A user interface is like a joke. If you have to explain it, it isn’t very good.
That pithy turn of phrase speaks to a critical concern in a tech-enabled world. The user experience is paramount. People are impatient. If users have to search around for a button to click, they get annoyed. If the desired action then takes more than 0.1 second to execute, they start to get bored. Technology that is frustrating will not be used. Technology that is not used is not worth the investment.
Design is not how something looks, it is how it works. Design thinking has rightly become a central in tech. A premium is placed on user interfaces that are clean and intuitive. Clutter is the enemy of clarity. If users are incapable of navigating the product successfully, the first thought should be about product design, not user error.
Yet the idea that technology should be intuitive can go too far. Returning to that clever comparison between a user interface and a joke, reflect on how few jokes are actually universal. Some straightforward physical comedy is accessible to everyone. But most jokes require context. Jokes do not translate well because of the norms and nuance that make a good joke funny. Good jokes have depth.
It is entirely possible to create an intuitive single-purpose technology. Many smartphone apps are examples of software designed to do one thing well, quickly, and easily. But as soon as we start wanting depth, we encounter trade-offs. Buttons, menus, and settings proliferate as we demand a more feature-rich, customizable offering.
Exhibit A for clean but powerful user interface is Google. A simple box. Type some words. Click a button. In under one second, Google has ranked 60 trillion webpages in terms of responsiveness to our query (something it does 3.5 billion times per day). More often than not, the webpage most relevant to our search terms will be among the first options presented—only 5 percent of search traffic goes beyond the first page of results.
We click on the best match. Then what? How do we find the location on the webpage that contains the text relevant to your search? According to Google’s search anthropologists, 90 percent of us skim down until we find the applicable section of text. Only 10 percent of us know how to use the “find” function in our web browser to locate text within a page.
“Find” is a useful feature. It is also an obvious feature once you know it exists. But not until then. If 90 percent of the web-using population can’t figure it out, it does not qualify as intuitive. Yet the fact that it is not intuitive is not necessarily evidence of deficiency. Find-in-page could absolutely be a prominent part of the browser interface. But so could many other features. A streamlined user experience means making hard choices.
Most people are surprised to learn that Google itself offers a six-week course on how to use Google. There are many ways to perform better Google searches using operators, punctuation, symbols, and filters. To understand what that depth looks like when translated into a user interface, Google “advanced search.” You will discover that considerable depth is added at the cost of simplicity.
None of this is to impugn Google. Google delivers a streamlined user experience that is sufficient for 99 percent of the population. But they also retain functionality and depth that rewards power users. Offering both is the way to cut the Gordian Knot of the trade-off between usability and depth. This triumph, however, does not change the fact that those of us who need the deep functionality still have to sit down and learn how to use it.
Thinking about Google this way should also give us pause in considering the other technologies we use on a regular basis. Isn’t the basic functionality of Word about as intuitive as it gets? Open a document. Start typing. Text appears on the screen. Don’t most of our frustrations with Word emerge when we start to produce more complex documents—i.e., when we need the deeper functionality?
Word is not a single-purpose app. Rather, Word is a word-processing ecosystem. All of those buttons along top ribbon are apps—i.e., targeted solutions to specific problems. But how many Word apps do most of us really use? Not many (just like on our smartphones). Because we’ve never been trained.
And because of our pervasive belief that training should be unnecessary—technology is supposed to be easy.
Today’s technology is easy. As long as we don’t need it to do too much. Most people are fine with a standard Google search or using Word for simple typing. Legal professionals are not most people. The searches we run—think legal research, due diligence, e-discovery—are complicated. The documents we produce—motions, contracts, exhibits, e-filings—are complex. We actually need to work at becoming proficient with the standard technology tools of our trade.
Because our expectations are misaligned with our reality, we underutilize the technologies intended to support us. Matter management, email, document generation, spreadsheets, e-discovery, legal research, etc. The tools we have are powerful. But they are also deep. Using them as intended means actually taking the time to learn how to use them as intended.
With permission from Clio, who provides cloud-based practice management software, the above is adapted from Debunking Your Everyday Tech Myths.
Darth Vaughn is a partner and director of legal process services at Haight Brown & Bonesteel. Casey Flaherty is of counsel and director of client value at Haight Brown & Bonesteel. Darth and Casey are both principals in the legal operations consultancy Procertas and authors of the Legal Technology Assessment.