Agreeing a B2B sales contract should be a delightful moment for both contract parties, but that's rarely the case - could design thinking lead to a more accessible process?
We’re sponsoring the Legal Design Geek conference in London this October. Legal design is all about putting users first: as Margaret Hagan says, “focusing on the humans within the legal system.” We asked design gurus to take a look at some user-unfriendly legal processes - and how a design approach might improve them. This is the third in a series - stay tuned for more.
Hi! Who are you?
Stefania Passera, an information designer, specialising in contract visualization and legal design.
What is an example of a legal document or process that isn’t user-friendly?
A B2B sales contract. Let’s think, for example, about sales of services.
What’s wrong with it?
For starters, usually these contracts are long and complex: there are general and service-specific terms and conditions, an execution document covering some case-specific deal points, and various case-specific appendices. You may have to look at different documents to really know what you need to do or what obligations apply to you. And the whole thing is so long that you may not notice inconsistencies and contradictions until problems arise and it’s too late to do anything about it.
"Contracts are touchpoints where so much could be done to build a sense of trust, open communication, and differentiation from competitors. But it doesn’t happen, quite the opposite"
And what does that mean for the user?
The users of these documents are business and technical people, for example the implementation team on the seller’s side. They are busy and typically overloaded by information: this thick contract is not the only one on their desk or screen. Such a behemoth makes their life harder: it is difficult to negotiate, to review, to implement, and to monitor. Moreover, while the terms and conditions are owned and meticulously manicured by the legal department, key appendices like scope of work are often just left blank, with very little or no drafting guidance and checklists. The business and technical people who should fill them in are left on their own. And that is perhaps the most important part of a contract, business-wise!
That doesn’t sound good. How would we want them to feel?
We want them to feel competent, in control, and completely focused on doing their work, hassle-free – be it negotiating the contract or implementing it. We’d want them to understand their roles, responsibilities, and to-dos clearly and quickly. We don’t want them to spend hours digging out the answers to their questions, and wondering if they understood it correctly.
And we haven’t even begun to think about the customer’s experience. That would deserve an article of its own. Contracts are touchpoints where so much could be done to build a sense of trust, open communication, and differentiation from competitors. But it doesn’t happen, quite the opposite. Why?
We also want to avoid negative surprises: many negotiating teams complain that their “business people’s deal” gets transformed along the way into a “lawyers’ agreement” that doesn’t make sense anymore. Instead, the contract needs to look, feel, and function as much as possible as a “user manual” for both parties, at all times.
So in an ideal world, how would we start if we built it from scratch?
There is lots of work to be done to transform a contract into an instruction manual. We would have to think of content strategy, information architecture, language, and supporting visuals. For brevity’s sake, let me give you just an example on the latter, since it is closer to my area of expertise.
We could create visual templates or canvasses to be used from the very first day of sales negotiations. These would work as a structured aid for discussing the most important or complex topics (e.g. project scope, or responsibilities), and making sure no important deal point is left behind. Using a visualisation as a common, tangible referent to discuss something abstract and complex gets the parties on the same page. After the parties agree on that specific topic, they can add the final version of the visualisation to their contract document, as a snapshot documenting their meeting of minds. When the contract is handed over to implementation, key operational instructions are already in a graphic, concise format which can be more easily put into action. Knowledge gaps are minimised because project managers do not need to back-translate legalese into usable contract briefs for their team: the “business people’s deal” is still there.
How might it look different?
The contract itself would include as many explanatory visualizations as possible. Prose is simply not the most effective and efficient way to communicate certain types of information. Instead, we can use flowcharts and timelines to describe key processes (e.g. acceptance, change management, termination); swimlanes and tables to summarise more clearly responsibilities; service blueprints and maps to conceptualise the service scope; quantitative charts and formulas to illustrate pricing models and service levels, and so on.
And how would the experience be different for the user?
During negotiations, the parties can more easily discuss, align their goals, allocate responsibilities and risk, and build trust. During contract review and approval, the “business people’s deal” doesn’t accidentally get translated into a puzzling “lawyers’ agreement”. During implementation, project managers and their teams do not need to waste time creating separate contract guides to translate the contract into human-readable language: in the best case scenario, they could just take the relevant explanatory visuals straight from the contract.
What would we need to make it a reality?
We should get business and legal to collaborate more, and early on. Design sprints in which all relevant stakeholders are involved could help develop new visual templates, layouts, and checklists that are both legally sound and business smart. If their organisation has a design, customer experience or marketing unit, they should borrow designers and content writers to bring in a human-centred perspective, facilitate the process, and help them finalise their ideas into usable tools.