Lately we have been working through some new designs for new partnerships as well as redesigning some existing sites. We’ve launched, a new resource that provides clear and easy guidance to tenants facing eviction. We also have a forthcoming redesign of, a hub of legal aid information in NY state. This has been an exciting time to rethink how we represent legal aid information through accessible user experiences and interfaces. This required usability testing.

Usability testing simply tests how usable a product is. Can users easily navigate the site? Can they interpret cues and directions accurately and quickly? Do our assumptions stand up to real life users? This step is often skipped in fast-paced development environments where stakeholders often think “we cannot afford to slow down.” However, it’s far more costly to just run off of instinct and anecdotes. As Erika Hall notes in her book Just Enough Research, “the faster you are proven wrong, the less time you will spend being wrong.” 

I myself am newer to the legal aid space. When presenting my findings, my colleagues here at Pro Bono Net noted that a number of these insights might surprise those who have been in this space for many years. Here are our top 5 things you may not have known about legal information website users.

1. “I don’t know what ‘Know Your Rights’ means.”

Know Your Rights is a fundamental section of our sites. Users can surf different topics and find answers to their questions. Most users don’t come to the site thinking “I want to know my rights around [issue]” but rather show up thinking something like “I don’t want to be evicted.”

It surprised us that few users went to Know Your Rights but rather gravitated towards headers with the word “help” such as “Get Help” or “Self Help Tools.” However, topic-based navigation was successful once users finally got there. So it seems this is a good route but needs a better, more understandable hook.

This may be accomplished simply by changing the language of “Know Your Rights” or may require some kind of additional heading such as “Browse different topics” or “What are my rights?” Regardless, these changes should be tested with end users.

2. “Users are in an emotionally compromised state.”

When testing the website we just launched (a site to help people in New York state avoid eviction), one user made an excellent point. Having faced eviction themself before, they noted “users are in an emotionally compromised state” as they are searching for help. Last year our colleague Tim Baran shared LawHelpNY’s experience with this and the need to engage with empathy during the pandemic.

The point here is that usability and experience are of paramount importance on a personal level. If a user is stressed and cannot easily navigate through the site, they may give up or suffer further frustration and distress. 

This means the user experience (the feel or vibe the user has) needs to be calming and inviting while avoiding being dismissive of the situation. The visual design such as color, iconography, images, illustrations etc. should also strike the same tone. This design by Kristen Argenio at Ideal Design Co. struck just that tone with our users for our Tenant Help NY website.

3. “I wouldn’t think of that as a legal issue”

The sociologist Rebecca Sandefur writes about how users “do not understand these situations to be legal.” This is a fundamental point for legal aid organizations to absorb.

In one scenario, we asked users to see if they qualify for SNAP. Almost all of them gravitated to the search bar. When asked about this instinct, they mentioned something along the lines of “I wouldn’t have thought of SNAP as a legal issue. I wouldn’t even expect it to be on this site. I would probably Google it.” 

This indicates that legal aid information with its wide reach needs to be presented in ways that speak to real situations and not heavily emphasize legal language or framing. Here you can see the pathway we expected users to take. Instead they either used the search bar or opened a tab into a search engine.

4. “Wait there’s more information?”

When we tested the Legal Aid Directory, where users use their legal topic and location to find organizations that can help them, we had a shocking surprise. Users didn’t know they could click on the listing to see more information. On the other side of that link is a whole profile page with hand-curated information on that organization and their services. They didn’t know it was there!

As someone who has worked on search products for many years, I was floored to find out this one. To me, it’s a fundamental and obvious assumption that a search platform that lists information about services in your area (such as Yelp) offers a profile page of that business. But you know what they say about assuming.

The issue was a lack of interactive results. When you want to lead users to a destination, you should put in enough icons, colors, buttons, and hover-over animations to make the user think “I want to click on that.” Below you can see both the older card design and the improved design in contrast.

5. “Still, I would use the search bar”

Lastly, we were surprised at how often users preferred the search bar over our topic-based navigation. So many users are used to being able to just find their answer right away in search engines simply by typing in some keywords.

The complication is that search is never the best thing to rely on. Walking users through structures you’ve carefully crafted will help them reach their results more accurately. People just tend not to know how to use search engines properly which rely on keywords rather than sentences. So instead of “Eviction NYC” someone might search “I am being evicted, how do I stop this?” 

The solution here isn’t easy but a good route may be providing users with search results that point them to topics that match their results. This is a way of rerouting users through the method they gravitate towards. They get to use the route most natural to them and then they get gently pushed over to the more structured path. Here is a heatmap of our mobile prototype test.

With these insights, we are left with a call to action around the way site navigation is presented to users, some necessary terminology changes, and a need to consider the emotional experience of the user more closely. I cannot advocate enough for usability testing. Meeting with your users and seeing how they interact with the product seems like an obvious step in any design project,  but it’s commonplace practice to blow right past this.

The good news is you likely already have the skills on hand to study and improve your design! Your research methods don’t have to be perfectly scientific to surface some relevant issues. Often a good basic research question alongside free screen share software is enough. You may not even need high quality mockup tools. Putting some shapes and text together on Google Slides can be enough to convey to your developers and designers what you need. Get into the mindset of asking good questions and being open to being proven wrong and you’ll find you can make more incisive improvements more swiftly than you thought.

Ariadne Brazo is the Product Manager for LawHelp and, digital platforms that help thousands of people each year solve life-changing legal issues and that strengthen the work of advocates serving them.