The European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation is the most significant advance in data privacy in history, but little about the actual end-user experience of data privacy has changed. Here’s why tech companies need simpler terms of service agreements.
Terms of service agreements are too long and too complicated for the average user, tech-savvy or not. Most of us click “OK” without ever reading them, and in doing so, we give up all kinds of data. Back in 2014, the European government agency Europol even got a handful of people to surrender their first-born children in exchange for free Wi-Fi.
Every minute, Google answers almost 5 million search requests, and bloggers post 12,000 new articles. And according to researchers from the Technical University of Denmark, all that content is shortening our attention spans and causing trends to come and go even more quickly.
Because of the overwhelming amount of information available, users’ time and attention are hard to get. People are now skimmers. We want to know, and we want to know now. It’s why we don’t read the fine print even when we know we should.
That’s precisely why companies — tech companies, in particular — need to rethink their terms of service agreements. How? With a focus on plain language.
The benefits of simple language
People ignore the fine print because it’s confusing and time-consuming (and, yeah, boring). And even those users who do read their agreements often struggle to understand the information. A survey of 400 people found that average users could answer only 40% of the questions about an agreement they were given to study.
Signing up to a service or platform shouldn’t give users a headache. And it definitely shouldn’t come with a pang of worry or guilt as they skip past a five-page document and click “agree” without reading a word.
But some counterexamples show us agreements don’t have to belong or they are difficult to understand. DuckDuckGo’s is only 10 words. That’s the kind of agreement that differentiates a company from the rest of the field.
Making data agreements understandable to a layperson shows how much you care for your users.
It’s a way to imprint your brand personality and build trust between your company and the customer. It’s an opportunity to win hearts and minds and earn those lifelong diehards.
How to write a comprehensible data agreement
Every business or platform with a term of service agreement should aim for clear and concise writing. Ten words might be too ambitious, but you can ensure your users don’t go cross-eyed or miss any important details.
1. Use plain language principles
Long, complex sentences are for literature. They have no place in a legal agreement meant for laypeople to read. Aim for a maximum of 25 words per sentence, and never put more than five sentences in a paragraph. Break up content with headers and lists, summarize key points at the beginning of each section, and cut out the jargon.
Consistency in voice and tone helps readers accustom themselves to a text. Each section should flow logically from the last, and spelling and punctuation patterns shouldn’t change from paragraph to paragraph. Using active voice keeps things clear.
And plain language isn’t just about the words on the page. It’s also about the white space between them. Two columns of text for PDFs boost readability and makes them less burdensome.
If you’re doing all this and you’re still unsure whether an agreement is actually easy to understand, test it with users to see how they respond.
While copy might seem straightforward to your team members, it could be impenetrable for those on the outside. In practice, using plain language can turn a sentence like this:
- Any user who is classified as a minor (in general, a person who is under the age of 18) is not permitted to create a profile or register for Company services on the Company website.
Into one like this:
- If you’re younger than 18, you cannot sign up to use our website.
2. Make it super scannable
Long, unbroken blocks of text are difficult to follow. It’s especially hard when a variety of styles is used to mark important points. Don’t use all-caps, bold, and italics at different points in an agreement when a single format change will do.
Using subheadings to break up a piece of content makes reading much easier. They should be simple and descriptive so that users know what each section is about. If a reader wants to refer back to something he’s already read, then a clear subheading will make finding it again simple.
Using lists allows you to share the exact same information while also breaking down overwhelming paragraphs.
It takes a long sentence like this:
- By using the Company’s service, users agree to provide updated and accurate registration information, a valid and up-to-date payment method, and any other information Company may request to effectively manage a user’s account.
And makes it digestible:
- By using our Company’s service, users agree to provide:
- Updated and accurate registration information
- A valid and up-to-date payment method
- Other information the Company may request to effectively manage a user’s account
Also, visualized data is faster for humans to process than written content. Don’t tie your brand down to text alone; try charts, graphics, or illustrations to help get important points across. The right diagram or image will make an agreement simpler to scan.
3. Maintain the brand voice
So many service agreements are written in bland legalese, but a touch of brand personality can go a long way. Your in-house style guide is relevant to all the content you create, not just blog posts or memos.
Think about your brand’s identity before writing a term of service agreement. Is it formal or informal? Reserved or emotional? Lively or calm?
Adopting the same voice for a term of service agreement as the one used across your platform or website helps users recognize you and your care for them in the content. It lends credibility to the agreement and helps to build trust.
Users will see the work you’ve put into making your terms of service legible as an extension of the brand they know and love.
Let’s say that your product includes this sentence:
- In order to utilize the Company’s service, the user must first agree to the terms of service. If a user does not agree with the terms, the user cannot use the Company’s service.
If your brand voice is more conversational, you can rewrite that exact sentiment while showing your friendly, informal personality:
- We’re happy to have you here! Before you get started, we need you to agree to our terms of service.
4. Keep the lawyers in the loop
Earlier this year, smart television manufacturer Vizio announced it would settle a privacy lawsuit for $17 million. The company had failed to disclose that it was gathering viewing data from users. This kind of oversight can be costly, and it’s why lawyers need to be involved in drafting agreements to ensure they’re airtight.
No matter the tone, a term of service agreement is still a legal document, and your lawyers will need to review it. It must tell users what information will be collected, why it’s being collected, who will see it, and how it’s being protected. Full disclosure is fundamental to ensure user trust. Simplifying language cannot come at the expense of cutting the legal details.
One strategy for including legal terminology is to follow it with a section that uses plain language to explain what the jargon means. This shows that your brand isn’t trying to hide and that you care about helping users truly understand the fine print.
For example, you could try something like this:
- There may occasionally be information on Company’s website that contains spelling errors, omissions, or other inaccuracies related to the Company’s product or service. Company’s reserve the right to correct that information without prior notice.
- In other words, we might make typos, but we’ll fix them!
It shouldn’t take a doctorate in computer science and a law degree to understand a tech company’s user agreement.
Plain language, clear subheadings, a consistent brand voice, and legal clarity will ease users’ headaches and give them the confidence to believe in a company’s data strategy. Nobody should be afraid they might accidentally agree to give up a child in exchange for Wi-Fi.