The Large and the Small of Attorney Website Design
BY Kristen Friend STAFF CONTRIBUTOR
Websites are simultaneously getting bigger for desktops while shrinking for mobile devices. Optimize your web presence by designing for both.
Back in the ancient online days of the late 1990s and early 2000s, web designers, marketing firms and the attorneys they worked for enjoyed a simpler time. Many people still relied on traditional yellow page ads rather than search engine results to find legal help. Because of more limited technology, most users accessed the Internet on the same types of machines with the same browsers and similar monitor resolutions. A lack of social media gave law firms more control over their marketing and message.
Times have changed. People are looking at your firm’s website on everything from a 46 inch television screen to a 22 inch monitor or a 10 inch tablet or even a super thin, small screen mobile phone. Internet Explorer has lost its hold on the web design industry as more and more people use alternative (and more compliant) browsers like Firefox and Chrome. Website designs are trending toward big impact with simple design, larger graphics, interactive elements and user-friendly functionality.
Your firm can and must keep up. Integrating both the big and the small of modern design into one overall marketing strategy is key.
The changing winds of current design trends
Website design trends, like user expectations, are evolving rapidly. Websites designed for desktop browsing increasingly utilize oversized elements like large headers, generous graphic features, full screen images and big, bold fonts. Websites are no longer being designed and optimized for a specific screen resolution. Their boundaries are fluid with content or background elements intended to flow to fit any monitor size. Conversely, websites that are small or closed in with fixed borders quickly look dated. Modern websites need room to breathe.
But, beware. Just because there is more space to fill does not mean it must be filled. Excessive bells and whistles distract from the goal of conversion and more clients. If bigger is better, simplicity is best. When your message is on track and your design is well thought out, you do not need gimmicks.
Think for a moment about how your website visitor feels. How can a potential client be prompted to take action when he or she is confused with blinking animation to the left and scrolling marquees to the right? Simplicity relaxes them while complexity and an overabundance of choices will tire them. It is likely that potential clients visiting your firm’s site are already under stress. Give them a space to relax, feel at home and make the decision to contact you.
Functionality as a design trend
Above and beyond individual design elements, perhaps the biggest design trend of the year is the move toward increased functionality. It is not enough for a law firm’s website to just look good. It has to function and communicate. Users have come to want and expect both beauty and brains in website design.
For a time, the entire focus of web design was making a website as pretty as possible. And certainly, developing a good looking website is still a laudable goal. But, those were heady times for Flash developers as the program enjoyed its heyday and designers strove to work Flash elements into many web projects. Often, and sometimes even intentionally, this was done to the detriment of website functionality.
The needs of web users and the interactive capabilities of html5 have come together to render Flash obsolete and make functionality king. Flash is bulky and unnecessary and will not even function on some popular mobile devices. Users expect to be able to access mobile specific or at least mobile friendly sites, and if your firm’s website does not work in a mobile environment, they will immediately look elsewhere. Alternatively, clients or potential clients who are able to easily access your firm’s website will always have your contact information at their fingertips. They can also quickly forward your firm’s information or website address to others, adding to your ability to get new clients through word of mouth.
Mobile websites must take simplicity and convenience to a whole new level.
Mobile devices present their own set of unique design challenges. Mobile website design differs from traditional desktop design in several ways, the most obvious being display size. Websites designed for smartphones and tablets have to make a big impact on a small scale. They also have to take into consideration potential limitations on bandwidth and speed. And, the ability of users to control the orientation of the screen by turning a phone or tablet both horizontally and vertically adds yet another level of complexity to the size equation.
So, in three words: simplify, simplify, simplify. A one-column design with collapsible menu elements generally works best for mobile websites. Navigation should be distilled to the basics. Links to pages people visit the most must be very prominently displayed.
There are distinct differences in link experience from desktop to mobile sites that are partly a function of size and partly a function of tapping as opposed to clicking on links. Mobile sites need large, easy to tap links. There is nothing more frustrating than accidentally and repeatedly navigating to the wrong page, waiting for the previous page to reload and then trying again.
There is also no hover state on mobile website links. A hover state is commonly used for effects on desktop websites like color changes or drop down menus. A mobile user cannot hover their finger over a link and produce an effect, making links more difficult to detect. Reduce the number of clicks it takes for the user to get to important information or to perform an action. This is good practice for all websites, but particularly important for mobiles sites where the touch screen environment makes finding and selecting links more difficult.
Your firm does not have to, and should not, think of a mobile website as a completely different product, distinct from a desktop-oriented design. Both sites function as part of an overall marketing strategy, and should be treated as such. The manner in which your firm communicates with potential clients and the emotional appeal your website uses to connect with them can be adapted to the strengths of both platforms. Large images or graphics can be scaled down for use on mobile devices. Although an image may have to be adapted, it can still be used to make a consistent emotional connection with your clients. The same can be said of color palettes and other design elements.
Intuitive and easy to use navigation should be employed on both desktop and mobile sites. Do not bombard your users with options. Tell them were to go. The average user may object to this classification, but in reality they do not want to explore, they want to be directed. They want to be told what you think is important and navigate accordingly.
CSS3, a programming language used to style websites, allows designers to use graphic elements, like gradients and rounded corners, without bulky images, making them easier to load on mobile devices. It can also be used to develop resolution-aware layouts wherein websites can test for a user’s screen resolution and load appropriate styles accordingly. Your firm can take advantage of these advances to create a fully integrated and effective online marketing strategy.
Apply the large and small of design to your firm’s website
Modern web design trends can and should be adapted to attorney and law firm specific needs. As an attorney, your website is an increasingly important tool. It is a showcase for your practice, your attorneys and your firm’s unique offerings. It is a vehicle to tell your story to people who are looking for an attorney and to those who are not but who may remember you when they are. It is a method for establishing professionalism and credibility in the eyes of clients and for making your firm memorable. And, most importantly, it is an opportunity for conversion.
All marketing and branding involves building an emotional connection with potential customers, and, in the case of attorneys, clients. Attorneys can take advantage of trends like bigger images and simplified color schemes to foster that connection with users through a unique emotional appeal. Presenting a direct, easy to understand message with bold graphic elements can pull users in and push them to take action. Simple, easy to understand navigation serves the same purpose.
Ultimately, you want users to respond to your website by contacting your firm. You want to bring browsers in so you can turn them into clients. Adapting your firm’s website to meet the needs of all platforms, large and small, is critical to achieving that goal.
The control which designers know in the print medium, and often desire in the web medium, is simply a function of the limitation of the printed page. We should embrace the fact that the web doesn’t have the same constraints, and design for this flexibility. – John Allsopp, A Dao of Web Design