August 5, 2010
Enterprise-Level Legal Search: Beyond Vendor-Dictated User Interfaces to the Multi-Vendor-Platforms Integrated UI
Remember those web portal pages we used to create to prove links to licensed resources and reliable websites by title and by topic? Remember thinking there has to be a better way to do this? Anyone who has taken Programming 101 knows that electronic resources are anchored on Planet Earth by being tied to a physical location in server memory. It all boils down in programming to addressing each one on their hosted servers which these days means linking to fixed URLs even when the protocol requires a secured URL that is IP-authenticated or user name protected for access. But that's not the better way I am referring to. Designing and implementing a multi-vendor-platforms integrated user interface is the better way.
The Problem and Its Solution.We typically license online legal resources from multiple vendors. While users may have difficulty finding the right database to use for TR Legal or Lexis, the more fundamental problem is deciding which database(s) to use across the entire range of offerings institutional buyers provide. In his recent post, Why spend money on a UI when all you want is the content?, Mark Gediman, Director of Information Services, Best Best & Krieger, describes the problem and the solution his firm has created:
Our firms purchase content from multiple vendors and it is becoming more and more challenging for our attorneys to find the materials they need. They would be able to work better if they can access the online materials in the same way they do on the shelf. On the shelf, West materials sit in the same section as Lexis and so on. We have built a UI (Full Disclosure: our UI is hosted by LexisNexis) that allows attorneys to find materials based on how they work, not who publishes them. A tab is set aside for each practice and links to online materials are grouped in ways that mirror the way their workflow. For example, under the Litigation Tab you would have items grouped by Civil Pretrial/Discovery, Civil Trials & CiviL Appeals, not by West or Matthew Bender.
This is where I think WestlawNext tripped up. I have been involved in contracts for Lexis and Westlaw for over 20 years and every one of them was content-based. Over that period, we have seen some major evolution in both of these products, not the least of which was the shift from a software- to a web-based search platform. Not once during this time have I been charged extra for the changed UI. Now, if this allowed me to search across multiple platforms I might consider it worth the premium. But I can’t see justifying the extra expense to search just the same resources that I have been able to search for years without trouble.
Best Best & Krieger's across-multiple-vendor-platforms in-house UI directly links by practice areas to West, LexisNexis (Matthew Bender), BNA, CCH and other vendors' online sources by title aka database (It also includes websites). This sure as hell beats portal pages in my opinion and points to the way legal researchers really want to access online resources. No more, which vendor questions. No more, how do I find the database offered by vendor X I need to use questions. No doubt a lot of work went into this. More lies ahead because Best Best & Krieger is working on a federated search function to add to this UI but even in its current iteration, the UI solves fundamental problems. One might say they have replicated library stacks for browsing electronic resources that is vendor neutral in the sense that one is freed from the vendor-supplied user interface at the start of the research project.
This is the way of future and at Best Best & Kriege, the future has arrived. From this perspective, one can understand why Mark thinks WestlawNext has tripped up. Before any vendor-supplied UI, before any SE improvements, content is king. While WLN's SE has, to quote Peter Jackson, TR Chief Scientist and Vice President of Technology, "baked [metadata] into the search algorithm itself. Previously, all that metadata was there, but it was really there for navigational purposes. It was there for the searcher to consume but it wasn’t actually informing the search engine" no SE is going to make a researcher smarter, not even if/when a fully evolved "Semantic Web" is deployed. Score one for content.
Online Legal Search Efficiency. TR Legal claims that WestlawNext researchers were 64% more efficient in completing their tasks than Classic Westlaw researchers based on the average time required per identical research project, saving a whopping but not quite seven minutes from 10 min. 51 sec. using Classic Westlaw to 3 min. 55 sec. using WLN. I guess this is a good thing if your WLN license for out-of-plan resources is going to be the hourly rate option. OY, I'm going to be 64% more efficient in finishing this post if I just avoid commenting on that "infometric" factoid. However, if we are really going to talk about online legal research efficiency, the across-multiple-vendor-platforms UI Mark's firm has crafted to provide their user population with a unified way to find licensed online resources is substantially more efficient.
Assuming LAW.GOV succeeds someday, imagine accessing metadata-rich primary materials relatively free (retrospective and complete), licensing whatever individual secondary sources one wants from commercial vendors -- one plus of the eBook distribution channel will be that users will see that this is both possible and what they want but without needing a dedicated eReader -- and a citation index just like one used to do when buying print materials for collection development by title. Then add developing in-house or acquiring a license to a commercially produced multi-vendor platform UI plus an in-house or commercially produced federated search function to it. Toss in adding in-house work product or whatever other files or websites you want. Also toss in being also be able to control how secondary sources are displayed so that users don't have to navigate through content slices, too, because that's just another programmable addressing function -- once again eBook users will be demanding more from legal database vendors than the current slices of content to improve usability.
The Future of eContent Acquisition and User Interface Engineering for Online Legal Research at the Enterprise Level. Someday licensing online content is going to be reminiscent of acquiring individual print titles for storing on library shelves. The bad old days of creating web portal pages containing links to individual CCH BNA, etc., databases, reliable websites and links to Westlaw and Lexis generally to try to inform user populations of what is available will be replaced with an across-multiple-vendor-platforms user interface like the one Mark and his firm have developed in-house. In other words, I do believe there will come a time when licensing online sources replicates how institutional buyers once acquired print sources, that is by title ("database") because we will be in a vendor-dictated independent or "neutral" world where our institutions' workflow processes define the parameters of how we provide electronic resources.
TR Legal's stopwatch approach to legal research efficiency for WLN, noted above, echos back, unintentionally no doubt, to the turn of the 20th Century approach to task-oriented optimization of industrial work tasks. Henry R. Towne quoted from his 1886 paper in the Forward he wrote to the 1912 edition of Frederick Winslow Taylor's Shop Management:
To ensure the best results, the organization of productive labor must be directed and controlled by persons having not only executive ability, and possessing the practical familiarity of a mechanic or engineer, with the goods produced and the processes employed, but having also, and equally, a practical knowledge of how to observe, record, analyze, and compare essential facts in relation to wages, supplies, expense accounts, and all else that enters into or affects the economy of production and the cost of production.
Our very expensive legal search vendors are not the ones who will "ensure the best results." We, the institutions who license online legal resources, will be. I'll be retired before the multi-vendor platforms UI with a federated SE is commonplace and I don't know how many other institutions have implemented similar improvements to legal research efficiency but congratulations to Mark and his firm for being at the forefront of this development. While Mark mentions that his firm worked with Lexis on this UI (read, I think Lexis has also seen the future), others may want to investigate the solutions offered by AgentLegal (read before TR Legal realizes that the future is fast approaching so it better not ignore it by not acquiring the company).
Tying Print Holdings to Electronic Resources at the Enterprise Level. While the multi-vendor platforms integrated UI may be the wave of the future, Greg Lambert has offered an excellent suggest for improving current vendor-supplied user interfaces at the level of the institutional buyer:
For every title that your law library subscribes to in print, the Westlaw or Lexis databases should identify those titles whenever they come back in a search result or database lookup. In my opinion, it should do so regardless of if you also subscribe to that same title in its electronic format.
See Greg's Tying Print & Electronic Resources - Is It Too Late To Save Print? for details. [JH]