This summer, with the support of a Donner Foundation fellowship, I developed web pages for Community Legal Education Ontario (CLEO) that connect Ontario nonprofits to existing legal information on incorporation, maintenance, and governance. This article is about the process of creating those pages. My hope is that others will use the process in areas of law where legal information exists online, but is: overwhelming in quantity, difficult to find, and/or scattered.
Pitching the Project: The Pragmatic and Philosophical Justifications of Curation
Before anyone can start the project, somebody needs to be convinced it’s worthy of scarce resources. Why not simply create new content? Curation has two advantages over creation of new content, even where new content would meet high standards of plain language and clear design that existing resources may only approach. Firstly, because curation leverages work that has already been done by competent professionals, it can be done considerably quicker and with less subject matter expertise. I call this approach “expressing much while saying little” and it is ideal for a law student’s summer work. Secondly, curation fights information overload by doing the search work of the user and offering independent third-party quality assessment. New content, no matter how high quality, risks contributing to the problem of information overload.
Setting the Scope: Choosing Questions
Following the cutting-edge design of Steps to Justice, we set the scope of my work by the questions our pages would answer. To have the greatest impact, we focused on questions that were:
(2) had serious consequences for non-compliance (both legal and practical),
(3) were most difficult to find an answer to.
To figure out (1) and (2), we started from the list of questions CLEO receives most frequently and consulted multiple times with the Ontario Nonprofit Network (ONN) on what they believed were of highest priority. I figured out (3) over the course of my research by seeing what other well curated hubs of content existed.
When it comes to how you write the questions, it is crucial to understand that people want the one thing lawyers are often most reluctant to give them—a straight answer. A well written question is precise and straight-forward enough that a straight answer is possible without compromising legal accuracy. There are almost always exceptions and qualifications to add, but if you start with a nice clear answer, the user is relieved enough to read on. A clear-cut question will also help you sift through the resources much quicker, since you’ll know exactly the kind of answer you’re looking for.
Collecting & Sifting Through Resources: A Rote Process
Once we had our questions, I then had to turn to the tedious task of finding the resources. To do this, I developed a list of (1) who I thought would produce legal information to my audience, and (2) where I thought my audience would go to find information. These two lists often but do not always overlap. I made sure to update this list as each website or blog pointed me to new sources. Gathering the information was unsurprisingly the most time-consuming part of the process. The key to making it as smooth as possible is being very intentional upfront about how you’re recording and organizing your findings. You can see my template here.
I found hundreds of resources, but I could sift through them in a week because I followed the steps in the template linked above precisely. At first, it is a very rote process of looking for specific red or green flags, rather than getting an overall understanding of the resource.
Once you have graded all your resources, before writing, you want to determine what gaps are left and do much more targeted searches. At the end of the day what you want is: the fewest resources answering the most questions possible directly in the fewest words with the clearest formatting possible.
Writing & Editing: Expressing much while saying little
The writing was by far the trickiest part of the process. The task was to balance making few if any legal claims that could not be found directly in the sources themselves, with offering genuine value beyond simply a list of links. We went through dozens of drafts as the pages went through review for: plain language with a specialized plain language editor; relevance with a veteran non-profit professional; and legal accuracy with both internal and external lawyers.
Here are some tips for writing:
- Stick to the formula: I was amazed to find after a number of drafts that often the best thing I could do was bring a section back in line with the original formula “Precise question. general answer, but there is more to know, go here.”
- Keep it simple: I often wanted to expound on the nuances of the law myself, before realizing I’m really not the most qualified to do that. The curator and the creator have distinct roles and their relationship is most productive when they stick to them.
Here are some tips for the editing process:
- Keep your files orderly: Like any editorial process version control remains key. [Version control template]
- Don’t panic: As your pages get ripped apart and recreated many times a day for all kinds of reasons the best thing you can do for your own mental health and those around you is to keep calm and be grateful to your editor. Editors never get as much credit as they deserve so the least you could do is show your gratitude.
Posting Online and User Testing
Although I’ve put this step at the end, the truth is I was working on it all along. If you already have a website you should have a clear sense of how you are going to integrate the new pages into the old structure. This may require significant changes to the way existing pages are written and organized. You should also make some sample pages so you have a sense of how it is going to look in the website even before you start writing. This will also give you a sense of what writing the pages you need to do (for example, side bars).
Once I posted the web pages then the user testing began. At first user testing seemed to me like this complex high-investment, time-consuming thing, involving heat mapping and special software with dozens of people. While user testing can be that, there’s also a lot to be gained by a much simpler and smaller process.
- Developing questions: I drew up four questions users would use the site to answer. The questions reflected common tasks and anticipated problems. For good measure, I added a general question at the end about any thoughts the user might have.
- Getting users: We developed a few profiles of our expected users and used email and social media to target people that approximately matched that description. In the end, I got about 10 users and while it would have been nice to have more, you will be amazed by how much insight just 10 users can yield.
- The test: Once users agreed to the 15-30 minute test, we set a time, and just before the test I sent them the questions and the site link. I then sat on the phone with them taking notes of what they said as they tried to answer the questions, describing to me the steps they are taking, why they are taking them, and what their impression of the site is. The trick for me was to give as little guidance as possible even when they asked for it; letting them simply explore and yet knowing when to ask a prodding question “why did you make that choice?” or “what led you to click on that page?”
- The data: I was surprised by the insights, both big and small, that the tests yielded. I recorded all the notes in one place, and highlighted things that I thought were actionable items. I highlighted green for immediately doable and/or high priority, yellow for longer-term and/or lower priority, and red when I decided something was not appropriate to act on.
The most important thing, even when this is done at a late stage of the game, is (1) not to skip it and (2) be absolutely committed to making real, even painful, changes in response to their feedback.
Some Parting Thoughts
The pages have only just recently been launched so it is difficult to say if the process was a success, but I have learned a great deal from doing it and I hope others will build on what I’ve done. I would like to close by acknowledging the invaluable editorial skills of Carina Vincent and Brenda Doner, and legal review of Julie Mathews and Elisa Mangina. I would also like to thank the Donner Foundation and the University of Toronto Faculty of Law for making a dream job possible.