Apple Easy: The Cost of Not Changing

For the past few years, I’ve been working with a client on a very cutting edge software development effort. I have to say that the most complex part of the project has been ensuring that the interface and the overall user experience remains simple and intuitive.

The marching orders were simple – follow the Apple model – make it easy. And that extended to the commercial, off-the-shelf, legal software tools that were integrated or skinned.

So with all this user interface, user experience work, I’ve become somewhat obsessed with ease of use, and the intuitiveness of the software tools we use in our daily lives.

Consequently I wasn’t surprised in the least when this tweet showed up in my timeline from Mark Garnish, Head of Development at Tikit Limited, in London, England:

Just had a review of a #legalit product I thought I knew quite well; I now realise I knew very little. So much functionality was hidden.

We went back and forth a bit:

@MarkGarnish Most #legalIT vendors could stand to invest in some serious UI/UX experts.

RT @jeffrey_brandt: Most #legalIT vendors could stand to invest in some serious UI/UX experts. < agreed but the cost of change can be high.

@MarkGarnish I’d argue the cost of not changing is higher still. Law firms will be simplifying.. those things not “iPad easy” won’t make it

Now I have no idea what product Mark was reviewing (he didn’t offer and I didn’t ask) because frankly, it’s irrelevant. It could apply to any one of the hundreds of legal software packages with which I am personally familiar (and possibly to hundreds that I am not).

Much of the software programs available today have abysmal UIs.

When you get to legal specific software, the rate seems to be even higher.

The user interface (UI) is but a component of the overall user experience (UX). Everything has an interface for you to use. A newspaper has its masthead and sections. A coffee maker has buttons and timers. An automobile has the steering wheel, brake and gas pedals.

Computer software has its own interface as well. The problem is that they are poorly written – not all of it, mind you, but much of it. Some newer software has improved on the UI, but without necessarily improving on the overall user experience.

Whether you are an Apple fan or not, it is hard not to be impressed by the Apple consumer experience.

The touch/gesture operating system and the elegant design of the software are amazing. Hundreds of thousands of applications are available through the iTunes store. It’s easy to find a tool that has the features you want and is easy to use.

Apple has even worked something as mundane as shipping and tracking the delivery of your new “iDevice” into the overall experience. You have been able to look up the routing of a FedEx package for years, but does it generate the same level of excitement? No. The Apple presentation of that same basic information trumps FedEx’s and adds to the user’s experience.

Contrast that with the corporate or enterprise software approach. It seems mostly a race to add more and more features and the user experience be damned. And the interface? With some tools it clearly seems to be an afterthought.

As a corporate user, you typically have no choice in what tools you will use.

They may or may not be easy to use, perform the functions you need or want, or interact smoothly with the other tools you’ve been given.

Getting some lawyers to use any piece of software can be difficult, but software with a convoluted interface and a million features is next to impossible. Users, accustomed to the ease of commercial applications and the simplicity of web applications and services, are demanding more.

Mark’s comment represents one of the big reasons that consumer technology is so widely and so quickly adopted – it is so easy to use.

Some legal IT software providers are starting to recognize the benefits of ease of use to their product offerings. Take something like Firmex, a virtual data room provider used to facilitate M&A deals, litigation, bankruptcy and fundraising. They spent over six months rewriting their platform, with UI at the forefront of their upgrade objectives.

“We knew that creating a more elegant and intuitive user interface would enhance our users’ overall experience with the product, and in turn improve our level of adoption,” said Elizabeth Caley, Firmex Vice President of Product Management.

So how do we move forward?

What should Mark tell the maker of the software he reviewed? It would be much the same thing I would tell any law firm with an internal software development team.

  1. First and foremost, if software development is your business, get some serious UI/UX talent on staff. These are different from programming skills.
  2. If your programming efforts are internal, consider getting outside assistance. You may have to go well beyond your traditional legal source to get good UI/UX skills.
  3. Remember that user interface, usability and intuitiveness rule over features.
  4. When designing, are you considering multiple screen types? The smaller the screen the more important UI becomes.
  5. With BYOD – bring your own device – invading the enterprise, you need to support more than Microsoft Windows.
  6. Adopt the user’s perspective. Simplify wherever possible.
  7. Remember that doing things simply often requires more time and more money.
  8. Tools that solve complex problems don’t have to have complex interfaces.

Yes, the cost of investing in UI and UX expertise is high. The cost of retrofitting or releasing new software is high as well. But there are vendors who are making those investments. Law firms won’t continue to invest in software with clunky interfaces that provide features over form, and offer users a mediocre experience at best.

Yes, the cost to create a clean, simple and intuitive interface and a great user experience is high. But the cost of not doing it is higher still. Because if you’re software isn’t Apple easy, chances are you won’t make it.

Connect with me on LinkedIn or follow me on Twitter @jeffrey_brand.  Let’s keep the dialogue going.

Jeffrey Brandt

Jeffrey K. Brandt is a former AmLaw 100 Chief Information and Knowledge Officer with over 25 years experience in the field of legal automation. He is the owner of Brandt Professional Services and the Editor of the PinHawk Technology Digest. You can connect with Jeffrey on LinkedIn or follow him on Twitter @jeffrey_brandt.