Principles of Attorney Web Design - Part 3
The next step in the attorney website design process is to take what you've learned from the client (normally a lawyer or other legal professional) and use it to create a design. Regardless of the website, try not to get caught up in the technology associated with building the site-- at least not at first. At this point, it shouldn't matter whether your lawyer's website is going to comprise straight HTML, a template for a content management system, or a Ruby on Rails application; the bottom line is that we have an interface to design and a blank sheet of paper. Paper? That's right, paper. Did you really think I was going to let you get back to your precious computer right after the meeting with your attorney (client) was over? No way. Here's why: it's easy to lose focus on the design if you start thinking about the website layout in front of a computer. If you start out on paper, you can ignore the technical limitations of browsers and CSS, and focus on how you want the final website to look. Now you might think that all good attorney web designers carry around fancy hardbound sketch books in which they use expensive markers and paint to design masterpiece renderings of web page layouts. For me, the equivalent is a 79-cent spiral-bound notebook and any writing instrument I can find on my desk that still works.
I start out by sketching a few possible layouts. After a few of these sketches, I decide on one I like, jump into Photoshop, and use the rectangle tool to block out the areas I've marked down on my paper. Once I've defined my layout, I experiment with foreground and background colors until I have a solid color scheme. I continue twiddling the Photoshop knobs and pushing around pixels until, finally, I have a website comp to show the attorney.
Simple, right? Okay, perhaps I skipped a few steps in that brief description. Honestly, though, when people ask me how I create designs, they usually get a similar explanation. The truth is that there are bundles of now-subconscious information from my past experience and those old college design and art classes that have helped me to define my own website design process.
Learning how to design websites for laywers or other professionals is like learning how to program. Some people have a bit of a knack for it, but anyone can learn. Just as there is good code and ugly code, bad lawyers and good lawyers, there is good design and ugly design. Learning some of the principles and conventions that are associated with web design will help you to understand the difference between the good and the ugly, and help you toward establishing your own design process.
Defining Good Design
There are two main standpoints from which most people determine whether an attorney's website design is "good" or "bad." There's a strict usability standpoint, which focuses on functionality, the effective presentation of information, and efficiency. Then there's the purely aesthetic perspective, which is all about presentation, hot animations, and sexy graphics. Some attorney web designers get caught up in the aesthetics and graphics and forget about the user, and some usability gurus get lost in their user testing and forget about visual appeal. In order to reach potential customers and retain their interest, it's essential to create your lawyer's website that maximizes both.
The most important thing to keep in mind is that attorney website design is about communication. If you create a web site that works and presents information well, but looks ugly or doesn't fit with the client's brand, no one will want to use it. Similarly, if you make a beautiful web site that isn't usable and accessible, people may not be able to use it. Indeed, the elements and functionality of a finished web site design should work as a single cohesive unit, so that:
Users are pleased by the design of the lawyer's website, but drawn to the content
One of the biggest concerns among usability professionals is the time it takes users to scan the page for the information they want, be it a piece of content, a link to another page, or a form field. The design should not be a hindrance; it should act as a conduit between the user and the information.
Users can move about easily via intuitive navigation
We'll talk more about the placement of navigation later, but the main navigation block itself should be clearly visible on the page, and each link should have a descriptive title. A navigation structure that not only changes appearance on mouse hover, but also indicates the active page or section, helps users recognize where they are, and how to get where they want to go. Secondary navigation, search fields, and outgoing links should not be dominant features of the page. If we make these items easy to find on the lawyer's website, and separate them visually from the content, we allow users to focus on the information, though they'll know where to look when they're ready to move on to other content.