a gavel on some legal documents

Users of Legalese

UX Matters had an interesting article some time ago that recently came back across my desk. The article makes a number of points, but the one I want to highlight today is the challenge of creating a single design for two very different sets of users.

People engage with our legal system in the US to achieve some goal—usually one relating to some form of risk mitigation or conflict resolution. Because legal services involve both interactions and goal-directed behavior, one might expect the legal system to have been designed on principles of usability…

The author is discussing legal documents in particular. On one hand, the client needs to understand what she is signing. It is her responsibility not to sign a contract or agreement that she doesn’t understand. Whether it is a credit card agreement, web site privacy policy, living will, or one of any number of legal documents, the hazards of not understanding what she is getting herself into is quite important and understanding the fine print may be much more important than she understands. But on the other hand, disputes are going to be adjudicated in a courtroom between two lawyers in front of a judge. These proceedings have a very unique set of requirements and legal documents also need to be written to satisfy their needs for specificity and alignment with laws written by lawyers and lobbyists. So whose needs should be paramount when writing the documents?

When we are starting any human factors design project, we have to understand the context of use. I suspect that legal documents get more use in the courtroom context than they do in front of the client. So does that justify designs that target that context over comprehensibility by the client user?

[Twitter “Do you read the #contracts you sign? @uxmatters, #legalese”]

My Take

Not too long ago, I was retained as a human factors expert to testify in a case where some retirees signed financial advising contracts that they clearly did not understand. The legalese was hard enough for me to plough through. I couldn’t imagine they did more than glance at how complicated the contract was and sign it based on their trust in the advisor’s honesty. Unfortunately . . .

I also wrote a chapter in Mike Wogalter’s Handbook of Warnings on this topic. In that chapter, I reviewed the types of challenges that hard to read documents generate and some human factors design solutions. That was almost a decade ago, but nothing has changed. The designers of these documents are the lawyers, so it is not surprising that they would design for themselves. If consumer product designers and software programmers fall into this trap, why would we expect the legal profession to be any different?

Your Turn

I am not one (of the all too common) HF practitioners who whines about HF never getting the priority that it deserves, but this is a case where it can really impact thousands of lives. Any suggestions?

Image credit: Brian Turner

2 thoughts on “Users of Legalese”

  1. There are a few bright spots, where the effort has been made to do a bit better. One of these is the language of consent forms for research. I’m not saying that it’s necessarily widespread, but there ARE research institutional review boards that are very attentive to the readibility of consent documents, seeing it as part of their responsibility to ensure a truly informed consent. But on the whole, I’d agree that not nearly enough effort is placed on good written communication these days unless someone forces the issue. In the medical device industry in which I work, we are starting to see a push towards requiring that instructions for use of medical devices actually be tested in some cases, to ensure that target population not only understands them but can actually execute them correctly, because we’ve seen instances where the instructions themselves were responsible for errors…sometimes fatal ones.
    But as for other legalese, we sign stuff or agree to stuff that we don’t understand (and/or don’t even agree with) because it’s the only way to reach a goal. The consent for treatment forms that hospitals and clinics use are, perhaps, the best example. Doesn’t matter if you understand what’s being said or if you agree with it, if you don’t sign the form, you can’t get treatment for whatever is ailing you. So why bother? It is the height of hypocrisy, and the system chooses to be blind to it. We are a culture so used to companies and organizations “protecting their butts” that we just automatically assume that’s the purpose of all the legalese, so we just sign on the dotted line.
    Personally speaking, I used to at least scan any agreement (especially online ones) that I ever signed/agreed to – usually to make sure there were no hidden costs, fees, etc. that I’d not been forewarned about, but I honestly can’t say I do it 100% of the time any more – it takes time and there are just too many of them. If the source of the agreement is well-known to me, and I’ve signed agreements of that nature with them before (e.g, a car rental company), I may not bother.
    We are a highly litigious country, much, much more so than almost anywhere else in the world. We’re jaded and cynical, and with good reason. I wonder to what extent this “attitude,” if you will, extends to people in other parts of the world, where you can’t sue just anybody for any little thing.

    1. Thanks for your response Daryle. I agree with you 100%. The CYA instinct is also a big part of it. I was discussing this with a colleague just the other day. Any risk-averse organization would probably prioritize covering their risk exposure over user informativeness, let alone user protection. I also find myself reading these policies less and less every year. Some day, I am sure that will come back to haunt me.

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