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?
Not an answer based on studies but on personal experience, and some research I did on this topic recently:
General aspects of Terms and Conditions:
- 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
Legal documents can also be used to increase trust
Especially in eCommerce it's vital to the success of a business that customers trust the company. Tons of money is spent trust seals but customers might be scared away if they look up the companies' legal docs. Clearly understandable legal docs do have the potential to increase trust if customers feel they understand them.
Are 'standard' legal docs really a problem?
Probably not significant we might think. In my experience (based on looking at web analytics data of several companies) less than 2% of the users look at these legal documents (1). On the other hand a 1-2% conversion rate increase of an eCommerce site is really hard work. Small change but relatively high impact I'd say.
What can we do for better legal documents?
- Convince the legal department or lawyer to agree to changes :-)
- Be friendly and say 'Hello' to your customers, and express that you like that they're using your site - (yes, even in a legal document) [see Google example below]
- Phrase the document in plain English (or whatever language) in addition or even instead of legal jargon
- Special attention paid to the beginning of the document as customers most likely don't read all of it
- Add a summary of each paragraph or at least highlight the key aspects (see 500px example below)
- Do not show the legal docs in annoying iframes and/or in super small font size
(1) Research on how little users actually read - according to this research less than 10% of longer documents: http://www.useit.com/alertbox/percent-text-read.html
Edit March 2013 (added TED talk link):
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:
Edit Oct 2015 (added Zappier example):
Found another very nice example of pleasent Terms & Conditions at Zapier, see screenshot, but apparently it's not online anymore (as of May 2019):
Edit May 2019 (added Revolut + Pinterest examples):
Revolut, a UK bank startup, rewrote and redesigned their terms and conditions, resulting in a drastically reduced amount of content. Everything is in plain English now and they use a Q&A format. They also wrote a blog post about the approach. Pinterest's approach is similar to 500px and what Zappier used to have.
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:
Sometimes even a bit of irony could help to make these pages less boring. For instance, the only Terms & Conditions document that I read entirely and with interest is the "Legal Mumbo Jumbo" of Very Good Emails by Mail Chimp http://reallygoodemails.com/legal-stuff/