This is a live blog post from a private meeting of large law firm knowledge management professionals. The topic is new model intranets / portals with a focus on user interface (UI) and user experience (UX).  


Perhaps the most important element of any software system is the user experience. User interface is a subset of user experience. The UX reflects the overall experience whereas the UI refers to screen design.

Refers to Steve Jobs commencement address at Stanford around 2005: Jobs attended a Lloyd Reynolds class on calligraphy and typography and reporting that led to his focus on design. Jobs quote: “Design is not just what it looks like and feels like. Design is how it works”.

Design is not just about how something looks. You have to start at the beginning with design. “Behavioral design is all about feeling in control” say Don Norman, an engineer and industrial designer. Example: door handles that don’t tell you whether to pull or push. Similarly, software should convey to users what it does.

“A common mistake that people make when trying to design something completely foolproof is to underestimate the ingenuity of complete fools.” Douglas Adams.

“Content precedes design. Design in the absence of content is not design, it’s decoration” Jeffrey Zeldman

“The alternative to good design is bad design, not no design” Douglas Martin


Many law firm intranets are ugly. Joshua Fireman cites comments of many lawyers about their firms intranets, for example, “The first page is where you don’t want to be”

The first generation of intranets focused on putting physical binders on the web. The second generation moved to “matter centric” because all law firm content has a client-matter number. Designers reasoned that aggregating this way would be useful. It had limited utility. Now, in third generation, the focus is on the practice and how lawyers work.

In moving forward across generations, we have learned:

  • Focus on consumption and produce. Make sure you understand use cases.
  • Overcome the obsession with legacy content and legacy design. Users may be wed to old designs – get over it!
  • The practice of law is about more than data integration. Lawyers don’t practice around data integration – it may not matter to them. Focus on problems lawyers are trying to solve not data integration.
  • Matter numbers are NOT purpose. Don’t put too much reliance on matter numbers. Matter numbers say nothing about roles and work to be done (personas). You need to design around different “user journeys”


Firm rolled out its fifth generation portal in March 2012. The firm had several primary goals: functionally driven, personal and role based experience, mobility focused, unified collaboration system. Secondary goals: social and search. It took almost one year to roll out.

Functionally Driven. Firm interviewed lawyers to learn what they do and how. Design portal around functions that lawyers need to perform. Process was driven by the ethos of mobile apps: think about what needs to be done and how to optimize interface and experience for that. Acknowledges, however, that lawyers had a hard time articulating this. Firm showed lawyers a lot of wire frames to get feedback. Also involved staff.

Roles and Personas. Work to understand how different users do different tasks. Responsible partner has different role than associate than secretary. Audience member points out that interviewing lawyers about their needs is a difficult task. Firms may need to hire outsiders, including designers or anthropologists to capture the real requirements. Alternatively, firms may need to conduct field studies, where someone sits and watches how lawyers actually work. Firm presenting used volunteers in firm to determine this.

Audience questions use of volunteers, expressing concern that the volunteers may not be representative. Many don’t respond to surveys. Some say they have been able to involve the nay-sayers. Engaging lawyers has two purposes. One is to understanding real needs. Another is to build acceptance and support (change management). A few interviews may give you 80% of what you need to design… but do many more to assure buy-in and vet results.

Unified Collaboration. Unified internal and external system.

Project Steps
1. Conceptual requirements
2. Current state analysis (figure out purpose of existing features)
3. Business requirements
4. Card sorting
5. Wireframing
6. Functinal requirements
7. Implementation

Discussion and Audience Participation.
In the current generation portal, users can change virtually as screen elements except search, App Store, and “take me to” button.

Secretaries focused on who (can help), what (needs to be done), and how (the firm’s policies).

App Store has 40 apps. Most are around financial data. Also includes a project management and budget tool. Eventually – the grand vision – is that all vendor-specific, thick clients will become apps on portal.

Question: how does customized selection of apps affect support? Portal team has to provide support to help desk.

Question: with paradigm of iOS or Android app store and MSFT Surface, do we need to shift paradigm, specifically that we have a single operating system and all the apps live in OS? One answer: NO, because too hard to make apps aware of each other and integrate data across apps when they live independently in the OS.