You’re on iTunes downloading something. For the purposes of this article, let’s just say it’s the new Fast Company United States of Design iPad app (It’s free!). You navigate the simple interface, click the well-designed icons, and then, suddenly, you’re confronted by what feels like an alien transmission… that ugly, unreadable wall of text.
Apple’s terms of service are curiously off-brand. They’re on a blank white background, using a different typeface, riddled with CAPITAL LETTERS. It’s a jarring departure from the meticulously designed screens where Apple won’t even let the corners of its windows make right angles. So why the incongruous departure from Apple’s user-friendly design ethos? Savannah College of Art and Design student Gregg Bernstein decided to fix the problem, and in the process, he created an entire system for making all Internet terms of service more readable and understandable.
As he began to dig in, Bernstein realized that the issue wasn’t limited to Apple, rather, it’s an industry-wide oversight for software companies (and pretty much any company that sells anything online). “An attorney writes the terms to protect the vendor,” Bernstein tells Co.Design. “So long as the legal rights and responsibilities of the vendor are covered, and so long as customers continue to click ‘I agree,’ the interface of the agreement is of little concern. Missing is someone who can advocate the user’s point of view: a designer.”
The problem is that these terms of service are not only an assault to our eyes, they’re so difficult to read that most people often hit that “I agree” button without knowing what they’re agreeing to. This can be a real problem when downloading things like stock imagery and typefaces, which have very detailed and explicit legal terms for use and distribution–and are 100% enforceable, whether you’ve read them or not. Bernstein set out to create a human-readable CTA that was not only comprehensible, but also more in line with the great design that companies like Apple are known for.
To get started he connected with the University of Georgia School of Law, who connected him to legal scholar Robert Bartlett. In a study with Victoria Plaut, Bartlett had already been working with the iTunes terms of service, “translating” the terms from legalese to English and testing various “click-to-agree” models (or CTAs). “With Bobby’s parsing of the legal issues and language and Vicky’s testing of user behavior already complete, there was little translation left for me to do,” says Bernstein. “My challenge was the design: How do we take these terms and make them readable on a screen?”
Working in a flexible interface that would accommodate changes in screen sizes, Bernstein worked with a restrained color palette and created icons that could help reinforce the message visually. Most notably, Bernstein then broke the terms into sections, adding pages that helped people to focus on one piece of content at a time, and adding fields to users could initial their consent, not just click one “I agree” button. This would hopefully get people to slow down and think about what they were agreeing to.
Bernstein’s finished product solves the problem from a design perspective. But the real test for an altered terms of service was out of his hands: Would it adhere to the lawyers’ standards? To see, Bernstein showed the finished project to James Grimmelman, a professor at New York Law School who works with the Institute for Information Law and Policy, where he specializes in the intersection of law and technology. Grimmelman approved, says Bernstein. “He found the interface to be entirely reasonable, and agreed that reading the agreement is not enough; comprehension is the key.”
[H/T The Daily]
[Top image by Mikko Luntiala]