Web readability: Where's the plain english?
<DavidFeeney <at> aol.com>
2002-04-22 15:35:44 GMT
Stop! Look before you click
By Rachel Konrad
Staff Writer, CNET News.com
April 22, 2002, 4:00 AM PT
Mark Hochhauser doesn't mince words.
That's because the frank-talking psychologist is also an expert in "readability," who practices what he preaches. The 55-year-old resident of Golden Valley, Minn., pores over contracts, disclosure statements and privacy notices to determine whether real people--not lawyers or business executives--understand them. Then he tells companies, research groups and government agencies how to translate legalese into plain English.
Hochhauser has spent the past several years studying the readability--or lack thereof--of online documents, particularly privacy agreements. Most of them require the user to click "I agree" before proceeding with their purchase or download. Hochhauser says people rarely understand what they're signing, mindlessly clicking contracts that could hijack their computers or make them targets of aggressive advertisers.
The "I agree" frenzy has reached new levels as the popularity of file-swapping software mushrooms. Earlier this month, millions of consumers downloaded the Kazaa file-swapping program, only to realize later that they had unwittingly agreed to install software that could help turn their computers into nodes for a peer-to-peer network controlled by a third company, Brilliant Digital Entertainment.
Q: How would you describe most contracts software companies require users to sign?
A: It's legalese written by lawyers who want to protect the company, and they're using legal terms that the general public isn't familiar with.
You have to scroll down through it, which makes it impossible to read. You can rarely click a button to get a printout, and in some cases you can't even cut and paste it into a document you can print out and read later. CNET, newspapers and other publications have had the "click to print" button for years, but I don't think I've ever seen one in a terms of service contract.
One thing I've noticed is that these contracts are simply text--no interactive graphics or any other means of taking advantage of the Web as a medium of communication.
How does that contribute to the problem?
We've learned a lot about Web design. We know we should be using short paragraphs without too many pages because it's tough to keep people focused on text. But these consent forms are not developed with any sense of Web design or document design at all. These are the exact same forms that you could have gotten 10 years ago in a book. If you look at how visual the Web is, why do we have consent policies that are the equivalent of eight pages of text? It's no surprise that people ignore them.
Take off your readability hat and put on your psychology hat. What are people thinking when they click "I agree"? Are they illiterate? Naive? Stupid?
They're not stupid. They're trusting. It's actually quite similar behavior to sick people. Patients who are very sick can be given a 3,000-word consent form written by lawyers with the same level of complexity as these privacy notices...The sick people usually just sign it without reading it because their doctor said it was OK. Same thing here--the reader thinks, 'The FTC would close them down if they were doing something really bad.' There may be a basic element of trust that people bring into this.
Let me play devil's advocate. Don't people who click "I accept" forfeit their rights? What happened to caveat emptor?
To some extent, sure, the onus really is on the user to decide whether they want to read it. At the same time, there is some responsibility on the Web site to present the information in a form you can use without a dictionary, trying to figure out what every sentence really means. Sure, there's a responsibility on the reader, but there is such a thing as information overload.
It seems ad-supported software preys on people's urge to try to get something for nothing. Do these adware companies appeal to our lowest urges?
Yes. Anything that says "free," people want. But eventually people will realize there's not really such thing as "free" software. It comes with a price--in this case the annoyance of advertising, or possibly privacy violations.
Clearly software companies need legal protection. How can they write policies that are both intelligible to teenagers--yet cover their legal backs?
The real way to do this better is to have consumers involved in the writing and editing process. The companies need to sit down with a focus group of actual users and say, "Do you understand this? How could we make you understand this?" Real users, not lawyers, need to write the forms. Then they need to redesign the sites so that the consent forms are visual, not legalese text blocks.
Why can't companies write in plain English?
My guess is that writing in legalese gets them off the hook. The message is, "We asked you to scroll down, and you did, so we're not liable." They set it up so you had to scroll through it--even if you didn't read it.
There's been a plain English movement in the legal profession for 20 years, but it's not very widely used...
Dr. David Feeney
DavidFeeney <at> aol.com
Director of Digital Education, http://foxonline.temple.edu
FOX School of Business & Management, http://sbm.temple.edu
Temple University, http://www.temple.edu
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