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Top Ten Usability Tips for Your Law Firm Website

A website is like a resume. Surveys have shown that the average resume is viewed for between 10 and 30 seconds - if you haven't convinced HR that you are the one for the job in a few seconds, you aren't getting an interview (much less the job). Similarly, when a visitor lands on your homepage, you've got about the same amount of time to convince him or her that it's worth sticking around and learning more about your firm. If you're website is confusing, poorly designed, offensive, or intended for a different audience, you're going to lose your chance to sell your firm to that visitor.

The art of designing a website to create a positive experience for your website visitors is known as "usability." Usability is the glue that holds together Web-based client development - it's after the advertising and the search engine optimization, but before the collateral, client meetings, and retainers.

Here are ten tips to improve your website usability.

  1. Put the Good Stuff "Above the Fold"
    Internet users "read" Web pages like they read a book - they start in the top left and move to the right, and then gradually make their way down the page. Content that is near the bottom of the page is far less likely to be read by a user than the content at the top. Even worse, if you have content "below the fold" - meaning at a point so far down the page that a user must scroll to see it, it is virtually invisible. Put all relevant content "above the fold" and put the most relevant content at the very top of your Web page.

  2. Include Easy-to-use, "Persistent" and Intuitive Navigation Tools
    A lot of users like to browse many pages on a website before eventually deciding to contact an attorney or take further action. Your website should be designed to ensure that users never become lost and are unable to find the homepage, the contact page, or any other part of your site. By having the same navigational tools on each page, in the same place, you give your users a "map" in the event they get lost. Many sites put these navigation links on the left side of each page, or at the top of each page.

  3. Put a Site-wide Search on Every Page
    If you have a website that has a lot of different pages, it is always good to add search functionality to every page. Everyone's different: some people like to use links to find what they're looking for, other prefer a search engine. By giving different users different methods of searching, you make everyone happy!

  4. Make it Easy to Contact and Communicate with Your Firm
    After you've created a highly effective website, complemented by great marketing and search engine optimization, make sure that you give potential clients every opportunity to contact you. Again, every potential client is different. Some people prefer to contact law firms via email. Others will only use the phone. And there are probably some who will simply show up at your front door. For this reason, make sure that you include email, phone, and address prominently on your website. You may even want to create an email form that collects basic information about a potential client (make sure you add a disclaimer with something to the effect that "The use of the Internet for communications with the firm will not establish an attorney-client relationship and messages containing confidential or time-sensitive information should not be sent").

  5. A Picture is Worth a Thousand Words
    Photos on your website - particularly of the firm's lawyers - can create a more personal experience for the user. A lot of people won't contact an attorney unless they have seen a picture of the attorney first. Make sure that your photos don't significantly slow down the website.

  6. Be Creative, Simple and to the Point
    The best websites are succinct and straightforward. When a visitor comes to your site, he or she should be able to instantly understand several things about your firm: your principle practice areas, the type of clients you serve, your office locations, and what distinguishes you from your competitors. If you've deviated significantly from these basic principles, it's likely that you are losing potential clients.

  7. Reflect Your Firm Identity
    Does your firm cater to trend-setting techies in Silicon Valley, or do you court conservative money managers on Wall Street? Develop a website that reflects the style of your firm and your clients. Your website should be an extension of your overall corporate identity - down to the colors, logos, messaging, and 'feel.'

  8. Practice Iterative Design
    If you want to continually improve the effectiveness of your website, you need to continually test different ideas on your site. Making a few changes here and there, and then tracking the results of these changes (to traffic, client conversions, etc) is known as "iterative design." This enables you to continually improve your website in small steps, so that long-time users aren't upset by drastic changes, and any design changes that turn out to be bad decisions don't have a catastrophic effect on your site.

  9. Consider Usability Testing
    The best way to determine whether your website serves its intended purposes is to ask your intended audience. If you want to impress small business professionals with your website, assemble a group of these people in a room (or one by one) and ask they to critique your website. Did they find it easy to use? Would they consider retaining your firm based on the information provided? What additional content would they like to see? What did they like and dislike? In every city in the country, there are usability experts who will set up usability testing for you.

  10. When in Doubt, Ask the Experts
    In last month's column on search engine optimization (SEO), I suggested that any firm really serious about SEO needed consultation from an outside expert. The same is true for usability. In fact, outside help is often doubly important for usability. First, because the expert is, well, an expert, who lives and breathes usability. But second, because the expert will give you a fresh perspective on your Web design, a perspective that people inside your firm (who have been exposed to your site on a daily basis, or worse still, have built your site) cannot provide.
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