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What are some guidelines and examples for designing usable legal terms for web sites? I know that most users don't read it, but are there innovative ways to improve readability and presentation of these (traditionally) boring documents?

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A similar questions was asked here (ux.stackexchange.com/questions/59980/…), and there were a couple of good examples like this one: tosdr.org –  Michael Lai Jun 29 at 23:23

2 Answers 2

Not an answer based on studies but on personal experience, and some research I did on this topic recently:

Some general aspects of Terms and Conditions[1]:

  • legal document laying down some rules b/w company and customer/user
  • managing expectations and unifying the legal foundations of the business
  • dealing with risks and protecting the company

Apart from that there is another aspect that seems to me widely ignored by most companies: Legal documents can also be used to increase trust. Especially in eCommerce it's vital to the success of the business that customers trust your site and business. Companies spend tons of money for trust seals on the one hand but might scare away those customers who look up the companies' legal docs. Imagine the power of a clearly understandable document giving you a good feeling that company is not trying to fool you.

But is this really a problem? Probably not significant. In my experience (based on looking at web analytics data) less than 2% of the users look at these legal documents[2]. But then ask somebody dealing with conversion optimization in eCommerce what it takes to achieve a 1-2% conversion uplift. And why not take this as a chance to score against your competitors?

What can we do for better legal documents, to increase readability and also trust?

  • First, I guess, we need to convince the legal department :-)
  • Phrase the document in plain English (or whatever language) instead of legal jargon [3]
  • Users most likely won't read the entire document, so pay special attention to the beginning of the document
  • Say 'hello' to your customers and express that you like that they're using your site - yes, even in this legal document [3]
  • Offer a summary of each paragraph or at least highlight key aspects [4]
  • Do not show the legal docs in super small iframes and/or in super small font sizes

[1] also Terms of Use, Privacy Policy, EULA etc.

[2] Not saying what but how little users read and that it's only 10% of longer documents http://www.useit.com/alertbox/percent-text-read.html

[3] Plain English instead of legal jargon at Google http://www.google.com/policies/terms/ (I am aware they also got lots of criticism for this, mostly for being vague)

[4] Good example that seemed to become popular recently is http://500px.com/terms (even though their terms are linked on in the footer and hard to get to as the site uses Infinite Scrolling)

Edit March 2013:

Just stumbled upon an interesting TED talk ranting about legal jargon in legal to non-legal conversations, contracts etc. and wanted to share it here: http://www.ted.com/talks/alan_siegel_let_s_simplify_legal_jargon.html

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As far as placement, depending on your industry, it may need to be a link in the footer of every site page. Giving it a dedicated page rather that a modal/pop-up is good for SEO.

As far as structure, write it like any other well-designed document. Bold for headings, paragraphs chunked and grouped in logical order, contact information.

Example from former company:

http://tools.invitrogen.com/content.cfm?pageid=12

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