Four Modern Design Principles Being Applied More in Legal Software – it’s the UX stupid!

by Ana Levin,
Legal software has historically suffered from a lack of design thinking. Function over form has been the prevailing organization mechanism, and the field’s limited competition hasn’t incentivized other approaches. However, the design renaissance is making its way to legal technology, largely through newer entrants to the space. Companies who embrace design thinking aren’t just throwing color or rounded corners into their interfaces: they are basing the user experience of their tools on basic design principles. Here are four of them that you will increasingly see in your legal software:
1) Responsive Design
This design principle is all about access: it lets more people experience a piece of software by making it usable on phones and tablets. This is important for the same reason that BYOD policies have become critical: most consumers and lawyers access sites from devices smaller than a laptop. Not only does responsive design make for a better user experience, but it’s also prioritized by Google in search results.
There are two steps to responsive design: first, identifying how to make the desired design look equally good on different screen sizes, and second, coding the site to show the correctly-sized version for each visitor. It’s increasingly common to start designing with the smallest form factor, on the assumption that it’s easier to add to than to condense content. Understanding the unique capabilities of phones or tablets is also important. For example, the “click-to-call” functionality or scrolling selectors of mobile phones need to be accounted for on those devices. As this design trend has spread, modular content and long, scrolling pages have become more common.
Legal software is beginning to embrace this design principle. For example, legal CLE provider allows users to access the same content on either a desktop or a phone. This design principle matches the company’s goal of delivering bite-size legal education on-the-go. However, it’s not just mobile vendors embracing this trend: responsive design will soon make its way to most technology in the legal field.
2) Hierarchy
Another important design element being incorporated into legal software is hierarchy. Visual hierarchy design allows users to quickly navigate and parse content. When a software uses hierarchy appropriately, viewers can immediately spot the important page elements and act on them, and they can intuit where other things they might seek would be. Think back to websites of the 90s, with their busy background pictures, pulsating animated gifs, and neon colors: they were not employing hierarchy effectively.
Levers like comparative size, contrast, proximity, and color can be used to create a clear visual hierarchy for the reader. By combining these elements, designers can denote the importance of multiple elements while preventing users from visually tuning out. Effective hierarchy can be a challenge to achieve because different segments of users can have different priorities, and because it’s easy to go overboard and try to make everything stand out.
In the legal space, law practice management software uses visual hierarchy to direct users. The bright aqua color of its navigation draws the eye first, prioritizing its importance. Next, the viewer’s eye is drawn to the Snapshot section, because of its placement in the upper left corner, its bright colors, and its use of white space. Then, as the user scrolls down, the colorful “Top 5 Clients” chart becomes the next most important element. As legal tools become more full-featured, designers will seek out increasingly more ways to organize them effectively and meaningfully for users.
3) Harmony
Another design element increasingly visible in legal technology is the principle of harmony. This principle is about pulling together disparate elements of a page into a cohesive visual. This helps content make sense together. When different components of a design are harmonious with each other, it’s easier to process the entire page.
Common ways of achieving design harmony include the use of rhythm, repetition, or similarity. These methods prevent content from becoming overwhelming: one element helps you intuit the next one. Familiar user interface patterns – like how the logo in the top left corner of most sites takes you to the homepage – reduce the amount of information users need to learn in order to use a site.
everlaw_hp uses harmony to organize information on its homepage. [Disclosure: I work at Everlaw.] The page uses columns of cards representing each type of ediscovery item: assignments, searches, binders, etc. This consistency makes using the page intuitive and simple; the differentiation is done with colors and headings. This approach helps the eye make sense of a lot of information in a short time.
4) Balance
The design principle of balance is about making a user feel comfortable when looking at a site. A balanced page “feels good” visually to viewers. It avoids the aesthetic discordance of a blindingly bright or overwhelming element, allowing the user to process the entire page at once. Balance helps viewers more quickly and fully process content by orienting it visually and horizontally in a familiar way.
Most often, balance is achieved with the use of axes and symmetry: lines and mirror images lead the eye. These ways of organizing content are both familiar and effective. Symmetry is such an innate preference that research even shows people find those with symmetrical faces more attractive. []
Law practice management software applies the principle of balance on its homepage. The site uses a consistent blue color scheme, negative space, and alignment on a grid to organize data into a visually pleasing product. The grid also effectively adds axes and lines of symmetry to the page. Thus, the visual weight of the page is distributed fairly evenly, so there isn’t a big gap or a dominant element that makes the page difficult to process.
In the coming years, legal vendors will continue to adopt these design principles in the hopes of gaining a competitive edge. Recognizing them can help you spot tools that will be easier to use, since design is central to usability. And every firm and company can benefit from that.