Monday, March 30, 2009

Top 5 Reasons www.wsba.org Sucks

It's so easy to do a website right; why does the website of the Washington State Bar Assocation (www.wsba.org) stubbornly insist on sucking?

Broken Search Engine

The most unusual single feature of wsba.org is a centrally placed graphic inviting you to telephone them if you have trouble using the website. It is difficult to find anything on the web that is unique, but this graphic's frank admission that this website is hard to use is pretty rare. However, its implication is forthright and correct: it can be difficult to find things on www.wsba.org because the search engine is broken.

Enter a term into the tiny "Search" box (16 characters wide; longer search terms sidescroll adequately, but the box is limited due to being preceding by the word "seach" and followed by "go". Clicking on "seach" does nothing (a web standards violation) but when you click "go" (meaning "search") you get patently broken results.

Compare and Contrast

The search results we all know and love, whether from google, yahoo or msn live seach have a very similar look, and for good reason: it works!
  • Page title: This is a hotlink to the page itself, and its status as a hotlink is emphsized by distinctive fonting and underlining
  • Snippets: typically the first few words on the page, or in the case of documents, a description from the document metadata
  • URL
  • Misc.
Typically the seach results show at least five, and usually more, results without scrolling.

WSBA.org's search results are different. Each item in the search result consists of the following:
  • One meaningless word: In the case of web pages, this appears to be the file name, e.g. 1998proposal.htm. In the case of documents, it appears to be a word from the document metatext, e.g. "draft". This word is hotlinked to the page or document itself, but you can't tell that because it's neither in a distintive font nor underlined.
  • Red dots: These rank the results relevance, which is worthless since the ranking is apparent from the display order (that is, the most relevant results show first.) The red dots DO use up valuable page real estate because the rest of the search results won't appear under them.
  • The word "Abstract": This appears in every search result. It has no function except (A) to use the same font as "One Word" above, thus confusing the user as to what to click on, and (B) to emphasize the worthlessness of the next item: "Random Text"
  • Random Text: five or six lines of it! It appears that the site intends this to be snippetry, but it's not. In the case of webpages, these appear to be the navigational text from the web page. Let me restate this: every search result that is a web page includes as its snippet five or six lines of the freaking navigational text from the web page!: "About. Committees. Documents. Contact. Links. FIND LEGAL ASSISTANCE. PRO BONO COMMITTEE. LEGAL COMMUNITY CALENDAR. FAQ." Now, to be fair, in the case of documents, the snippet appears to be actual metatext from the document, which could actually be useful, although prolix; two lines suffice.
  • URL: Appropriately hotlinked.
  • Misc: Document size and last update
The search results fits about 3 results without scrolling, and usually more, results without scrolling. This is largely because of the five or six lines of meaningless words, but also due to the Wasted Width described below.

Non-ADA-compliance

Complaince with Americans With Disabilties Act is a proxy for easily used navigation. Like curb cuts and wheelchair ramps, the features that make a website usable by persons with disabilities also make it easier to use by everyone.
WSBA.org fails in many respects. In particular, tabbed navigation is extremely difficult.

Wasted Width

The website pages have width fixed at about 8 inches, and of that, half is used up in navigational features (on the left) and in advertising for internal site features on the right.. Thus the actual content, when view on a normal 10- or 15-inch monitor, is restricted to about 25% of the screen. This results in excessive scrolling. On small devices, e.g. Blackberries, the situation isn't much better due to the excessive use of side columns.
While WSBA is far from the only website to use fixed width (i.e. http://www.osbar.org/ ) its restriction of usable content to 25% of the web page is unusal among website that don't use the rest of the space to create revenue, typically by external advertising.

WSBA.org Blue!

Subsets of the site have an entirely different layout. When you click on "Lawyer Directory" or "MCLE Website", a new window opens (another standards violation) and you are presented with a website that has an entirely different navigational system, color scheme, and so forth. This is unusual; most organization try to maintain consistent look-and-feel across its website.

This "WSBA Blue" website has lookups of different databases. The public most likely uses the WSBA member information, called the "Lawyer Directory" on WSBA.org; to access it from the WSBA Blue site, you click on the "Public" tab. (The WSBA Blue "Public" tab is completely different in content from the WSBA.org "For the Public" tab.)

This Lawyer Directory has several pecularities evident when your search result has more than one entry.

You can have many reasons for getting more than one entry as the result of your seach. For example, you might be looking for a particular lawyer but all you remember is his name is "Johnson", first name starts with "H". Or perhaps you want a divorce laywer in Seattle. So you get to WSBA Blue and enter "Johnson" and click search. Or you enter "Seattle" in "City", pick "Family Law" from the "Practice Area" scroll box, and click Seach.

The first thing you notice is that the couple of hundred lawyers listed are sorted by bar number. This is a remarkably stupid, since if you already know the member's bar number, you'd simply search on bar number. It might as well be completely unsorted

But, if your search results go for more than 1 page, you've got bigger problems.

While the search result will cheerfully tell you that you have found 295 lawyers, it won't tell you how many it is showing per page or how many pages in all you have. In fact, there's no indication at all that you've got a multiple pages, until you scroll all the way down to the bottom, where there's a text "next page". In contrast, standard practice is to have: number of items, number on current page, number of pages in all, and a means of jumping to any later page.

Let's say you scroll through every page, and click to every next page. When you reach the last page of the search results, you don't necessarily know it; the "next page" link is still present, not even grayed out. It's no longer a hyperlink but it's the same color and font as its companion "prior page" link so you can spend time trying to figure out why it doesn't work.

You can try to save a little time by by clicking on a column header, thereby sorting the results by that column. This can convert your useless bar-number sequence into more useful sequence. For instance, you can sort your Seattle lawyers by last name, or your "Johnson" lawyers by first name.

Unfortunately, this breaks when you go to the 2nd page of results. Even though the sorted 1st page contains items from, potentially, every page in the query, when you click "next page" you're back to bar-number sequence again. Think about the implications of that for a moment.

This is the End

I've posted on this subject, because I've been involved with the WSBA for more than a decade and don't like my member dues going to support something that is unnecessarily ineffectual. I have drawn the attention of that organization to these issues on several occasions; nothing has been done except on the rare occasion when I got a pack of Washington attorneys to contact the WSBA and asking for a fix. I hope that presenting this publicly will result in some mild inquiries by the Washington lawyers who pay good money to support that site.

Or maybe it won't. One delightful thing about the maturation of the internet is that centralized data stores may become less relevant. The WSBA's leadership may simply fade away as other, more effective groups develop.

What can ya do?

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