I agree to the Terms and Conditions

If you, like me, frequently select ‘I agree’ to the terms and conditions of just about any service you need to without actually reading those terms and conditions, you’re definitely not alone.

In fact, a US study proved this point particularly well. 543 students signed up for NameDrop - a new social network. Just as with Facebook and most other online accounts, they had to agree to the terms and conditions to validate their accounts. Only around a quarter of the students bothered to look at the fine print - and they spent on average one minute viewing the document before agreeing to the terms and conditions.

Unfortunately for the 98% of students who did agree, according to paragraph 2.3.1 they had agreed to give NameDrop their future first-born children.

Luckily, NameDrop is a made up company and the students get to hold on to their first-borns. South Park also attempted to show us the consequences of not reading the terms and conditions - Kyle, to the shock and horror of his family and friends, didn’t read the terms and conditions for Apple products. Unfortunately for Kyle, he had agreed to become a part of a “revolutionary new product” that Apple was launching. Hence the “HUMANCENTiPAD” - a product with visuals best left unseen.

Another study performed at NYU Law School found that from the data of 50,000 users, only 0.11% of people clicked in to the terms and conditions - that’s roughly one in a thousand. If a user had to click twice to see the terms and conditions? That percentage went down to around 1 in 10,000 people. On top of this, of that 0.11% of people who did view the conditions? Their average time spent reading was 29 seconds.

So with the terms and conditions being a big joke to most users on the internet, even being referred to as “the biggest lie on the internet” by some researchers, why are they still present and how can we make them more user friendly, with the hopes that they might actually be viewed?

A study performed in 2010 found that the way the message is presented has a big impact on how users interact with the information, regardless of what is actually presented there. They found that agreements presented in the same form as terms and conditions (with the options I accept, I refuse or I need help) were statistically more likely to be agreed to without viewing the content, even when it was privacy related.

This obviously means we have a big problem - as users, we’ve trained our brains to agree to anything that looks like terms and conditions or is presented that way. Unfortunately though, there are no governing rules about what can be inside those documents, to an extent. We’ve spoken before in our blogs about internet privacy, and that is one big area where these agreements can have clauses that are detrimental.

For example, Instagram is one of the biggest social platforms at the moment. But a while ago, their terms and conditions meant that whatever you upload can be used by Instagram or given to any other company. It also stated that your personal information including phone number and messages could be shared with companies. An inquiry into unfair terms and conditions in New Zealand found all of the contracts contained unfair terms, with one of the most common being that the user or consumer is forced to pay termination fees for a service that was automatically renewed.

Sure, we could all try to be safer and read the terms and conditions, or even look up summarised versions and try and understand the main points. But most people still won’t do that - and at the end of the day, we shouldn’t have to. There are websites that can summarise the main points for you, such as Terms of Service; Didn’t Read (https://tosdr.org/). However, companies need to find a better way to communicate their terms and conditions, without relying on technical ‘disclosure’ to fully educate consumers. Because at the end of the day, humans are and always will be, lazy. We don’t want to read the document, we just want to use the game or software or technology. So the question becomes, how do we as designers ensure that consumers aren’t being misled or agreeing to things that they aren’t aware of?

The first thing to keep in mind is trust. Users trust big names, and don’t necessarily understand whether or not those companies are being held responsible for their operating procedures. This is a big contributor towards why people treat terms and conditions as something unimportant - because we trust the company and, especially if they are a big, prominent company, we don’t expect that they would put anything unfair in the terms and conditions. Recently this became clear with Facebook - the terms and conditions were hidden and complicated, and allowed Facebook to do things with your data that you might not agree to if informed. When this became public knowledge, trust in Facebook fell, and they are now running advertising campaigns to try and get trust back.

When building trust between consumers and companies, there are three core components that contribute to both building and maintaining that trust and good relationship.

  1. The Product - what you are getting

  2. The Price - what you pay for it

  3. The Guarantee - what happens if something goes wrong

Facebook failed on two of these core components - the price and the guarantee. The ‘price’ of Facebook wasn’t immediately obvious, as it’s a free platform. However Facebook was allowed to collect, sell and share your data, including messages and photos. This is a huge breach of privacy and once users found out what they were potentially risking, they rightfully were outraged. The ‘guarantee’ that Facebook supposedly offered was support and clarity. They failed here as well, with reporting systems being notoriously bad (such as allowing people to post videos of graphic beheadings by terrorist organisations) and support continually decreasing. Facebook promised removal or at least reduction of fake news and incorrect articles, but those still abound on the website.

Think about this in terms of Facebook being a physical storefront - if they were that secretive and vague about the return conditions would you be comfortable making a purchase?

So, again - how can we as designers try and ensure that people are seeing the most vital parts of the terms and conditions?

  1. Summarise the main aspects into a few simple bullet points. Terms of Service; Didn’t Read does a good job of this, as seen in the image below.

  2. Place that summary directly on the registration page - the ‘price’ is right there for people to see when they register without having to go and find the terms and conditions.

  3. Always make sure to include a link to the full terms and conditions.

  4. Simplify the language used in the summarised version as much as possible (avoid complex legal jargon and double-speak).

  5. Consider including a summary at the beginning of the actual terms and conditions document as well.

  6. Always avoid misleading or confusing statements.

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Because it’s not as simple as “you should have just read the agreement” when the agreement might be 20 pages long for a simple service. And no, I might not immediately be facing the threat of being turned into a piece of the HUMANCENTiPAD, but who knows what I’ve agreed to at this point in my life?

Hannah BunkerComment