How Usable Is Your Website?

Although these days most lawyers and law firms have some form of website, the ability of those sites to not only attract visitors, but to prompt those visitors to take action (fill in a contact form, call the firm for a consultation, etc.) varies widely. That may be due in large part to how easy the site is for web visitors to use, known as “usability.”

People read and consume information differently online than they do offline. For example, people tend to skim or scan web content; they’re looking for specific information. Rarely do web visitors read large quantities of text on a website – at least until they know that text contains the information they are looking for.

But you don’t have much time for your web visitor to make that determination. According to Jakob Nielsen, considered by many to be the foremost expert on web usability, the average page visit lasts a little less than a minute, and the first 10 seconds of the page visit are critical for users’ decision to stay or leave. That means that you must clearly communicate your value proposition within 10 seconds to have any hope of gaining user attention.

Photos and Images

In today’s increasingly visual world, graphics and images can be an important strategy for gaining and holding attention on law firm websites. But it is important to use those images correctly. According to Nielsen, eye tracking studies reveal that website images can either be extremely effective or completely ignored (and therefore harmful, since they take up valuable real estate on your site).

What is the difference?

Images that are “purely decorative” tend to be ignored entirely. By contrast, images considered to be an important part of the content, including photos of real people (as opposed to stock images), draw visitors’ attention. “[U]sers still prefer websites that focus on the information they want,” and that includes information conveyed by images.

Nielsen’s Tips for Using Images and Graphics

  • Use graphics to purposefully illustrate content
  • Ensure that your graphics do not create visual clutter
  • Label graphics and photos to clarify their relationship to the text, where necessary
  • Label any photos of people to enhance recognition
  • Edit and crop photos appropriately for the page
  • Make sure animations do not distract from important elements on the page
  • Consider appropriate placement of animations – they may be more effective on internal pages than on the Home page
  • Do not force web visitors into video, audio or animation without warning – let them choose whether to play something, rather than making it the default

Web Page Layout and Text

Lawyer websites tend to be text-heavy. Although photos, graphics and other visuals can be helpful, using visuals doesn’t mean eliminating text from your site – again, most people who will find your site are doing so because they are looking for information. Text needs to be there to provide that information and detail where the web visitor is looking for it, but it needs to be conveyed quickly.

Nielsen notes that web visitors still prefer important information to be located at the top of the page, but they will still scroll if:

  • The layout makes scanning easy; and
  • The information at the top of the page conveys that the additional information will be valuable to them (and therefore worth the time and effort to scroll).

But beware of large blocks of text. As Nielsen says, “A wall of text is deadly for an interactive experience. Intimidating. Boring. Painful to read.” In fact, it is number four on his list of the top 10 mistakes in web design.

How to Make Your Writing More Suitable for the Web

If reading is done differently on the web than it is in print, you need to change your writing style to accommodate the web visitors’ needs. In a short period of time, you need to capture their attention and make your content scannable.

Place important content at the top of the page. Web visitors don’t have time for lengthy introductions, and you only have 10 seconds to convince them that your site contains the information they need. Give them that information right up front.

Use headers. Guide readers through your content with headings and sub-heads to introduce important topics. This allows readers to skim for the important information and to stop and read in more detail if they find something particularly valuable.

Write short paragraphs. Even those who will read a lot of content on the web if it is engaging and interesting are less likely to read large blocks of text; it is intimidating online and may make users leave your site. Instead of following the ‘usual’ rules regarding paragraphs, make them smaller – only a few lines of content per paragraph.

Use callouts for important information. Sometimes, important information doesn’t lend itself well to a header. In that case, you might use a callout to highlight an important point.

Keep it simple. Leave out legal jargon. Avoid complex or long sentences. Use the language and words your clients use when they talk about the issues they need your help to resolve.

Use bullet points rather than full sentences. They are easier to skim and highlight important information without using excess words.

Limit font styles, text sizes and colors. Too much design can distract from your message.

Incorporate visuals to accompany content (data visualization). Enhance your reader’s understanding by using charts, photos or illustrations to supplement or in place of text in some of your materials, but follow the guidelines above.

These tips are only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to web usability. Navigation, consistency, use of white space and many other factors will enhance (or detract from) the usability of your site. But since law firm sites are about educating clients, potential clients and referral sources, conveying information about the firm, its lawyers and its practice areas, focusing on the main design elements and the readability of your web content should go a long way to increasing user satisfaction with your law firm website.


  1. Susan Anderson Behn

    I think this topic is overdue, and would suggest that there are useful websites and truly terrible ones. I use these websites very often, sometimes just to see who else is in the firm these days, or to look at the expertise on a particular topic found among the listed associates.
    I would like to make two important points;
    There should be a clear picture of each person in the firm, right down to the worker bees who might be assigned to a file and the person(s) who answer the phone…the client needs to know who the people are, who might be working with them…visuals are very important, especially when the client has not been involved with the law before.

    The individual contact information for each person should be embedded in the online profile…email should be enough….but direct phone line if your firm has that option.

    It doesnt hurt to have one of these on the site, but if the person browsing your website can send an email to an individual, its more likely to generate the kind of detailed discussion that leads to some paying work than an abstract on-line form….especially since the viewer has no idea who in the firm screens these things…

  2. Consider how your website will look and operate on mobile devices. A website that can’t be accessed (or accessed properly) from a mobile device in 2012 is useless.

  3. Miss Shields makes many good points.

    It is a good thing that most lawyer’s sites are really awful, so the good ones really stand out.

    Lawyers may know the law, but they are terrible marketers and they tend to fall prey to a lot of nonsense from SEO con artists and amateur web site techies who think they know how to create good advertising.

    That is like using a bricklayer to design you building instead of an architect.

    Listen to Shields. A lot of her stuff is motherhood, but it is not bad