use technology to accomplish your task efficiently and effectively. User experience, abbreviated “UX,” describes how pleasant and easy it is to use a product to get something done. More than one thing impacts whether a technology is easy to use. According to the Usabilla blog, UX can be broken down into eight elements. You’ve almost certainly experienced each one, but may not have thought about them in the context of your work.

You can see UX in even a very simple screen, like an ediscovery search page. The examples below illustrate how small differences can impact your bottom line and suggest what you should be asking of all legal software vendors.

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Our screenshot

1) Interaction Design

What It Is: This element of user experience describes the actions you can take within a tool, from clicking to scrolling. It breaks down each sub-task into parts. For instance, sending a client email can start with finding the client in your contact list: this can be done by clicking once on “Contacts,” scrolling down to find a name, and clicking once on the name. A good interaction design accounts for likely use cases: for example, sorting contacts by company name doesn’t make sense if the tool is used primarily to communicate with others at your firm.

In Our Screenshot:

  • After you click on a logical operator, what do you expect to happen?
  • As you scroll down a page, does the navigation menu lock to the top of the screen, or do you have to scroll back up to reach it?

What You Want:

Many different users with multiple cases means many different needs. Therefore, software will rarely be exactly perfect for each situation and person. However, there’s a difference between noticing a few things that could be done faster and noticing that most things take more work than they should. If you find yourself missing paper and pencil, you may be missing the software you need.

To prevent this, make sure to evaluate interaction design as part of your software evaluation. In the demo, ask vendors for screen control, so you can click or scroll yourself. This will allow you to compare your existing workflow and expected results to the tool’s design. Some tools may have unfamiliar ways of doing things, and they can end up saving time once you adjust to them. The things to watch out for are when everything is unfamiliar, or when the unfamiliar takes significantly longer than your current flow.

What to Test in a Prospective Legal Tool:

  • How easy is it to figure out how to get to another screen or to finish an action you start? Is it consistent, or do you have to scroll in one place but click to do the same thing in a different place?
  • Do you need to find workarounds to do the basic tasks you’ll be using the tool for?

2) User Interface

What It Is: This refers to the visuals needed to make interactions possible. If interaction design is how an action will be done, then user interface is what that “how” looks like. For instance, a multi-step process – like assigning documents for review – can be done on one long, scrolling page, or on several pages connected by “next” buttons or arrows.

In Our Screenshot:

  • When you click on the pull-down to add a starting date, does a full calendar take over the whole screen, or does a mini one appear?
  • Is which page you’re currently on denoted in the navigation bar?

What You Want:

There are thousands of ways that the same process can look on a screen. Regardless of which ones are used, you need to be able to see and access each visible item. Just because a process or concept is complex does not mean that it has to look like it. If the tool you’re looking at has an overwhelming number of elements or requires certification to be able to understand any of it, seek out different software.

In a demo, ask vendors to show you the screens used by different users. For example, the pages for admins might be beautiful and easy to use, but what about those needed by paralegals or contract reviewers? If they’re slowed down, so is your entire project.

What to Test in a Prospective Legal Tool:

  • Is there so much happening on a page that you can’t figure out what to do next, or how to find what you need?
  • After you input information on a screen, is the “Continue” or “Submit” button where you expect? Or is the “Reset” or “Cancel” button on the right side, in a color other than red, making it easy to accidentally undo your work?

3) Visual Design

What It Is: This is all about the shapes, colors, and words you see on a screen. It describes how each part of a screen looks. For example, a button can have rounded corners or square ones, and it can seem to pop out at you (because of a shadow) or it can seem flat and uni-dimensional. Elements like visual repetition and lines of symmetry may be used to improve a site’s visual design.

In Our Screenshot:

  • Are you able to easily click on just one button or link? Is there enough spacing between elements, and can you spot and get to where you need to click?
  • Can you tell that the navigation icon to the left of the magnifying glass is a house?

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What You Want:

More than one design style and look can be pleasing to your eye. But if you find yourself staring regularly at jarring and unappealing screens, consider new software. For example, think back to web designs from the 90s, like textured backgrounds, neon colors, or flashing buttons. Remember how much those could hurt your eyes? If a screen reminds you of a webpage circa 1996, that’s a warning sign.

In a demo, ask to see multiple screens – from a search results page to a settings page. You want to avoid visuals that are difficult to process or read. Your eye will naturally seek out space between elements, legibility, and complementary colors. You’ll also spot inconsistencies that make something seem off, even if you’re not sure what it is.

What to Test in a Prospective Legal Tool:

  • Is it difficult to look at the screen for a few minutes? Do your eyes feel tired?
  • Does the same thing look different on different pages? For example, are cases italicized and highlighted in blue on one screen, but bold and written in green on the next one?

4) Typography

What It Is: This refers to the font used on the screen and is a subset of visual design. That includes how big the text is, whether it’s bold or italicized, how close together the letters are, and how curved or square the letters are. The differences may seem small, but they contribute to how long it takes you to read and to use a page, which adds up.

In Our Screenshot:

  • Do you have trouble reading any of the words on the screen?
  • Does the text look like it’s all written in the same – or in complementary – fonts?

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What You Want:

Companies sometimes want to use a unique font, to make their software more recognizable. However, these memorable fonts may not show up correctly on your screen, and they may be hard to read. Also important is who is interacting with the typography: though teens may find size 10 fonts easy to see, not all of us do. Content matters too: for instance, you may need a less ambiguous font – without curlicues or embellishments – when reading safety information. If you find yourself squinting to see text or adjusting your zoom a lot, consider new software.

In a demo, look for the smallest font on the screen, and see how easy it is to read. Ask the presenter whether the screen is zoomed in or out, and see if they can use the same browser you do, so you can see what the text will actually look like.

What to Test in a Prospective Legal Tool:

  • Is it easy to read the page, without having to zoom in or adjust your screen settings? Is it legible on every device (e.g. iPad, phone) you want to use for review?
  • Do you find the font jarring? Does it distract you from what you’re trying to do? Do you have to use context clues to figure out what some words are?

5) Usability

What It Is: This element describes how easy it is to get things done in a tool. That may include navigating between pages, entering text, accessing information, or leaving a page. For example, clicking to search is an interaction that can be designed in different ways. Using familiar – and therefore predictable – icons, like a magnifying glass to denote searching contributes to a good user experience.

In Our Screenshot:

  • Do you know what to click or enter on your keyboard to select the “CreationTime” value?
  • If you want to read a tutorial on how to build queries, can you guess how to find it?

What You Want:

Two tools can be easy-to-use in two different ways. Moreover, a more experienced lawyer may find something intuitive that baffles a younger lawyer: the disk save icon, for example. But if you discover that you’re mumbling to yourself, “That’s not what I meant to do!” or pressing “back” a lot, it may be time to look for another tool.

In a demo, ask vendors to give you control, and follow the steps you take in your existing software. If you regularly add users, try to figure out how to do that, beginning to end. If you need to be able to export files to PDF, see how well that works.

What to Test in a Prospective Legal Tool:

  • Are things are where you expect them to be, or do you have to dig or get someone to tell you where to find what you need?
  • Does the entire page load on the device you plan to use – whether that’s a desktop, tablet, or phone? Does anything get blown up or lost if you turn your phone sideways or make your browser full screen?

6) Information Architecture

What It Is: This is about how features are organized and structured. It has to do with the hierarchy and categorization of elements. For instance, “basketball” could be a sub-heading under a “team sports” header, but you wouldn’t expect to find “1992 Olympics shotput” under there. It also relates to the flow of information and the proximity of related tasks.

In Our Screenshot:

  • Do all of the green metadata types belong under the “Document” category?
  • When you first reach the screen, do you know what the primary thing to do here is?

What You Want:

If you’ve ever brainstormed in a group, you know that people naturally organize ideas in different ways. However, there tends to be a common core that we agree on; for instance, we tend to think of documents making up binders, and not the other way around. If you find yourself deeply puzzled by a software’s chosen hierarchy, consider different software.

In a demo, ask vendors to do several related tasks in a row, so you can gauge how smooth the flow is from one to another. Look for any categorizations that aren’t where you might expect, and ask about them. Different might not be worse, so listen to their explanations and be open to new ways that could save time.

What to Test in a Prospective Legal Tool:

  • Are things organized logically, like someone might organize folders or mind maps? Or do you find sub-folders in places you would never think to look for them?
  • Are related tasks linked or sub-sets of each other?

7) Content

What It Is: This is about the information provided by a tool. For example, on a site like ESPN, the content is the sports stories and commentary. Evaluating a tool’s content includes considering whether it meets your expectations and your needs.

In Our Screenshot:

  • Is there a clear button that takes you to “Help” or “Tutorials?”
  • If you decide to search a document set by custodian, is the button that lets you do that labeled well enough for you to identify it?

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What You Want:

The most useful and unique features won’t give you a good experience unless they are clearly labeled and explained. If you find yourself creating your own tutorials on what buttons mean (as opposed to, say, shortcuts or best practices for your specific team), look for new software.

In a demo, ask a vendor where to find documentation for the tool. Are there blog posts, videos, and step-by-step usage guides? You might even consider how well these resources would work for your team’s learning styles.

What to Test in a Prospective Legal Tool:

  • When you need to enter data, does the page explain whether you are expected to input numbers or letters?
  • Are buttons or links labeled well enough to know where they’ll send you?

8) Functionality

What It Is: This isn’t how a screen works, but whether it does. For example, you may not think that a “close” button should be green, but that’s a question of user interface; functionality is about seeing whether or not the button actually closes the item. It’s like the execution of interaction design and usability.

In Our Screenshot:

  • If you click the red “X” next to “Start Over,” does the screen clear out all of the search terms?
  • If you type in “Crea” in the metadata field, do all metadata field names with those characters appear in the drop-down?

What You Want:

Every software has an occasional bug or a broken link. But, if you find yourself getting used to a piece of software crashing or doing nothing, look for new software.

In a demo, ask vendors to click on a button they weren’t going to press, or ask to control the screen yourself. Then, see how often the software fails to work. This is arguably the most important UX element, because if you can’t achieve your goal, the most intuitive design and the most easy-to-read typeface won’t help.

What to Test in a Prospective Legal Tool:

  • When you click a button, does something happen? Is it what you expected or wanted to happen?
  • When trying to do something, are you taken to a page that says there’s been an error or that your page is unavailable? Does the hourglass or wheel spin indefinitely, never loading your page?

Hopefully, this provides you with an 8-step guide for evaluating the quality of a prospective software’s user experience. This can save you from adopting software that makes your team less effective or from having to switch software mid-stream, both bad user experiences with financial consequences.

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