Prioritize familiarity when building legal tech products.
I recently bought a new car.
I almost went full midlife crisis and bought a Porsche, but since I had just dyed my hair blonde, I figured I would hold off on further midlife crisis-related activities until after I turned 40. I went with a more sensible choice, a Volkswagen.
When you buy a new VW, it comes with Apple Car Play. If you haven’t ever seen this, it’s pretty excellent. With Apple Car Play, you plug your iPhone into the car and the car’s display turns into a mirror of your phone, showing the apps that can be used while driving. The app icons are identical to what’s on your phone, there’s a home button that provides exactly the same functionality as it does on your phone, the animations and responses to touching and swiping are all identical. The display is also completely integrated into all the hand controls on the car’s steering wheel.
Time it took me to learn how to use this: 0 seconds.
I already knew how to use it, even thought it was a brand new car and a brand new experience for me. It was an interface I was already deeply familiar with.
Why is this important to legal tech?
For the vast majority of legal tech, products aim to do one core thing (albeit for a variety of different subject matters and with different organizational goals): to make the law easier. Easier for lawyers, easier for clients, easier for self-represented litigants, etc.
But this isn’t just the overarching aim for legal tech — Making x easier is the goal for nearly all technology. To that end, really, really smart people at some of the largest companies in the world have invested ungodly amounts of money into figuring out the best ways to make certain activities online as easy as possible. This includes considerations around aesthetics and UI design (if something is beautiful, it’s more desirable to engage), user experience design (if something is simple, it’s easier to engage), and interaction design (if something is predictable and confirming, you can more confidently engage).
Through these massive investments in user research, along with a wealth of other studies by prominent designers, we can all benefit from best practices that have developed in the UX/UI discipline. It seems for the moment, though, that our industry has a strong tendency to ignore these best practices.
Familiarity is the principle in UX/UI design that holds that design should generally follow conventions that exist in the mainstream in order to make an interface more intuitive and appear simpler to a user. This doesn’t mean that you can’t take radical design risks and try new things, but you need to carefully consider if those risks are likely to enhance the experience, or if they’re just a cool exercise for a front end developer who’s tired of building the same buttons.
In legal, I don’t really see the industry taking these calculated design risks, which is fine. The problem is that, while many of the products out there eschew the use of familiar design components and experiences, they’re really just replacing them with less intuitive concepts that take the user longer to learn with less satisfaction.
While the newer SaaS products built over the last few years are certainly using wonderful design, there is still a tendency in our industry to attempt to make legal products look, errr, legal-ish. No one….. not lawyers, not clients, literally no one… wants to use products that look legal-ish.
My news years resolution for you: When you’re building digital products, at least spend some time thinking about familiarity. Do we need to create a whole new button style, or can we leverage something very familiar to the user from Google’s Material Design library? Do I need to invent an all new form of multi-select check boxes, or can I use what is provided for in Apple’s Human Interface Guidelines? Do I really want to create an all new radical style for a chatbot, or do I just stick with the known convention of having the dialog entry box at the bottom of the screen? Do I need to use the drab-yet-esteemed maroons and dark greens to convey the importance of the law-related nature of this product, or can I use fun bold colors and fonts and still make the product convey the gravity of the subject matter?
Just start by asking these kinds questions, and hopefully it will lead you down a path to making decisions in favor of familiarity over lawyery.
Happy new year, legal tech friends!