How To Fix The Nightmare Of Apple's Terms Of Service

A thesis by Gregg Bernstein corrects a befuddling oversight in the company's design-focused image.

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.

Be honest, how many of you have actually read this entire thing?
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."

Bernstein’s proposal has human-readable language and breaks the text into pages.

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?"

A series of callouts show how the new agreement improves upon the old CTA.

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."

Did you know that Apple reserves the right to change everything?

Besides looking prettier, there are a few long term implications of this type of transparency, notes Bernstein. Consumers will have an opportunity to truly understand the terms to which they agree which will perhaps make them less likely to, say, pirate software. But it also benefits the vendor, saving them money over time for the cost of litigation, going after people who truly didn’t understand what they were reading. "Transparency fosters trust," he says. "Google simplified its privacy policy and was lauded. Facebook did the same and received positive feedback. Openness is a good business strategy."

A website named "I agree to ____" includes all of Bernstein’s research and methodology, which he hopes will get more institutions to reconsider their legal documents. Of course, the U.S. government, with its unreadable forms, is an easy target, but Bernstein is more interested in what he calls "brand blind spots": the one area that gets overlooked, even in the companies with the most carefully controlled identities. "For Apple, it’s the CTA. For Coca-Cola, it’s their Terms of Use," he says. "For a lot of large companies, it’s the 'cute’ and random email signatures used by various employees that diminish the brand identity. I’d love to tackle this through case studies and interviews. Any publishers out there want to chat?"

[H/T The Daily]

[Top image by Mikko Luntiala]

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  • Caesar Wong

    I'm going to play devil's advocate here and say that this proposal actually detracts from customer experience. Basically, the "old" process involves the customer seeing a wall of text, and blindly clicking "I agree" to progress. Total time taken: 5 seconds.

    Coercing a user to actually engage with the text makes them wait longer.

    Now many people will argue that it's important for customers to understand what they're signing away by clicking that "I agree" button, but is it really? Most people have an intuitive understanding of their basic rights as a consumer, which cannot be signed away or waived by blindly agreeing to a malicious EULA (hence I disagree with the "100% enforceable" comment).

    You also need to consider how many of these EULAs a typical person would have to sit through - after seeing a few of these, no matter how friendly, it would still have me reaching for the "I agree" button and ignoring the content, no matter how friendly it was.

    It's not worth a business's time and resources to invest the effort into improving legals.

    I suggest that for people who think this is important, that it be introduced as an additional step, such as a link to "understanding these terms" which then opens up the "friendly" version. I wouldn't put it front and centre in place of what's currently there.

  • Genna

    Well, if the terms are so important they would obviously be extremely well communicated, both in design and comprehension. They are far from enforceable as long as ordinary people cannot make something sensible out of it. They are generally agreed to in trust for that reason, and as such no legal process would be straight forward - by no means.

  • gmaletic

    >People often blindly agree, but the terms are 100% enforceable.

    No, they're not. If it said on page 22 of the 37 page term sheet that you were bound in perpetuity to pay Apple $500/month, it wouldn't be enforceable. 

    I'm all for easier-to-read terms: it'll benefit consumers, but also benefit the companies as well. The current, absurdly complex agreements simply will not stand up in court.

  • Jussi Pasanen

    I think Luke Wroblewski's solution for Bagcheck is very elegant:

    Bernstein's system is interesting but seems unnecessarily complex and lacks a clear connection between the human-readable and original versions. It's great that people are looking into this though, I reckon we've had enough of unreadable EULAs.

  • sigh

    " assault to our eyes, they're so difficult to read..."
    The first part is true and all capital letters is less legible in general, but the content of EULAs are not difficult to read.

    "a human-readable CTA"
    Hmm...what other entity that reads does this phrase suggest? Perhaps defining  "human" is necessary. Using the acronym "CTA" and not stating it in full first is (before usage) is counter to what Bernstein is supposedly addressing.

    As for Bernstein citing Grimmelmann, "'...reading the agreement is not enough; comprehension is the key.'"
    Grimmelmann is correct. The test should be with users to learn if they interpret the terms as intended and truly comprehend them as humans or otherwise.

    I, too, agree with Stef about showing what's changed. Perhaps it could be like the voter pamphlet about propositions that show strikeout text and boldface or color for new text.

    I applaud Bernstein's efforts, however, legal documents have a particular look. that fosters certain emotions. Legal agreements such as privacy policy, prenuptial,  divorce, lending, mediation and etc. agreements will continue to look as they presently do with the amount of legalese dependent on the writer and the respective attorney. Why one would not read and understand the content and context of such agreements before signing is beyond me. If one reads the agreement and does not understand any portion, one should ask questions. That might result in rewriting the passage.

    As for reducing pirate software and other "benefits" of Bernstein's EULA, look to experts who study human behavior...

  • Sdwarcher

    Ah, but then Richard Dreyfuss' reading of the agreement would have been for naught? See "Richard Dreyfuss reads Apple iTunes user agreements" on Marketplace From American Public Media:

  • Studio

    Nice work and needed too. Only it puts into full bright ligth that these contracts are one way contracts. The user can disagree and cannot get acces to the product at all. And the terms are always horrenduos! When one looks at what rights software developers thinks are reasonable in terms of access to your smartphone when you merely want a nice little game you have to wonder. Full access to your documents, adress books, history and whatnot. But doing this kind of work on the contract is nice!

  • Phil M

    The only problem with thic concept is that it is not in Apple's, or any other software developer's interest to have clear, concise, human-readable terms. For instance, now I know that it says that Apple has the right to share my personal information with basically whoever they want. I'm not cool with that. Not that I have a choice, but still.

    And even though ignorance is no defense, I'd rather take my chances clicking on an unitelligible EULA that I wouldn't even have time to completely read, than initial each page of a shorter document.

  • BlainRempel

    A fundamental issue with software EULAs is the concept of "Vendor has the right to change the Terms of this Agreement at any time..." In no other "contract" is this deemed remotely acceptable, but for whatever reason, software companies seem to believe this is reasonable. I'm not a lawyer, but I'm skeptical this is even legally enforceable, and may possibly void the entire agreement id it isn't (depending on if any terms of the agreement are severable).

  • Boregardless

    I once (& only once) tried to read a Microsoft "EULA".  God only knows how many words or pages was in the EULA, as I only got about 15 minutes into it and Microsoft cut me off and stopped the licensing because I had timed out.

    Now I don't care about EULA's normally, but in effect giving a user a legal document to sign and then not letting the user read the whole thing is forcing legal terms on a user that he can't possibly understand because he is DELIBERATELY kept from reading them.

    This is the sort of thing that has always put me off about software, but it is an inevitability.

    The authors' use of aligning topics with bullet point or outline format is a good way to start and is certainly typical of good engineering and tech. report writing.

  • Karyl Gilbertson

    Very, very good idea. I would feel all warm and fuzzy inside if these were adopted by lots of companies.

    While this could be seen as a hurdle in the way of the good stuff, downloading music, think of how nice you would feel now that you fully understand your rights related to the stuff you're downloading.

    And it's not like you'd have to do this every time you download a song. It's only when you install or update iTunes, or the agreement changes, correct? Although I certainly agree with Stef's suggestion below, a "what's changed" section at the top of new agreements would be fantastic.

    Finally, while it's the thought that counts, I still don't think this is up to Apple's design standards. Feels a bit off brand, too much bold and italic, and the icons feel off brand too. But these are small nitpicks, overall the grand idea is very brilliant, and in my opinion, welcome.

  • Steven Leighton

    How about a first time consent option that also gives consent for what ever changes for a year?  Might work for iTunes but not for Facebook users.

  • andrea zehnder

    Nice work. I hate to say it tho, but I really don't care about Apple's agreement and I would absolutely hate to have to initialize each and every page. I just hit that annoying button so that I can hurry up and get to what I want: my music download. So.... while this is great, I can't see that I would enjoy it when trying to download music.

  • SandraEPro

    Brilliant, absolutely brilliant. And I love Stef's suggestion too. 

    Why is it that common sense is not very common?

  • Stef Marcinkowski

    The first time I bought music through iTunes, I read through their agreement in its entirety, and it was painful. However, because I purchase music infrequently, the agreement continues to change and evolve every single time I make a purchase. It's annoying, impossible to identify policy changes and very time consuming to keep re-re-re-re-re-reading through the agreement.
    What Apple needs is a "What's Changed Since Your Last Purchase" section, right up there at the top.