Legal software needs easy usability to succeed

This resource was also featured as a Industry Analysis in the March 2014 issue of LPM magazine. To read the issue in full, download LPM magazine.  

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Apple has often been derided for focusing on usability and design. This argument is commonly used to justify an unwieldy and complex alternative. And yet Apple’s dedication to design and usability has paid tremendous dividends in the company’s success.

The cloud is now an established and wellunderstood alternative to legacy desktop software. But as businesses look to the cloud for software to run their businesses, they are often confronted with two primary variants: traditional software that is effectively shipped to the cloud; “multi-tenanted” software, which is architected and only available from the cloud. In either case, as long as the software is hosted in a regional and ISO-compliant data centre, the security and privacy of a firm’s data is safe and secure and in line with local legal regulations. Beyond this, the differences and respective advantages are not clear.

The very definition of cloud is particularly painful in this regard. To many, it’s simply software that is now hosted outside one’s office – but this is too narrow and simplistic a definition. While remote hosting is certainly a component, the cloud affords new ways to design and deliver software which makes it extremely impractical to replicate in-house. Usability and user experience is a significant beneficiary of this.

BETTER USABILITY IN THE CLOUD

Getting well-designed hardware is particularly difficult because the costs and time between updates are considerable. These difficulties are also surprisingly similar with traditional software, regardless of whether they are hosted in-house or remotely.

Modern cloud software, however, is generally delivered as a ‘multi-tenanted’ system. This means the system is upgraded for everyone at once. The alternative (for the supplier) would be a logistical nightmare. A direct benefit of this for the law firm is not only the speed at which software upgrades and enhancements can be deployed, but also, critically, the frequency of these updates.

This has massive implications for usability and user experience. These are not terms you often hear, certainly not as a customer – but it has an equally large impact on productivity in your firm. A wellthought-out user interface, and the associated logic behind it, delivers a user experience that spurs user activity, engagement and improved adoption.

BETTER UPDATING AND UPGRADING

A host of consumer-facing cloud web applications you use today as an individual are continually being updated and enhanced to the benefit of the consumer. These changes are often small and subtle, but they add up. The trend now is to increasingly replicate this better user experience in business applications.

A common question we get from legal clients is how much it costs to get trained on software. We often respond by asking them if they use LinkedIn, Facebook or Twitter, and if they had paid for training on these platforms. Not training for the advanced features – but just basic training on how to use them. Predictably, we are told: “No, we just kind of figured it out. It was intuitive.”

There is absolutely no reason why business software should not target and deliver the same experience. Powerful business software does not need to be complex. Simple and elegant interfaces are not simplistic. A corollary of this, however, is that the code and associated computing infrastructure needed to deliver this experience is itself quite complex and expensive. Again, the multi-tenanted nature of modern cloud applications allows for the delivery of this experience more cost-effectively than a dedicated remote setup for a single customer, because the costs are spread across many users.

Try as we may, getting the user experience right the first time is as much science as it is art – and a bit of luck. But pairing an attentive and helpful support team with a strong feedback mechanism, and an organisational ethos devoted to relentless refinement, is a solid recipe.

The multi-tenanted nature of a modern cloud application allows for frequent and rapid deployment of feedback and enhancements, and this is ultimately what facilitates a polished experience. Compare this with legacy software and remotely hosted software, where the update cycle is typically once a year (and often longer) to coordinate internally.

BETTER DESIGN AND PRODUCTIVITY

An elegant and intuitive system is a joy for your staff to use. It facilitates collaboration, knowledge sharing and streamlines those essential administrative tasks that we all must do: timekeeping.

Good design is beneficial for office users and mobile users alike. With ever more staff working outside the office, the ability to easily update case information is a critical differentiator. Short of a complex setup and configuration of mobile devices, this is only possible if your legal IT system is a multi-tenant cloud system.

A great user experience also extends to your self-service portals – by making it easier for your clients to serve themselves and collaborate with your staff, you can dramatically reduce the time spent on follow-up and assistance, allowing you to focus on fee-earning activities.

Most studies about usability discuss it in the context of e-commerce and conversion – a number that’s easier to quantify. Productivity is much harder to measure, though not impossible. It can be measured on several dimensions relating to speed of adoption, quality of the output and the time spent doing these tasks.

A more direct way is simply to ask your staff and your customers.

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