Monday, October 21, 2013

Mobile Apps for Legal Research #2: WestlawNext for Android

WestlawNext is one of the go-to tools in my legal research toolbox.  So I was quick to install the WestlawNext mobile apps on my Android smartphone and iPad.  I had high expectations for the power of WestlawNext on my mobile devices.  Unfortunately, neither app delivered the experience I wanted.  The apps successfully adapted WestlawNext to the small screen visually, but at the cost of too many features.

WestlawNext for Android

The WestlawNext Android app offers the basic WestlawNext experience for Andriod devices.  You can search across your entire WestlawNext subscription, browse for individual titles or collections of contents and search within them, keycite documents, view your history, and access your folders.  But under the surface, many of the capabilities of the full WestlawNext website are missing.

The lack of functionality becomes apparent the moment you perform a search.  The content filters for narrowing your search are gone.  The only features for narrowing search that the app retains are division of results by content type and the ability to search within your results.  The app does not allow you to narrow your results by date, jurisdiction, topic, publication, author, or any of the many other options available on the full WestlawNext website.  You can achieve some of the same effect by narrowing your search at the onset (selecting a specific jurisdiction or publication, for example), but you lose the chance to narrow your search on the fly based on the results you get.  You can find Massachusetts cases by limiting your initial search to Massachusetts, but then you won’t have the option of looking at what your search returned for Connecticut or New York.  Also, the process of narrowing down the content before you search goes against the search approach that Westlaw is advocating through the use of a single search box.  For all practical purposes, filtering to narrow a search is nonexistent in the app.

The Android app also limits the options for saving documents.  You can save a document to a folder or email it as an RTF or PDF, but you cannot save it to your device.  You can approximate saving by emailing the document to yourself and accessing the email from your device.  But this approach adds multiple steps to what should be a basic process.  The app contains the functionality to save documents (what it can email, it could save); I see no reason for Westlaw to prevent me from accessing the functionality directly by saving documents to my phone.

Some of the functionality of the full WestlawNext website is missing entirely.  For one, the related documents column has disappeared.  In general, this isn’t a great lost.  The related documents column offers the chance to find a case or treatise by serendipity.  Maybe a word or two catches my eye, and I set off in a direction I hadn’t known to take.  But the column only works if there is screen real estate to devote to it.  On a smartphone, the screen is not large enough to reasonably display both a results list and the related documents.  Related documents would only be a viable option if they were displayed separately, and then I think the serendipitous discovery effect would be gone.  Excluding the related documents column from the app is a reasonable choice.

A second piece of functionality that is missing is Westlaw Alerts.  This is a much greater loss than the related documents column, and much less reasonable.  The WestlawNext Android app does not allow you to create, view, or edit alerts.  I cannot think of a single reason for leaving alerts out of the app.  Almost everything related to alerts would be displayed on a separate page from what the app already contains, so alerts would not have to share screen real estate with any of the other functions.  The two exceptions would be an alerts entry on the main menu and a button to create an alert added to the search result page and key cite page. On my phone, the main menu has plenty of space for another entry.  And saving the minimal space of a button on the results page is hardly worth the loss of the ability to create alerts.

As a means of accessing WestlawNext documents, the Android app is excellent.  Given a citation, you can quickly find and read or keycite a case.  You can access your folders to read documents from earlier research.  And you can revisit documents and searches from earlier WestlawNext sessions.  All of this is easy to do, and the interface and documents are well presented for use on a smartphone.  As a search platform, however, the app falls short.  In a pinch, I could use it to conduct simple research, but it fails to deliver the robust search experience I have come to associate with WestlawNext.  Worse, I see few good reasons for leaving the functionality out of the app.  For instance, the contents filters (the feature I miss the most) could have been included in an expandable menu (as Westlaw did with its WestlawNext iPad app).  So screen size is not an issue.  Processing power is also an unlikely rational, as narrowing a search should not take any more power than performing the initial search.  Westlaw seems to have made the decision that its mobile users won’t want or need the missing features.  In my case, at least, Westlaw is wrong.  For now, I will continue to use WestlawNext primarily through the full website.  I don’t have the patience to use a hobbled search platform without something in return.  The WestlawNext Android app, while it looks nice on a smartphone, does not provide me with enough return to make up for what is lost.

This review applies to the iPhone as well as Android devices.  Westlaw has not released a WestlawNext app for the iPhone.  Instead, iPhone users access WestlawNext via the WestlawNext mobile website.  The mobile website and the Android app are identical, so my review applies to both equally.

Westlaw has released a WestlawNext app for iPad, and it is different from the Android app and mobile website.  Check back next week for my review of the iPad app.


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