Steven Johnson’s “Interface Culture” is a thoughtful exploration of the interface between technology and its users. For a book published in 1997, Johnson’s analysis is in parts quaint, yet remarkably prescient. It includes accurate predictions about the future of digital technology and its interplay with entertainment, culture, journalism and politics.
Lawyers also operate at an interface between users and a complex system. In my view, much of Johnson’s analysis and the language of interface design can be extended to understanding professional legal services and predicting how it will evolve over the coming years.
The digital interface
Although some of the terminology is decidedly 1990s (including chapters entitled ‘desktop’ and ‘windows’), Johnson’s underlying analysis of an ‘interface’ remains useful today. Johnson describes the interface as a “translator”, mediating between two parties. On one side of the technology interface are ones and zeros. On the other is something comprehensible: a document, picture, map or video.
Johnson says there is “no such thing as digital information without filters.” It is trite, but worth being reminded, that we cannot read a long string of bits: 00100110. Everything we do and see in the digital space demands an interface before we can comprehend it, both in hardware and software. Everything from excel, Google and Facebook, to the iPhone and credit cards, are interfaces. Johnson predicts that “as more and more of the culture translates itself into the digital language of zeros and ones, these filters will become increasingly important.” He predicts a “personalised newspaper” (think Facebook news feed) and agents which program a generation’s taste in popular music (think Spotify). He says that information space is “the great symbolic achievement of our era,” and we “will spend the next few decades coming to terms with it.” If anything, Johnson underestimated just how radical the changes would be and how long we might need to adapt. The last couple of years in politics across the globe have shown that we might need much longer than a few short decades to come to terms with tech’s unabated march into our economies and culture.
Lawyers at the interface
Lawyers too operate at an interface. On one side is a complex, often overwhelming, legal system. On the other is a client needing concise, accurate advice about their particular circumstances. Just as an iPhone display showing only digital bits would be useless to the user, a full law library would be useless to a lay client left to fend for themselves. The sheer volume of information would be overwhelming and unnavigable. It is the lawyer’s role to filter what is important. Lawyers are information filters and translators; they are a client’s interface with the legal system.
One of my favourite examples of interface design thinking from Johnson’s book that we might apply to understanding legal practice is the (unfortunately named) ‘magic lens.’ The magic lens is uncannily akin to Google Maps – an interface which, on the user’s command, changes the information resolution of a document. Critically, Johnson acknowledges that “surplus information can be just as damaging as information scarcity.” Zoom in and you get lots of detail. But zoom out and you want that detail to drop away, lest it overwhelms the big picture. A road map at a country level would be impossible to comprehend should it attempt to show every single laneway. The lens, says Johnson, “is a tool for discriminating.”
Similarly, when a client asks “How long will this litigation take”, the great lawyer answers concisely. It might be a simple “12 months,” or perhaps a range of options and a brief description of the key factors affecting that prediction. What a great lawyer won’t do is pull a civil procedure text book off the shelf and proceed for hours to describe every possible application or order the client might face and every combination thereof. That excessive information would be incomprehensible to the client. Similarly to Johnson’s ‘magic lens’ or Google Maps, the great lawyer will filter out the excessive detail and show the client only the interstate highway to help her to get from A to B. The great lawyer is the interface between the client and the legal system, filtering out unnecessary details and presenting only the directions that matter most.
I suspect that there are many more parallels between interface design thinking and legal practice that are yet to be fully capitalised. Unfortunately, although UI (user interface) design is so widely appreciated amongst digital professionals, it is mostly absent from traditional legal training and practice. Principles in the UI industry including simplicity, structure, user focus and accessibility, and practices such as prototyping and evaluation, have never been prominent in the profession. I suspect that as more and more digital natives enter professional life and begin consuming legal services, they will demand from the law the sleek design, clear structure and user friendly experience that they are used to in every other facet of life. I predict that this client side demand will be one of the major drivers of change in the profession’s structure over the coming decades, starting in particular at the firms currently servicing the consumer and SME clientele.
In summary, “Interface Culture” is not only a nostalgic frolic through some surprisingly accurate predictions of the future of the digital world. It is although a thoughtful exploration of what an interface is and how their design affects wider society. That thought process can be applied to understanding current legal practice and what is might become over the coming years.