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The law: let me Google that for you

There’s an interesting anomaly when you look at how young people use the Internet. They use it for everything: to shop, socialize, waste time, find jobs, and pretty much anything else you can think of. What they don’t seem to use it for is to help them to solve their legal issues.

Catrina Denvir from the University College of London set out to look at this anomaly, and has released her initial findings. It’s fascinating, especially since we spend so much of our time and energy making legal information available online. To talk about this though, we’re going to have to pull the current back a bit and share some of our experiences making legal information websites.

The study

Ms. Denvir’s preliminary work looked at 100 students aged 18–24 from the University College of London. Participants were given six questions based on a hypothetical scenario (having to do with either housing or employment) and asked to try and answer them without the help of the Internet. They were then allowed to use the Internet to either verify or revise their answers.

So, how did they do?

The good

The Internet did increase the students’ knowledge and helped them answer the questions. On average, the students answered more questions correctly when they were allowed to use the Internet.

This is fantastic! Considering how much legal information we put online, it would be really disheartening if the opposite was true.

The bad

Students typically spent less than 10 minutes searching for answers. When you look at legal questions — and we don’t know how complicated the questions the students were asked were — 10 minutes doesn’t seem like a long time. From our perspective though, this isn’t too surprising. People’s attention spans are short on the Internet.

Some participants didn’t consider jurisdiction when looking at information. The Internet rarely recognizes borders. Search engines can lead people to sites outside their own jurisdiction, which is why it is so important to identify that our information is about the law in BC.

When students went to look for answers, they focused consistently on search engines. They rarely browsed through sites or used search functions in sites. This isn’t necessarily bad, but it isn’t good either. It means that sites need to make sure that they are in the top Google search results for pretty much everything they cover. For example, being on the first page of Google for “divorce” isn’t good enough; you need to try and cover as may iterations of questions around divorce as possible. That isn’t an easy task.

The ugly

Just because they could use the Internet to find information about the law and their rights didn’t mean that the participants knew what to do next. Despite knowing what their rights were, they often couldn’t identify what next steps to take. In a bit of serendipity, this is a problem that we’ve been mulling over for a while now. User testing of print and online information is critically important to make sure that people can take action. We are increasingly aware that you can have a fantastic pamphlet explaining the law, but if it doesn’t explicitly lay out what the next steps are, people will often flounder. We’ve been including clear steps in many of our publications — our self-help guides for example— and we’re working to include more of that in the future.

What does this mean?

It means that the Internet can be an effective tool for helping people solve their legal problems, but you need to meet users — not just youth — on their own terms. It’s a bad habit to think that just because these people have a legal problem, they will adapt and consume the information the way that we want them to. It’s not an easy process, but it’s an important one. Lately we’ve been putting more and more effort into putting ourselves in a room with the people who use our publications and finding out what works for them and what they want to see. That is ultimately the lesson that we need to take from this.

Catrina Denvir’s full report will be available early in 2014.

–Nate Prosser, Online Outreach Coordinator

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