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Looking Back at 14 (+) Years of IllinoisLegalAid.org

By Gwen Daniels on March 02, 2015

This Sunday marks the 14th birthday of Illinois Legal Aid Online. When ILAO began, it had a staff of 3, Drupal had just released its first version, WordPress didn't exist, ColdFusion was at version 4.5, there was no iPhone or Android, and we were lucky to have 800x600 pixel monitors. Today, we have a staff of 18, mobile traffic makes up almost half of website visits, there's no such thing as a standard screen size, and open source content management systems are mature, with Drupal at version 7 (almost 8).

A few weeks ago Lisa shared her vision for the future of ILAO, today I'm taking time in this post to look back at the evolution of our public website, IllinoisLegalAid.org.

IllinoisLegalAid.org: Pre ILAO

Illinois Legal Aid Online did not create the first version of IllinoisLegalAid.org. Under a contract with Land of Lincoln Legal Assistance Foundation and with funding from the Illinois Bar Foundation, Claire Parins and I developed the first version of the site back in 2000 while we were both employed at the Sargent Shriver National Center on Poverty Law. Claire and I would both go on to work at ILAO; Claire as Director of Content & Training from 2002 to 2004 and me as Director of Technology Development beginning in August 2004.

The original site leveraged Shriver Center's content, featured a program directory that consisted of the (then 4) LSC-funded programs and CARPLS as well as a listing of law school clinics and a client library marked "Under Construction." It was developed with Microsoft FrontPage and was entirely static. There was no stylesheet, no database, no content management system.

IllinoisLawHelp.org: 2002-2005

While Claire and I worked on the static website, the community came together to create Illinois Legal Aid Online. In November 2000, I was part of a small group of people that attended ILAO's first strategic planning sessions. We'd go on to become the organization's collaboration board. The very first project for ILAO: build a better statewide website. So, Claire and I transferred the domain and the site to ILAO. IllinoisLegalAid.org became the website for legal aid attorneys and paralegals. IllinoisLawHelp.org became the domain for the general public.

In 2001, the IllinoisLawHelp.org site launched as a static website with both a richer, more inclusive legal aid directory and a growing body of legal content.

But the 2001 version was just a placeholder site - we needed to get something up while the team went to work building a much more ambitious system. The new system would use a unified content management system that would allow anyone with permissions to create and edit content and then feed it to any of the three websites initially created (AyudaLegalIL.org wouldn't become a reality for another decade).

In 2002, the first version of IllinoisLawHelp.org that integrated with the statewide CMS was launched.

Back to IllinoisLegalAid.org: The 2005 Redesign

On March 31, 2005, we launched a redesign of the public website. This was my first major project working at ILAO. We ended up making some major changes from the prior version, after looking at usability testing that showed that the public had a hard time picking the right bucket in which to categorize their legal problem, web stat studies that showed that many users never saw the home page and went straight to pages on the site from Google, and studies that showed that the public knew the term legal aid.

First, we switched the public website back to the IllinoisLegalAid.org domain and acquired IllinoisLegalAdvocate.org for the webstie dedicated to the legal aid community. Second, we turned the home page into a search page. If our users were already familiar with Google, then why not give them search as the navigation structure? We also redesigned the content pages. Because so many users came directly from Google, we wanted to give them everything they could need on a single page, so we started displaying organization referrals directly into the content pages.

We'd largely stick with this version of the site for the next decade, adding new features and functionality over time. There were a few behind the scene updates: in 2008, we redid the stylesheet to use one modeled off of the stylesheets created when we updated the attorney sites and content managment system in 2007, we ditched ActivEdit for CKeditor, and we ugraded ColdFusion a few times along the way.

A Decade Later: The Drupal Era

And now, if you've been following along with this blog, you know that we're doing a complete rebuild of our entire platform in Drupal. In some ways, we're coming full circle. The new "one-site" vision will send all audiences to one site, rather than the four separate sites that we have now. We are focusing on getting something online, much like ILAO did in 2001, by initially launching our MVP (minimally viable product) version in or around March 2016, we hope. We'll still have search on the home page, but we'll be adding a true navigation system back in as well. And the structure of that navigation is looking a lot like our earlier versions with major categories to 'Find Information' and 'Find Legal Help.'

One thing hasn't changed between 2001 and 2015: For the two million users of our public site, our goal remains to get them to the best available resource we can to help them solve their legal problem (whether that be a referral to legal aid or self-help), so that they can understand their legal options, make informed decisions, and if necessary, represent themselves in court. Three things that are key for us in this rebuild:

  • It has to work well for everyone, whether they use a desktop, tablet, or mobile device and whether or not they use assistive technology.
  • Our content has to be usable and findable. We're doing a lot of work around content strategy - rethinking our content model and information architecture. We are learning that how lawyers label legal problems is not always how the public thinks about their problem.
  • Our referral model has to be accurate; we really aren't serving anyone by providing them a list of phone numbers for programs that may not help them. I've spent the last couple of sprints working on defining how we capture and categorize organization information, working off of the OpenReferral model and thinking about how to better integrate our organziation data model with our online intake and triage system.

So, it is on the cusp of this very exciting transformation that I wish Illinois Legal Aid Online a very happy 14th birthday!

-Gwen

p.s. All images of IllinoisLegalAid.org and IllinoisLawHelp.org. from the Internet Archive.

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