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Why the time has come for design thinking and visualisation in legal documents

Stefania Passera is an information designer, specialising in contract visualization and legal design. She worked with us to make our privacy policy user-friendly and understandable. Why is design so under-explored in legal, and what difference could it make to your business?

Use design to show customers they can trust you

Important documents tend often not to be read because they require too much attention and time. But businesses that want to demonstrate that they care for their stakeholders can show a lot of what they’re about, in terms of their values and so on, through how they communicate. A business that goes to great lengths to communicate its content in a way that consumers can understand will be perceived as a business you can trust, and that is committed to transparency.

As designers, we always argued that good visual information and documents can be a competitive advantage, and an opportunity to create trust and transparency, and to differentiate from competitors. What GDPR changed is that there is a clear requirement to be user-friendly and transparent in the regulation. Now it’s not a nice to have, it’s something that’s demanded. Beyond all the GDPR panic attacks, businesses need to engage more transparently: design thinking needs to be at the core of how we approach these issues.

"It’s not just a case of design lipstick to make it sexy, these documents have to be simple at the front and legally robust at the back."

The example of redesigning Juro’s privacy policy

Juro’s privacy policy is a great example of these principles in action. I approached it like a UX designer would approach app or site design, asking: what sort of design patterns could you use to make the content accessible and usable? Design patterns offer model solutions for recurrent information problems – so the first step was to identify what are the typical problems with this genre of document, and what information is generally included in one. These five design patterns helped us to transform the policy from a wall of text to something that people may actually want to engage with:

1. Short and long privacy notice – a layered approach. These policies usually contain lots of details, but users want to understand which are the key points and what they mean for them. Meeting this need with a wall of text rarely works. We decided to create a short version of the policy, called “Your privacy at a glance” which could be displayed on just one screen of a typical browser. This gives users the key facts first, and eventually they can click through to the full policy if they want to read more. Interestingly during the two weeks since Juro’s new privacy policy launched it has seen a staggering 1,352.94% increase in unique views of their full policy.

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2. Accordion – overview first, details on demand. These policies are usually very long and users have to scroll a lot. That generates user fatigue, particularly on mobile. We wanted to make it more compact and visually contained, so we used the accordion pattern to present the most important information at the top, and placing further details inside expandable panels. That meant we could show an overview first and let readers drill down later. This is another way to implement a layered approach.

accordion

3. Talk with your user – don’t dictate to them. We used a conversational language, framing titles and headings as questions users may have, borrowing techniques from the FAQ genre (like the accordion pattern). We tried to have a conversation with users, invite their questions, and preemptively answer them. One of the criteria that we came back to often was, if it were me, what sort of information would I want? We also aimed at making the document more interesting, skimmable and memorable by using icons to highlight and convey key topics.

4. Privacy timeline – show, don’t tell! Users understand information better when they can contextualize it within their experience. Talking in general, abstract about what data is collected and how does not resonate with them. Instead, we used a timeline to map out all the privacy-sensitive interactions between the users and Juro. The timeline shows the exact moments when their data is collected, making the whole process more tangible and transparent.

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5. Floating menus. It’s good practice to include a table of contents with links to the various sections of the privacy policy, because people often have specific questions that they’d like the document to address. However, we noticed that these questions may come to mind while they are reading the document and not necessarily at the beginning (where most table of contents are placed). We made a floating menu so the links could follow users through the policy.

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I also spent a long time with the team going back and forth on the terms, the level of detail to include, the layering of information, what needs to be at the top, what needs to be on-demand detail, and so on. All these considerations about information architecture have to be scrutinised very closely – it’s not just a case of design lipstick to make it sexy, these documents have to be simple at the front and legally robust at the back.

You don’t have to look far for other documents to redesign

Most legal documents out there don’t engage users, and don’t communicate why they should care about the information they contain, nor how they can use that information to their advantage. In B2B contracts there’s been a growing demand for this kind of redesign, as it is in the interest of the parties to avoid disputes and collaborate more easily. In my doctoral research, I have found that visualized contracts are easier and faster to understand, and help foster better business relationships. But now, with the boom in consumer demand for transparency and changes in legislation, it seems that consumer contracts are going to be held to higher standards of usability too.

All sorts of policies would benefit from this: for example, when Wikimedia redesigned their trademark policy in 2014, they employed hands-on legal design jams to work out how to communicate their new policy to users, so that content could be open and freely communicated in a way that would reflect the community values. User licence agreements would be another: online, they tend not to be read; we just jump to the bottom and click.

We need to reach a point where the burden isn’t all on the readers, who are just made to read lengthy documents because they have to. As citizens, consumers and professionals, people simply don’t have the time to engage.

Don’t think your organisation is too big, or too traditional, to embrace design.

This kind of exercise can definitely be done at a bigger organisation. The design part of the process is not only limited to visualisations, icons, pictograms and so on. Design is part of a process. By taking a user-centric approach, employing user journey mapping, larger companies could assess those privacy touchpoints. I would like all legal and bureaucratic documents to not simply be documents that are there to cover your back as a company; they’re there to help people achieve their goals in normal situations and in daily life.

Lawyers must adapt to how the modern consumer receives information.

Many lawyers still don’t realise they are comms professionals, and they still think words are the only tool they can use. But I believe we shouldn’t be limited to just one mode of communication. We live in an information society and users demand relevance and ease of use. We’re beyond the typewriter, and digital media allows us to go further and use layered information, visual interfaces, and other formats that make a lot of sense when you’re communicating digitally. We need to adapt to the medium and to users’ expectations, and not be anachronistic – by failing to do so, we don’t take advantage of the expressive opportunities offered by new media.

Lawyers feel their duty is to limit the risk for the customers, and there’s an implicit assumption that simply adding more words to these documents will lead to the desired behaviour. But just having words dumped there doesn’t ensure compliant behaviour. We are better off trying to understand how people think, how they behave, how they absorb information and allocate attention, and create products and information accordingly. We need documents that fit with how we work, rather than ones that make us work the way they want.

If you are interested in finding out more about design thinking and how it can be applied in practice, including a more in depth look at the process behind building Juro's privacy policy, you can book your seat on their upcoming live webinar - Legal design for in house: the GDPR challenge no one is talking about.

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