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.

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

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]


About the author

Alissa is a design writer for publications like Fast Company, GOOD and Dwell who can most often be found in Los Angeles. She likes to walk, ride the bus, and eat gelato.