The recently redesigned Web site of the Defense Research Institute offers a lesson in how portlets – small, customizable content panes – can be used to dramatically enhance a site’s navigability. I’ll have a more in-depth review of this site in my Web Watch column in the November Law Technology News, but I will provide some highlights here.

DRI is a national association of defense lawyers, and much of its site is restricted to members. After DRI recently redesigned its site, it provided me a temporary password to explore the new features.

DRI’s objectives in restructuring the site were to enhance its navigation, organize its content in a more intuitive manner, and add services and tools to make the site more useful to its members. To achieve this, DRI made effective use of two distinct types of page elements – a navigation banner and content portlets.

Every page of the site displays the same banner across the top. It contains tabs that serve as the site’s primary navigation tools. The tabs point to general sections of the site – About DRI, Committees, CLE Programs, etc. – and mousing over any tab displays a list of subsections. The banner ensures that a user is never more than one click away from anywhere within the site.

On each page, all content is organized within portlets – boxes arranged in columns providing various types of information. Some of these portlets appear on every page throughout the site. Others appear only in the sections to which they relate. Still others can be added or removed based on the user’s preferences. Users can minimize any portlet so it appears as only a title bar and then expand it again when needed.

Once a DRI member logs in, two portlets appear on every page – DRI Service Center and Member Service Center. These provide quick access to membership services, event registration and key services such as the DRI’s expert witness database.

Other portlets appear only in appropriate sections of the site. For example, go to the Litigation Services main page, and it includes, among others, a portlet providing quick access to the Web sites of every federal and state court in the United States.

These navigational elements enhance the many features DRI’s site offers its members. Among the more notable of these:

  • Committee sections. Each of two dozen DRI committees has its own section that includes a discussion forum, a document-collaboration tool, daily news feeds and access to related books and seminars.
  • DRI Online. This consolidates all DRI seminar materials and magazine and newsletter articles in a single, searchable location.
  • Litigation Services. This includes an expert witness database with information on more than 65,000 plaintiff and defense experts – including trial and deposition transcripts, articles and CVs. It also includes a legislative tracking service.

DRI has long made its site the repository of useful resources for its members. Until this redesign, however, the site could be difficult to get around. By using consistent navigational elements and the flexibility of portlets, DRI has achieved a dramatic improvement in its site’s usability.

Photo of Bob Ambrogi Bob Ambrogi

Bob is a lawyer, veteran legal journalist, and award-winning blogger and podcaster. In 2011, he was named to the inaugural Fastcase 50, honoring “the law’s smartest, most courageous innovators, techies, visionaries and leaders.” Earlier in his career, he was editor-in-chief of several legal publications, including The National Law Journal, and editorial director of ALM’s Litigation Services Division.