Yes, but Will It Blend? Feedback on the CanLII Beta

Blendtec makes amazing blenders, a fact well understood by millions of YouTube visitors that have seen the blenders make soup or dust out of iPads, glow sticks, bic lighters and many other objects one would not normally place in a blender. No matter your needs or level of sophistication, you can be sure the Blendtec product will deliver on its core promise.

So what is the “will it blend” question for a free, online legal research tool like CanLII? And is there a single answer to the question or are there many?

Common need, diverse practices

Regardless of the level of sophistication of someone searching an online resource, the need is generally the same: to find the object of the search.

Approaches to get to the desired result will vary greatly according to such factors as:

  • functionality of the tools
  • complexity and usability of the tools
  • the expertise of the researcher
  • the researcher’s familiarity and comfort with legal content
  • the researcher’s own appreciation or formulation of the question she is trying to resolve
  • whether the “object of the search” is a document, an idea or an understanding
  • time
  • and so many other factors unique to the researcher

Among Blendtec products, different users have the option of purchasing precisely the right machine to suit their needs so, for example, the home user is not needlessly intimidated or overwhelmed by an industrial-grade product every time he wants to make a smoothie. For online tools like CanLII, however, site architecture and functionality must strike a balance that supports the needs of all users without denying “power” or “professional” researchers the ability to apply their expertise to the search effort.

When it comes to the new CanLII site, there may well be only one “will it blend” question . . . per person, and the substance of the question will be as varied as the people and the circumstances that bring them to the tool. From the perspective of that person, meeting the “will it blend” threshold will depend mostly on whether the new CanLII site instills confidence that it will get them to the “object of their search” in a simple and convenient way, and a way they perceive as subjectively “better” than it was before.

Feedback to date

An appreciation for the diverse practices and needs of all users was front and centre with the redesign of the CanLII search tool as was an awareness that people assign much greater weight to any perceived loss than they do to any actual gain of equivalent (or even greater) magnitude.

While some people lament the Google-fication of the search interface and the attendant loss of the opportunity to craft complex searches targeted at a particular subset of collections within the database on the first screen (although the ability to do so remains on the second screen), others express great relief and appreciation that they can start with a broad search and then filter results with great precision.

Actual feedback:

  • I prefer the original CanLII – I find it easier to set my limits on that screen. If it’s not broken, don’t fix it!
  • It works well. I like that it can be narrowed down by jurisdiction after the initial search 
  • I am utterly at a loss as to what the benefit of a “single entry” search engine is. The current front page for CanLII is much preferable.
  • This is a much more robust search! I seem to be able to search with natural language and get cases on point. So much faster and effective.
  • The new search form appears to be lacking an advanced search option of the start. I find that this leads to unnecessary steps. I would like to be able to limit my search prior to performing the search
  • I really like the beta. nice look, intuitive and user friendly.

Since the release of the beta in early May, CanLII has received a great deal of feedback through the beta site itself as well as over Twitter, through LinkedIn and Facebook and directly via email or in-person. Based on this feedback as well as through implementation of planned enhancements, the team at Lexum (who, as most Slaw readers know, designed, operate and continuously improve the core CanLII experience) has been incorporating small and large changes to the beta site functionality throughout the summer. With a final switch-over and retirement of the “classic” CanLII coming this September, time is running out to add your views. We really do want to hear from you.

Déjà vu all over again

The last major change to the CanLII search interface was in 2007 and the “beta” window was substantially less than the four-plus months provided in 2013. As you might expect, on launch of the 2007 version, user reaction was mixed. I’ve pulled some of my favourite quotes from a Slaw discussion (names excluded, but the intrepid will have no difficulty connecting comments to commenters):

  • Is anyone as dismayed as I by the very recent changes to the CanLII site? Has it, in fact, made finding cases any easier? I miss the ability to go straight to the alphabetical list of cases.
  • yesterday’s performance was so slow I might as well have walked the 100 metres to the library and checked the books
  • Rather than reinventing a very good wheel, why wouldn’t CanLII get permission to use the AustLII form home page. That’ll define the content very nicely.
  • Heck, even the current BaiLII version is better than the old or present CanLII
  • Heck .. even Findlaw has a better interface.
  • Even IBM’s DOS 4.0 had a better interface.
  • The truth is that the appearance of the CanLII interface doesn’t matter a whit to me. It took me a sum-total of less than 90 seconds to figure out where everything had gone. 80 seconds of that time were spent blowing my nose. (I have a big nose.)
  • Maybe CanLII ran some focus groups; maybe CanLII did. If it did, the focus groups needed reading glasses.
  • I like the new CanLII interface. Perhaps it is because of my personal “when and why” for using CanLII.
  • Alphabetical case lists appear in AUSTLII and BAILII. There’s no valid reason for CANLII to not have them. Last I checked we use the same alphabet.
  • You can put me down as one of those who generally likes the new arrangement. It did take me a few moments to realize that the “table of contents” approach was available via the “databases” box, but after that it was clear sailing. 
  • I have a suspicion that those who design computer searching tools are unaware of the extent to which successful legal research is often a matter of serendipity or, if you like, just pure, blind luck.

It will blend

In the six and a half years since the last overhaul of the search interface, CanLII has roughly doubled in size: in visits, in page views, in content. Its users include more legal professionals, more public users and more legally-trained users brought up primarily on omnibox/federated search tools. The changes respond to the new reality while seeking to retain as much of the familiar and beneficial as possible.

In the coming weeks, CanLII will respond to detailed user questions and offer more insight and advice to users on how to carry forward and apply their expertise to the new environment. In addition, CanLII will soon launch a proper user forum where these debates and the feedback loop can take place in near real time and not just during major development windows.

In the end, we hope all users will come away with the confidence that yes, it blends!

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