In 2009, Wolters Kluwer (WK) launched a web-based legal research system called IntelliConnect. The site incorporated a wide array of WK's print content from publishing brands such as CCH and Aspen. Within the law librarian community, the product launch generated a lot of negative opinions. Seeking to rehabilitate the product's image, WK invited several law librarian bloggers to the company's offices in New York a few weeks ago for a day of presentations and meetings. Full FTC disclosure: I accepted the invitation, with WK footing the bill for my flights, hotel room and a festive Cinco de Mayo lunch, as well as providing a per diem to cover other meals and transportation.
My exposure to IntelliConnect since its launch has been intermittent. This parallels my experience with the company's print products. Services like CCH's reporters are primarily practice materials, and as an academic librarian who does very little research in the tax and business arenas that WK specializes in, use of these materials is hardly a daily event. Nor weekly.
It's for that reason that I think my reaction to IntelliConnect upon launch was more positive than a lot of my colleagues. WK had placed its materials online prior to IntelliConnect in a manner that essentially matched its print products, thus you needed to know what content each title contained in order to use the materials. Much like the classic Westlaw and Lexis, you needed to know where something relevant would be found before looking for it. IntelliConnect, however, incorporated federated searching with faceted results, allowing users who didn't know with any specificity where the useful content for a query was to search the entire system at once and find matching content regardless of its location or print title.
While I found this to be a vast improvement over the old system, the federated search model, and its accompanying move away from print organization, upset a lot of longtime users. And therein lies the seemingly unsolvable problem for Wolters Kluwer: How do you make all types of users happy?
Power users of IntelliConnect's CCH/Aspen/etc content know what's there, where it is, and expect the ability to go straight to it with as few clicks as possible. New and less frequent users than that group, however, might prefer a system they can log into and navigate with ease, guiding them to the material they're looking for even when they don't know where it is.
The initial launch played more to the needs of the latter group, with content organized by type (case, explanation, etc.), rather than practice area. This provided a major source of complaints from power users who wanted materials organized by publication title. Since the launch, WK responded to these complaints by reorganizing its content by practice area, a change that should make a big difference in usability to those users. Of course, for the non-power users this means the "CCH for Dummies" interface is gone. Personally, I wish the company could find a way to integrate both organizational models without one getting in the way of the other. I'm not sure how this could best be accomplished, and without a concrete suggestion to offer, I have to agree with WK that pleasing the existing user base has to be a higher priority for the company right now.
WK added a number of other features since the launch, including navigational enhancements like "next document"/"previous document" buttons, book browsing and full document path information for every piece of content in the system. All of these features are being added in response to user suggestions and complaints, while indicative of real problems in the initial product launch, demonstrates that WK is unusually responsive for a high end legal information vendor.
Beyond what's already been added, the company has several enhancements slated for release this year. In July the front page of IntelliConnect, currently a mostly blank screen void of useful content other than a search box will be replaced with a number of links to the user's "favorite" materials and a number of support documents that are currently buried within the system. More importantly, the system's "browse tree" will be visible on the front page, allowing users to immediately browse the system's contents without having to click the small "Browse" command first.
Also on the way is a "Titles A-Z" list that provides users an easy way to view and find every title included in the current subscription. Coupled with a "Title Finder" search box, this will finally allow a user to know what they've subscribed to without needing to navigate a confusing backend interface.
From a content perspective, IntelliConnect is a valuable practitioner resource, providing searchable electronic access to CCH's goldmine of looseleaf publications, as well as a number of Aspen publications. Despite the confusing branding on IntelliConnect's homepage (the URL says "CCH," the browser title bar says "IntelliConnect," and the page banner says "Wolters Kluwer), the company says IntelliConnect is intended to be the online presence for all of WK's legal information content, including (eventually) LoisLaw, the primary law database recently purchased by the company.
With all of these positives to recommend IntelliConnect, there is one aspect of the system that gives me pause: user interface. The layout of the system is something akin to a 1990's CD-ROM product running Folio Views. IntelliConnect's browse tree is constructed with threaded menus in which a user has to click on a small plus sign to expand the next level of the menu. The more levels down a user drills, the farther to the right the links are indented. And because this navigation pane is constructed with HTML panels, that means the titles become hidden behind the main content pane, requiring users to either scroll with a horizontal scroll bar or grab the panel's border and change the width of the nav pane. Is this functional? Yes. But it's not optimal nor is it in line with current web design norms.
The use of frames raises a larger issue than just the ease of navigation, which is overall browser functionality. One of the reason HTML frames fell out of favor in the last decade is that they render the URL visible in the browser's address bar unusable. That URL reflects the address of the page containing the frames, not the addresses of the frames currently loaded within that page. As a result, a user cannot copy and paste the visible URL into an email or another browser window or post a link to it on an intranet page so other users can access the precise material being viewed at any given time. Instead, if I email a colleague a link to the case I'm reading, when he or she tries to open it, it will load the IntelliConnect home page. In most situations, IntelliConnect's built-in email mechanism provides a workaround, but the functionality remains inconsistent that provided by most internet sites. The one place where there is no workaround is the browser's refresh button. If, as sometimes happens in IntelliConnect, a page doesn't load properly or freezes, users expect the refresh button to reload that page. Because frames are used, however, clicking the refresh button reloads the IntelliConnect home page, taking the user back to the beginning of the research trail. Frames can also break the browser's "Back" button (a common glitch in classic Westlaw), though this is less of a problem now than it used to be.
Another problematic issue with the interface is that it isn't compatible with all browsers. In fact, if a user loads IntelliConnect in anything other than Internet Explorer, a warning appears informing the user that he should use IE. While the system seems to work okay in Firefox despite the warning, it is effectively broken in both Safari and Chrome, with important buttons rendered unclickable or even invisible in those browsers. While many legal information providers rely on the accepted wisdom that all law firms are Windows shops that force employees to use only Internet Explorer, this ignores the realities of attorneys who prefer a different operating system or browser and ignore firm IT mandates when possible. And given what I see in the law school environment, where about 50% of students are now Mac users, as the current generation of students and young lawyers gain seniority in firms, the Windows-only mandates will evaporate. When questioned on the issue of browser compatibility, the folks at WK assured us they are aware of the problem and want IntelliConnect to be cross-browser compatible, no details as to what they're doing to fix the problem were offered nor a target date for when a fix would be in place.
Apart from technical concerns, the UI simply isn't consistent with design norms currently used across the web. This is a vague complaint to elaborate on, so I'll use an example within WK itself: AspenLaw.com. The colors, fonts, nav structure and browsing experience on this site are consistent with both contemporary concepts of what's "pretty" and what internet users have been conditioned to expect from popular sites like Facebook, Google or CNN. Upon selecting a publication series from the Student Central menu, the product listings are displayed in a two column layout, with facet navigation on the left and results on the right. Neither of these columns are frames. Each of the search facets list a few of the most popular categories by default, which tells the user what the facet title actually means, with a link to expand the list further if necessary. Selecting a specific item from the results loads that document in its own page with a permanent URL. To get back to the search results, a user need only click the browser's back button. No special training is required to navigate the site because it operates exactly the way most of popular sites do. AspenLaw.com illustrates that WK has excellent web designers (a distinct role that is separate from the web developers who actually build sites) at its disposal to design user interfaces for its products. I hope at some point the company asks them to tackle the IntelliConnect UI.
These UI complaints do nothing to detract from the high quality of IntelliConnect's content or the ways in which it organizes the content in response to user needs and suggestions. But with an updated look and feel that incorporates the ways users already navigate the web, the rich WK content provided in IntelliConnect could become not just functional but intuitive.