Navigation, Information Architecture and the new the house that users built


Teri Ross, Illinois Legal Aid Online

Two years ago, my employer – Illinois Legal Aid Online or ILAO – embarked on a journey to transform its products and services. ILAO’s mission is to increase access to justice through the innovative use of technology. At the time, ILAO hosted five separate websites (and two mobile apps) designed for five constituencies:

  • English-speaking people in Illinois with civil legal problems
  • Spanish-speaking people in Illinois with civil legal problems
  • Legal professionals (lawyers, paralegals, law students, etc.) who were interested in volunteering or already volunteering on a pro bono basis
  • Legal aid advocates practicing in Illinois
  • Donors, potential donors and the press

While there were five URLs, the websites all relied on a single, content management system, custom built on ColdFusion. That content management system relied on the National Subject Matter Index (NSMI) as its information architecture. For those of you not familiar with this term, information architecture or IA is the frame to the house on which your content is built. See Wikipedia for more detail.

The NSMI served the  of our websites’ content pretty well for the last 10 years, but it presented several problems:

  • It was developed by committee (need I explain why that is a problem?)
  • It is enormous (see above)
  • It is inconsistent (see above)
  • It is an internal-facing architecture only (it is not meant to be navigated by people who are not legal experts)

It was this last point that caused us the most angst. We wanted an IA that could be used both for content organization and content navigation. Here is how our IA looked for people browsing on the old

Screen Shot 2016-09-05 at 14.18.03

The image is cropped to save you the extra wince; all told, it contains 30 ‘areas’ of law. Highly problematic for people drilling down to their legal issue. For example, for someone with a car repossession, where do they click? After looking at this list, maybe they may go to the search bar at the top, but probably they just grunt and go to Google. They most certainly would NOT go to ‘Consumer Law’ which is where this information appears.

Our old site relied too heavily on search and (obviously) paid little attention to browse. Learn why search is not enough. We wanted something that would equally accommodate users regardless of their web navigation preference.

So we committed ourselves to developing something new, but we tried to be smart and start with what we already knew and what others had already done. We started with our partner’s existing triage rules (drafted by the thoughtful and passionate legal aid attorneys at LAF, Prairie State Legal Services, Land of Lincoln Legal Assistance and National Immigrant Justice Center). We also borrowed some of the framework developed by the now-retired (and sorely missed) Kathleen Caldwell and used in Maine’s Find Legal Help tool.

The trickiest part of developing this kind of framework was not working through the details at the lower levels (the discrete legal issue), but how to categorize legal issues at the highest levels. I am sorry to admit that our first attempt at top-level categories looked a lot like the above screen shot. We immediately tossed it. Then we went the other way and wound up with this:

  • My family
  • My home
  • My business
  • My money
  • My rights and freedoms

We thought we were on the right track. So we mocked up a paper prototype and a user test and sent staff out into the streets of downtown Chicago to ask people where they would click to find information about specific legal problems like eviction, divorce and bankruptcy.

Here is what we found:

  1. ‘My’ can be confusing, particularly in the family context. If you are looking for how to protect yourself from an abusive partner, would you click ‘My family’?
  2. Some words – like ‘home’ and ‘business’ have varying interpretations. The best example of this came from a woman who was asked where she would click to find information on child support. She answered, “Child support? That’s my business.”
  3. Categories need to have similar levels of detail and weight. Otherwise, you have everyone clicking on the ‘dumping ground’ category of ‘my rights and freedoms’.

After four or five rounds of user testing, we adopted these top-level categories for the new

  • Family & Safety
  • House & Apartment
  • Money & Debt
  • Work & Business
  • Health & Benefits
  • School & Education
  • Citizens & Immigration
  • Crime & Traffic

An important note is that some legal issues appear in more than one top-level category. Examples of this are sexual assault, disability issues, utility problems, discrimination and child support. So there is not always a single path to a legal issue. Adding this level of usability to the IA makes navigation better for the end user and accommodates for the human variance in how people label their legal problems. But it also causes some additional work for staff who are managing the content and developing the back-end tools to use it. We think it is worth it.

Please check out our new website at and let me know what questions, suggestions and comments you have.

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