A UX review of the PACER site

Rose Devlin
Nov 12 · 10 min read

The T&P Team reviews the PACER site.

In continuation with our series on highlighting UX/UI principles of law-related applications and sites, our second nominated site is PACER (www.pacer.gov). PACER is an incredibly important government-run system used by lawyers, the press and the general public to access public federal court records in the United States. Once again, our goal isn’t to criticize designers — rather, we want to look at a range of products, from the very bad to the very good, and use them as instructive lessons on design.

To give PACER the benefit of the doubt, it was surely designed 15+ years ago. However, we’d like to walk through some considerations on how we could re-imagine this site based on modern day UX/UI principles to make searching and filing court records easier. Side note: the PACER system itself brought in more than $146 million in fees during the 2016 fiscal year, even though it cost just over $3 million to operate – it seems reasonable to expect a modern redesign of the system given its critical importance in our justice system.

For some context, PACER charges every user $0.10 per page. One might think this just applies to downloadable PDF documents, but that is not the case. It includes the search results page as well as different views of that same page. For downloadable documents, a 25 page PDF will cost $2.50 which they cap at $3.00 per document.

Our goal for this article is to focus on four main sections of the public website and user portal by critiquing the UX while also giving recommendations and showing what a redesign could look like.


1. Public Landing Page

The formula for designing webpages in the early 2000s was much different than today and the PACER landing page is a good example of this. There was a tendency to repeat information to make sure the user found it. The content was usually divided into a boxy main area and sidebar. Unimportant news and announcements were often used to make the page look dynamic, and “quick links” were towards the bottom of the page because users couldn’t find anything.

PACER Public landing page

Calls to Action

There are no buttons or calls to action that stand out. There are many links but none of them seem important – they all feel equally unimportant. We would recommend adding buttons and clear calls to action for new and existing users so that people can quickly find what they are looking for.

Prioritization of Content

Key space is being taken up by secondary information such as announcements spanning from 2014 through the present which are mostly focused on the payment fee structure. Here is one of the many examples you will see of how the fee structure adds clutter and confusion to this website. We would recommend reducing the amount of content on this landing screen.

Color Contrast & Accessibility

As a public site providing access to government information, PACER should comply with Web Content Accessibility Guidelines. However, we found at least four different places on the landing page and interior pages where the text does not have enough contrast to meet the WCAG Level AA guidelines:

Not enough contrast!
  1. The white links in the main navigation on the blue background
  2. The blue links with on the light blue background
  3. The registration wizard white title on a blue background
  4. All of the white text on the brown background in the sidebar

With some quick color adjustments and overall style guide changes these issues could be addressed so that the website is legible to ALL users including those with low vision, low contrast vision or color vision deficiency.

Logo Design

Logo design and banner

We’re guessing the goal behind the original logo was to combine the idea of court and digital, however, everything is digital now. Putting an icon on a computer looks antiquated and doesn’t communicate what kind of digital features PACER may offer. The secondary line “Public Access to Court Electronic Records” would be easier to read if the text were in title case since the name is already an abbreviation in all caps. We’d recommend ditching the computer and keeping this logo simple.

Landing Page Redesign

Below is a quick mid-fidelity design of how the landing page could look if we remove some of the unnecessary clutter and just focus on the primary actions users should take when arriving at this page:

Theory and Principle redesign of the PACER public landing page

2. User Login & Dashboard

The registration and login process is time consuming and unless you really need to use PACER, our guess is that most people would just give up.

Registration Process

The registration process is very long. It spans multiple pages which are broken up into steps, however there is no indication of how many steps there will be to give the user a sense of what’s to come. The overall registration process is overwhelming because there are a lot of required fields. It’s unclear from this page why so many fields are required for access to public information.

Registration screen for basic accounts

If you do not want to give a credit card when you sign up you must wait one week for the authentication code to come in the mail (yes, a letter — see below). Here is another example of how the fee policy negatively affects the user experience.

Letter from PACER with authentication token — It looks like our method will result in receiving a bill in the mail next quarter if we rack up more than $15 in searches.

Login

After receiving our authentication token we were able to finally log in to the PACER case locator portal. There are three different options for logging in (one option is just to manage your account — why isn’t this just part of the main login?). Having three different login options results in an extra click — after clicking “Login” the user must then make a selection before they can go to the actual login screen.

Login screen with three options

The design suggestion here is pretty obvious — allow all types of users to sign in at the same place even though they have access to different features. Airbnb does not have two different portals for guests and hosts, PACER should follow suit. This suggestion continues to the PACER portal. An attorney with E-File privileges as well as basic search access should be able to access both features through one portal.

After logging in, there are far too many clicks required to get to the case search screen. We would recommend restructuring these three pages into one user dashboard which would require prioritizing certain actions over others based on typical user behavior.

The log in flow requires three clicks before the user gets to the actual search fields

User Dashboard Redesign

We recommend a large search text field with the options to search by case title, case number or keyword while also give the user the option to go into more of advanced search as a secondary action (yes, we’re making some assumptions here about primary user activities that we haven’t validated). Other types of searches, such as for parties or bankruptcy are still available but they are also secondary actions. We also would recommend showing some recent and saved case records below, because users likely return several times to review the same cases.

Theory and Principle redesign of the PACER user dashboard

3. Search Results

Search results for all cases with “copyright” in title

Lack of Filters

Filtering only happens on the initial search screen (see above section). Once the user has set their search parameters they cannot adjust them to better refine the search results later. This is a poor user experience because it requires more clicks — going back and forth to the search screen — and it means the user can’t view results at the same time as filtering which is now a very common and recognized search behavior.

Filters on the advanced search screen include: court type, case number, case title, case type, region, and date range. However, what’s missing is the ability to filter based on a keyword from the case description or content. Currently you can only filter by keywords in the title. There appears to be no other sort of categorization of cases based on their content which could be very helpful. There is no way to filter based on the information inside the case.

“You should be able to say, for example, ‘Give me everything that has the word motion in its description and that talks about copyright,’” says Mike Lissner, executive director of the nonprofit Free Law Project. “That’s not possible.”

Sorting

At first glance, one might miss the option to sort results. The results appear to be sorted alphabetically by default. However if you look closely at the Icon Legend, there is a tiny icon for sorting which is detached from the table. The best practice would be to have it next to the table header in the row. Once clicked, a modal opens giving you the option to sort by a few parameters — but not all. For example, there is no option to sort by date filed or date closed which seems like a logical way to view information. Also, to our surprise, we found that sorting results in another fee being charged!

“Sorting search results executes a new search for which a fee is charged”

Legibility

Though it looks like contrast compliance was addressed in the case search portal, legibility (which is harder to create guidelines around) was not. Case results are displayed in hard to read table format that is difficult to scan. The font-size is very small and the spacing between rows is minimal, meaning that titles are almost touching each other making them hard to read. Icons are used for instructions, however it is not clear what the icon is meant to represent unless you scroll down to the bottom to view the legend.

Case Record Results Redesign

Our primary recommendation for this screen is is the addition of filters. Let the user view their results and refine them as they go. Give the option to view in list view or tiles – which lends itself to a mobile-friendly design. Also, we would recommend removing the fee policy from sorting and searching which clutters the screen and disincentives users from filtering.

Theory and Principle redesign of the case records results screen

4. Case Record Detail

This particular portion of the portal was so confusing that to describe it properly we made a video to document the current experience:

A walk-through of the case detail screens

Missing Information

The case detail screen is missing the title of the case. If a user tries opening multiple case records in different tabs they will quickly lose track of which tab is which. We suggest simply adding the title to this screen.

Pricing Interferes with the User Experience

As we’ve seen on the landing page and in the sign up flow, the payment fees are constantly interfering with the user experience. However, this is even more evident in this section where the user really starts to rack up fees.

Such a bizarre pricing model means the system must let the user know on EVERY page that they are being charged and how much. While it’s a good practice to keep the user informed, it interferes with the search experience at every step of the process. Almost every action requires two clicks — one to navigate and one more to approve the charges. The warning messages also add clutter to the layout which makes the information hard to scan. We suggest removing or changing the pricing model so that it doesn’t interfere with navigation.

Almost every action requires two clicks — one to navigate and one more to approve the charges.

Lack of Navigation

These sections rely on the browser back button for navigation which means there is no sense of where you are within a section. There is also no way to go between sections of the case. This makes for a time-consuming and frustrating experience. We suggest adding a persistent navigation to these screens to allow for quick access between the sections.

Case Record Detail Redesign

Our redesigned case record detail screen shows the case summary upon the first click. The title is big and clear and the user can easily navigate between the different sections of the case without constantly being reminded that they are being charge $0.10 (in our design the fee is eliminated from search results and case summaries and would only apply to viewing documents).

Theory and Principle redesign of the case record detail screen

Conclusion

The PACER site strongly recommends that users read an 18-page training manual before using the site. When detailed information on how to use something is required, especially something as simple as a search tool, it’s a good indicator that the design is not intuitive. The user experience should guide the user on the path and make it easy to understand how to use the tool based on best practices, prioritization and carefully designed instructions.

We could write a whole other blog post on the problem with charging fees for public documents, but even with their fee structure, this site could be dramatically redesigned to provide a superior experience. As an aside, it’s worth noting that on November 6th, the Free Law Project announced that they’re launching a new free API called “PACER Fetch.” This API could potentially lead the way to software companies developing their own products for accessing PACER documents which means we could see some better interfaces in the near future.

We hope that some of the design recommendations above are helpful in evaluating how these important sites could better serve the public with a more intuitive user experience.

Theory and Principle

We’re a product design and development firm focused exclusively on the legal industry.

Thanks to Nicole Bradick

Rose Devlin

Written by

Rose is the lead UX/UI designer at Theory and Principle.

Theory and Principle

We’re a product design and development firm focused exclusively on the legal industry.

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