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Why is it that the user experience of licence agreements always seems to be intentionally unpleasant and difficult?

The font is nearly always too small. The text is dense and difficult to scan. Interminable scrolling is pretty much the norm. And finally, the viewport almost always seems to be too narrow.

Are there any examples that respect the user and present the content in a clear, concise, readable and heaven forbid, pleasant fashion?

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That is not always true. I have seen plenty of legible license agreements bit.ly/11ci0Jj –  rk. Jun 13 '13 at 18:32
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Because: Lawyers. –  DA01 Jun 13 '13 at 18:39
    
Think about how bad that "interminable" scrolling would be with a bigger font. Given that (a) they tend to be wordy (lawyers, as DA01 said) so (b) people don't read them, designers see them as a necessary hurdle, not something that's worth making nice. –  Monica Cellio Jun 13 '13 at 19:04
    
Related: ux.stackexchange.com/questions/19864/… –  greenforest Jun 13 '13 at 19:47
    
Related: ux.stackexchange.com/q/16539/814 –  sharptooth Jun 14 '13 at 6:34

4 Answers 4

License agreements are legal agreements and as such have to try and cover all possible situations. Everyday language (especially in English) is incredibly ambiguous and can be interpreted in many different ways.

To illustrate this, here is an explanation taken from Why do legal documents and government notices use legalese instead of wording people can actually understand?

… Agreements typically define things as either A or B, with no empty space in between to meddle over. Think of it as an agreement with Mom and Dad:

When you finish your dinner you will get to play with the Lego or the other toys. Now, "finish" your "dinner"? Does that mean I have to stop eating, that I have to eat all vegetables or that the plate must be clean? Do I have to lick up the sauce to count as "finished"? If I finish it by feeding it all to Mom, does that count? And then when I do get to play, do I get to play with the Lego and the other toys, or do I have to choose between the Lego on the one side and the other toys on the other? So we go another draft:

When you finish your dinner, meaning that at least 90% of the vegetables by weight and at least 50% of the potatoes and meat are consumed by you, you may play with any or all of your toys at your discretion.

That's a lot closer to the intended meaning but it's a lot harder to read too. Lawyers typically try to close all visible loopholes.

Then there's another problem; your sister gets a slightly different agreement as she was "grandfathered" into the agreement. Your sister wouldn't accept any new agreement and would insist on what she got last time instead, but for you your parents want to tighten the rules a bit more. Putting this in one agreement is a very hard thing for people to do without tightening the rules for your sister or giving you a chance of leeway where you shouldn't get it.

And then there's the consequence if they get it wrong. Somebody could get around paying taxes (saving millions), sell their house and not pay any sales tax on it, pay really little on road maintenance or drive a car that's legally owned by Venezuela so they only pay $0.02 for gas. All of those mean that there's less tax money and those imply that less environment maintenance / war protection / ... will happen. If you ever wonder why schools can look bad or roads aren't maintained? There's just not enough tax money coming in to do all of them...

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This is a good reason for license agreements to be long and wordy, but not an explanation of why they seem to often be presented in a horrible user interface that even lawyers can't read. –  Jasmine Jun 17 at 22:42
    
As a simple example, if a user is supposed to actually read a license agreement, would not that task be facilitated by making the window in which it appears resizable? –  supercat Jun 17 at 22:50

I know of one example from ShareBuilder who has a rather long investment account agreement.

It needs to contain rather a lot of boring stuff, however, they have mitigated the likelihood of a suicidally tedious (not to mention incomplete) read by introducing a sense of humour, and use of plain English. Not so much humour as to make that tedious in itself, but just enough to get you reading a bit further. And a bit further.

It's serious where it needs to be serious and there's no levity where there's actually a term which a legally binding statement, but in between the gaps - they've tried.

Here's some extracts:

Even better, when you click on "I Agree", this is the same as signing this Agreement. And by signing it electronically, we're all saving trees, which is nice.


If 15 calendar days pass by like a warm breeze, you agree that you'll be deemed to have accepted those changes to the Agreement.


Keep in mind, ShareBuilder is a service for self-directed investors. That means you pick all your own investments and assume all responsibility for your investments — even the ones that turn out to be less than extraordinary.


At Capital One ShareBuilder, we treat you and the rest of our customers with honesty and fairness and we ask for the same in return — thanks in advance.


Take a look at these page-turning details:


Some charges are out of our hands, so it may look like we're the bad guy in some cases, but in reality that's not the case. If an agent for a corporate action imposes a charge for a security you hold, we reserve the right to pass this cost on to you.


One of the best compliments we get is when someone outside the 50 U.S. states wants to use Capital One ShareBuilder's products and services. However, if you reside outside the 50 U.S. states, we'll have to just admire each other from afar. Our products, services and website aren't generally offered or available to anyone located outside the 50 U.S. states. This includes U.S. citizens residing or working abroad.


Our Customer Service Team is here to help, so if you have an issue to discuss regarding your account, these upstanding individuals will help work toward a solution with you.


Look who's back after taking a break for a few Sections — it's your friendly Terms and Conditions tour guide. Without further ado, here we go with more legal speak.


If you like counting numbers -- here we go: The provisions of Sections 6, 8, 9, 10, 12, 14, 15, 17, 23, 25, 27, 28, 35, 36, 38 and 39 shall survive any termination of this Agreement.


Thanks for staying with us through the entire Terms and Conditions.

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I remember having had a good experience with an agreement, once. Can't remember where.
It was made up of all the awful stuff mentioned above, but it also included a brief explanation, in plain English, about what it all was about.
Having read the brief I was able to skip the legalese without being scared, more or less knowing what was I agreeing with.

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People rarely read licence agreement as well as any kind of instructions. They have no real value for users in contrast to software functionality.

But licence is legal document which is required by national law. So this is the least important thing for UX efforts.

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And exactly that makes it such a great opportunity for a site to stand out from the crowd in a positiv way. In other words: I do think it could really be worth the effort. –  greenforest Jun 13 '13 at 19:52

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