Smart Design Accommodates the Smartphone and Tablet User

March 05, 2013 John Simpson

This article was originally published in the March 2013 edition of LJN’s Legal Tech Newsletter, a division of ALM.

All of us, including your clients, are using portable devices to access the Internet at a rapidly growing rate — and they’re not just “liking” things on Facebook.

Look around the room at the next meeting you attend. How many iPhones, iPads or other mobile devices do you see? Most likely, you’ll notice more coworkers and clients toting mobile devices and tablets than last year — or even six months ago. And you can probably expect that number to increase. We’re moving into the Mobile Age — and, like technology, we’re moving quickly. This article addresses how your firm can make its website (more) mobile-friendly and more effectively engage mobile audiences.

Recently, One North Interactive partnered with Spada Research to conduct a survey of in-house legal officers across the U.S., UK and Europe. See, Building Relationships with Global General Counsel: How Firms Can Use Targeted Content and Experience to Win and Retain Business. In that survey, general counsel ranked clear navigation and relevant, valuable content as the two most important features of law firm websites.

We know that clients — and potential clients — are using mobile devices to view law firm websites. But do you know how each format can alter your site’s appearance — and how to maximize users’ experience, no matter what device they’re using?

Proactive, mobile device-friendly design can help ensure your site conveys all the necessary information to all audiences. Following are some suggestions.

Create a Mobile Version of Your Site ASAP
Although tablets often feature a full-screen view, visitors most likely won’t automatically be able to access all parts of your website on a smartphone. If you don’t currently have a smartphone-friendly version of your site, and initial checks indicate key parts of it are not compatible with mobile devices, don’t wait until your next site redesign to address the issue. Firms can deploy a mobile version of their site fairly quickly — usually in a matter of weeks — for a reasonable cost.

Design for Mobile Devices First
Desktop users will be able to access websites designed with mobile device and tablet users in mind — but the reverse isn’t always easy or pleasant, especially from a usability perspective.

Sites that are designed primarily for desktop computer users rely on visitors viewing the site on a large screen, using a mouse that lets them click on small buttons, links and other elements. Tablet and mobile device users, however, navigate with their fingers — which, when viewing a scrunched-up version of a desktop-friendly website, can make it difficult to click through to certain areas (provided the user can even see the links on a much smaller screen). The solution is simple: Design your firm’s site with mobile and tablet users in mind. Site elements that work for them will work for everybody else.

Construct a Site That Works on Different Devices
Screen size can vary from device to device; a mobile site that’s easy to read on an iPad may look very different on an iPad mini.

Designing multiple versions of a firm’s website to accommodate each type of device isn’t a practical option for most firms. However, responsive design — a method that’s gained popularity in recent years due to its ability to address screen size, image and other issues — may be.

Responsive design allows you to access information about each site user, including the user’s browser window width, which can indicate what device the viewer is using to read your site. Using a layout with fluid grids that snap into place to accommodate various screen sizes and images that are automatically resized to fit the page, responsive design allows you to present site content in a format that provides the best user experience — because it’s tailored to the device the viewer is using. Bostonglobe.com is a great example of a website that uses responsive design to deliver an exceptional user experience on all devices.

If you decide to use a more standard type of design in lieu of a responsive design approach, be aware that, due to screen size, pages that are perfectly readable on a desktop computer may not translate well on a mobile device. If you overload pages with long lists of links or hard-to-see visual elements, you risk frustrating mobile device visitors. To avoid users clicking on the wrong link — or not being able to read the page at all — space out the various page elements and include fonts that are large enough to decipher.

Make the Most Crucial Information Clear
Websites serve as an important calling card for firms. The “Building Relationships” survey found that when choosing a law firm, most general counsel ask trusted sources for recommendations and referrals.

General counsel and company executives who are looking for information to confirm the firm is as skilled as their referral source indicated are often the critical audience for law firm websites. They expect to find pertinent firm member information easily, particularly on smartphone-friendly sites.

First and foremost, attorney search needs to be simple and effective. Visitors are sometimes searching through thousands of attorneys on a law firm website, but it shouldn’t feel that way. Firms’ primary objective should be to make it less laborious for users to find attorneys and their contact information, especially on mobile devices.

Consider Including Original Content
Thought leadership items — such as whitepapers and blogs — convey that firm members are up-to-date on recent case law, an important indication that they will be able to accurately help clients.

Adding blog posts with popular legal industry and case-related keywords on a regular basis will also help your site pop up more often in searches. According to Google, the number of times that terms appear on a webpage is one of the vital signals its search algorithms look for; multiple references in a post can potentially improve your ranking when users search for information about the topic.

However, mobile first rules still apply. Optimize your content for mobile consumption. Key information should be featured at the top of each page. Opt for short, punchy text that users can scan and read quickly — and consider adding elements like subheads and bullet points to break up page content.

Firms may also want to forgo including some of the more text-heavy elements on the mobile version of their site, such as archives listing all articles firm members have published — or multi-page descriptions of the firm’s history and timeline.

Use Touch-Friendly Design
It’s important to keep a few key design principles in mind when crafting a site specifically for handheld devices:

  • Forgo “rollover” functionality. A laptop or desktop computer can handle a drop-down menu that appears when a user’s mouse hovers over part of a Web page. However, users tap, swipe or pinch when using a smartphone or tablet. To ensure they can access all necessary parts of your site, include tap-or-click-to-view menus or accordion-style drop-downs that allow users to click on an item to reveal additional information.
  • Keep navigation simple. Mobile site viewers may not have the patience to flip through page after page of content that’s organized in a traditional website-type architecture. Instead, have them tap and scroll through a condensed version of your site, featuring less pages with more concise content.
  • Touch technology can make the mobile experience engaging and fun. To ensure users don’t get lost, consider including consistent navigation — such as a site map-style list at the bottom of each page with links to all sections in the site — or navigation that’s anchored to the top or side of the page, which allows users to easily engage with other parts of the site once they’re done with what they’re currently reading.

Only Offer an App if It Makes Sense
Apps rank higher in usability than mobile device sites — apps had a success rate of 76%, compared to mobile-specific websites’ 64%, according to a Nielsen Norman Group report. See Mobile Usability Update.

However, be aware that apps often require updates. Because apps push maintenance responsibilities to the user, you will be relying on clients and potential clients having the knowledge and time to download new versions.

Providing users with an app that doesn’t do much can also make a firm actually look less tech-savvy. Sites that are good candidates for an app include ones that perform complex data calculations or processes that would benefit from being used offline. Kindle, for example, works as an app because people like that they can access their books when they don’t have an Internet connection.

What’s Next
No one knows exactly how mobile Internet devices will change in the future, but one thing is clear: They’re not going away anytime soon.

Because smartphones and tablets offer unparalleled opportunities to keep in constant contact, they stand to change the type of business relationships firms have with their clients. For example, attorneys and clients can now meet virtually via Skype and videoconferencing programs to discuss cases, eliminating the need for clients to have to come to the firm’s office.

In addition to increased access and a higher level of customer service, mobile devices allow firms to create a deeper connection with both current and potential clients. Before clients access your firm’s site on their cell phone or iPad, ask yourself: Am I utilizing the allotted space and functionality to accurately communicate my firm’s brand? If you can’t answer that question with a quick look at the mobile device-friendly version of your site, chances are, clients won’t be able to either.

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John Simpson Chief Executive Officer

John Simpson is one of One North’s founders and serves as the Chief Executive Officer. For more than 20 years, John has been helping professional services marketers engage with their clients and grow their organizations through brand-based digital marketing experiences. He is a frequent author and speaker as it relates to relationship development, digital strategy and marketing innovation.

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