Do Lawyers want bad visual design?

I attended a design talk where startup and tech companies’ designers were sharing notes about what they’ve learned about what kinds of visual and interaction design best connect with users. One of the designers mentioned that you have to sometimes throw out the “core principles of good design” for certain audiences. He was talking about lawyers.

Before his current consumer-facing job, he had been working for a legal technology company about a decade ago. When their design team at the legal tech company was doing research about their target users — lawyers in law firms — they were shocked at what preferences they had. Essentially, lawyers wanted (or said they wanted) everything that designers have been trained not to want. The product the designer was trying to build was a “Google for Lawyers” and the lessons their user research was as follows:

Lawyers want bad design

  • Lawyers want maximum overload of information in response to queries they do
  • They want it listed out in detail, with lots of information packed onto the page
  • They don’t want white space, they want text covering as much of the screen as can fit
  • They want lots and lots of controls, all kinds of filters and sorting mechanisms

This is all anathema to “good design”, which says that instead, you should give users:

  • A curated set of information that is displayed selectively and staged, so they can gradually dig into more
  • Hide the details until a person has decided that they want to see them
  • Give lots of white space for breathing room, don’t crowd the text
  • Give a small menu of controls — the most commonly used and powerful ones — and bury others in ‘More options’, otherwise the user will be overwhelmed with choices

The question I have is, do lawyers really want the “bad design” or is it just that they have been only given bad designs and then convince themselves that this is what they prefer, and feel most empowered by? Does having all the information and controls always on the screen really help them be more efficient, knowledgable, and effective — or should designers/developers impose on them a cleaner, and more directed experience?

Thinking to the design of financial-professional-television programs, with so much text layered and scrolling over a central image, it seems this affinity for “bad design” is not just a legal professional issue.

What would be interesting is empirical analysis, to see if the text-overload style of design does in fact improve lawyers’ ability to parse information, find the most relevant pieces of it, and use it intelligently — and to do it in an efficient and pleasant way. This could then be compared to a “good design” version of the same tool, to see if the white space and limited information/controls does prove to be a better tool and a better experience.

And of course underlying the design question is also the quality of the tool. If, for example, a Google for Lawyer tool does not have a strong algorithm underlying it, then perhaps it is better to give more info and controls to the professional, for them to make up for the parsing that the tool can’t do well.

Any thoughts? It’s interesting, if there needs to be a parallel (or perpendicular) set of what “good design” looks like when it comes to lawyers.