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Law Office of Robert J. Ambrogi
16 McKay's Drive
Rockport, MA 01966
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October 2005

Two Unique Formats Enhance Sites' Usability

By Robert J. Ambrogi

Two very different Web sites offer two surprisingly similar lessons in how a site's structure and organization can make all the difference in its usefulness.

One, LawyerLinks, is a new corporate-law research service that so effectively organizes its materials using a topical index that its developers see no need to include full-text searching. The other, the recently redesigned Web site of the Defense Research Institute, offers a lesson in how portlets - small, customizable content panes - can be used to dramatically enhance a site's navigability.

Let's start with LawyerLinks. While its no-search approach might seem radical, it initially struck me as retro. Upon first using it, I remembered long-ago days of hard-copy research when my initial approach to a problem might have been to pick up a treatise and browse its table of contents. Finding a chapter that seemed on point, I would read it for an overview of the key legal issues and considerations.

LawyerLinks is somewhat like that treatise of old, with a significant difference - it goes far deeper into the topic than any print treatise ever could. Its developers say they designed it to reflect the way lawyers work. To my mind, they have succeeded.

The concept is simple: LawyerLinks organizes all of its materials using an index of key terms and phrases. The index is made up of more than 1,000 terms, from "10-K" to "hedge fund registration" to "variable interest entities." Materials are also organized by topics, such as "Delaware corporate law," "financial reporting" and "NYSE/NASDAQ requirements." These terms and topics are further organized into broader collections, among them SEC and Banking.

The left panel of your browser displays a list of topics and terms. The contents of this list vary depending on the collection you have selected. Click on a topic, such as "asset-backed securities" from the SEC collection, and the page that appears to the right provides a summary of SEC law, recent developments related to the topic, and a collection of deeper links providing more detailed information on key issues relating to asset-backed securities.

Each term and each topic is a visible tip of a much-deeper iceberg, allowing users to drill deeper and deeper into a subject, with the left-hand navigation pane always visible. Materials contain extensive hyperlinks to related materials within the collection.

The aim is to provide quick links to core information while eliminating "false positives" from research results. The collection is highly focused, targeted at corporate and securities law matters, but includes a broad range of materials within that area, including statutes, regulations, interpretative materials and Delaware court decisions. It is also up to date, with new materials added daily.

So confident are LawyerLinks' developers of the intuitiveness of their index that they provide no full-text searching. This is a shortcoming, to my mind, one the developers say they may eventually address. But its index-only approach is successful in enabling users to zero in quickly on relevant results.

LawyerLinks offers a 30-day free trial, after which users must select either a pay-as-you-go plan - presently about $1 a minute - or a group subscription of $1,495 per user per year.

Pages of Portlets

A much different sort of site is that of the Defense Research Institute, but it also illustrates how navigational elements can dramatically enhance a site's usability.

DRI is a national association of defense lawyers. Much of its site is restricted to members. DRI recently redesigned its site and provided me a temporary password to explore the new features.

DRI's objectives in restructuring its site were to enhance its navigation, organize its content in a more intuitive manner, and add services and tools to make the site more useful to its members.

To achieve this, DRI made effective use of two distinct types of page elements - a navigation banner and content portlets.

Every page of the site displays the same banner across the top. It contains tabs that serve as the site's primary navigation tools. The tabs point to general sections of the site - About DRI, Committees, CLE Programs, etc. - and mousing over any tab displays a list of subsections. The banner ensures that a user is never more than one click away from anywhere within the site.

On each page, all content is organized within portlets - boxes arranged in columns providing various types of information. Some of these portlets appear on every page of the site. Others appear only in the sections to which they relate. Still others can be added or removed based on the user's preferences. Users can minimize any portlet so it appears as only a title bar and then expand it again when needed.

Once logged in, two portlets appear on every page - DRI Service Center and Member Service Center. These provide quick access to membership services, event registration and key services such as the DRI's expert witness database.

Other portlets appear only in appropriate sections of the site. For example, go to the Litigation Services main page, and it includes, among others, a portlet providing quick access to the Web sites of every federal and state court in the United States.

These navigational elements enhance the many features DRI's site offers its members. Among the more notable of these:

  • Committee sections. DRI has two dozen committees focused on distinct areas of law. Each committee has its own section that includes a discussion forum, a document-collaboration tool, daily news feeds and access to related books and seminars.
  • DRI Online. This feature consolidates all DRI seminar materials and magazine and newsletter articles in a single location where users can search them by keywords or browse them by topics.
  • Litigation Services. DRI's site includes an expert witness database with information on more than 65,000 plaintiff and defense experts - including trial and deposition transcripts, articles and CVs. It also provides a legislative tracking service enabling members to track and view federal legislative information provided by DRI and Congressional Quarterly.
DRI has long made its site the repository of useful resources for its members. Until this redesign, however, the site could be difficult to find one's way around. By using consistent navigational elements and the flexibility of portlets, DRI has achieved a dramatic improvement in its site's usability.

Together, LawyerLinks and DRI show that creative approaches to organizing content can significantly enhance a site's usefulness for its intended audience.


© 2005 Robert J. Ambrogi.