By Ashley Ford
Nov 18, 2014

On Good Terms

“I have read and agree to the Terms of Use.” That’s the biggest lie on the internet. Can it be fixed?

People hate terms. They’re too wordy, too complex, too broad. Because terms are so widely ignored, enforcement is cherry picked. But getting rid of terms altogether is a big legal lift. Fact is, those annoying bits of legalese exist on and off the web. I’m no lawyer (full disclosure), but I am a pretty typical consumer. When I walk into a 7-Eleven, security cameras film me but I never see a policy explaining what might become of that footage. You can bet they too have a policy, but it isn’t something they post in the store.

If you believe transparency is good, then easy access to terms can’t be all bad.

Why Good People Accept Bad Terms

No matter how easy it is to find terms, if they’re incomprehensible or broad enough to claim ownership of users’ souls for all time, that’s no good.

That’s the real problem with terms online: Many are bad. Unreadable. Unusable. Long. Brimming with definitions of otherwise straightforward words like website and you. Before you know it you’re knee deep in lawyer speak, suspicious of all the ways this website will take advantage of you. But you agree because you’ve already gone through the whole signup process, and it’s just the price of doing things online. Most sites have a nifty little clause that says you agreed to the terms the moment you opened their site. Browsing equals consent. Yikes.

Terms are holding users to a very high standard. Users should hold terms to a high standard, too. If we’re being asked to agree to this stuff, shouldn’t the terms be useable and readable? Aren’t terms telling us something powerful about the brands they represent?

If you have a website or app, start here:

  • Have you read your own terms lately?
  • Would they make sense to your audience?
  • Would most folks feel better about your brand after reading them?

Simplicity Wins

If you’re asking users to agree to terms, aim for simplicity and brevity. Not sure where to start? Branding guru Alex Siegel has a great TED Talk about boiling down complex legal concepts into understandable bits of information.

How far can we ride this simplicity train? When users log in on Ovolo Hotels’ wifi portal, the Terms & Conditions are “Do no evil.” It’s straightforward, fun, and says a lot about the kind of company Ovolo is. Is it legally binding? No. But it’s more impactful than most terms because people actually see it.

What do you want users to know about the way your organization operates? Is that something they’re learning from your current terms?

Let’s Annotate

Say you consult your lawyer and stress how important it is for the terms to be simple. Say your lawyer chews over the terms and spits out a bunch of text that sounds as natural as a Russian novel that’s been rammed through Google Translate a few times. What’s a brand-conscious, transparency-focused business to do?

Time to annotate!

Seriously, annotation isn’t just for boring research papers. Tumblr, Kickstarter and Medium are using notes to translate legalese into English. It’s also an opportunity to bring a sense of personality and brand voice to otherwise drab content.

Medium’s terms are especially easy to understand, and users can even comment on them (a pretty bold move, right?). Near the end of the terms, just before they transition into legal jargon mode, Medium explains the situation and breaks the monotony:

A note from Medium’s Terms of Service. There are appreciative comments from users on this page, too.

Chunky Is Beautiful

Headers, subheads, bullets, brief chunky content — that’s called writing for the web, and it’s just as important on your terms page as it is anywhere else. Google and Amazon use clear section titles and anchor-linked lists that drive users to specific sections. Maybe some users don’t care about codes of conduct but privacy is important to them — make information easy to find and scan.

Don’t Get in the Way

Do you ask users to agree to the terms before they can complete a signup process, a checkout process, or some other online transaction? If you’re directing people to agree to your terms, make sure you give them the information they need without booting them out of that transaction process. That means you shouldn’t send them to a terms page with no way to get back to their cart.

  • Avoid bad text boxes. If you’re thinking of using a pop-up window as a workaround, be careful. Have you ever tried to use a scrolling pop-up that contains 5,000 words? The interface becomes so unwieldy that just scrolling through the contents can feel like a feat of computer genius. If you’re using a tiny scrolling text box, that’s also a bad deal for your users. If users want to see your terms, let them see as much content as possible.
  • Print is alive. Make your terms printable, downloadable, or both. If you’ve crammed your terms into a text box or popup window, giving users the option to print them or download a PDF is an especially good idea.
  • No timeouts. Be sure the user has enough time to actually read the terms before the transaction times out because of inactivity.

Good Terms, Good Brands

Even the simplest websites tend to carry over-the-top disclaimers. When I flip through a book, I don’t see a laundry list of ways the publisher and author shall be held blameless for any losses of opportunity or business or cash-money that may result from me using that book. But books do have their own disclaimer-style page: the copyright page, a mini Terms of Use. Could we ever apply an idea this simple to the web?

The scary truth may be that lots of Terms of Use are incomprehensible by design. But I’m a glass half full kind of gal, and I know there are also plenty of sites with good intentions and bad terms. For organizations with nothing to hide, there’s no reason to have unusable or incomprehensible pages on your website — including the terms. 

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