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Can contract design build stronger relationships?

Stefania Passera, 11 December 2019

Establishing a good relationship between client and lawyer is essential - so why aren’t contracts designed to help achieve this? We catch up with legal design expert Stefania Passera to find out.

Hi Stefania 👋 Welcome back!

Thank you!

What are the emotions people tend to feel when presented with a typical contract?

It’s a spectrum - and not a positive one! It ranges from neutral to negative. At best, people don’t feel anything in particular: contracts are boring, but necessary. In the middle, there are different shades of negativity, where people feel annoyed by legalese or think that contracts are way more complex than necessary.

And at worst, there’s anger and frustration, an active disengagement with anything “legal”, or even mistrust; many people believe contracts are designed to deliberately bamboozle the reader. 

Over time, these people aren’t going to engage with legal - it requires too much mental energy and wastes time in the process. 

Can you give any examples of where the legal process acted like a blocker between the user and their end goal?

With commercial contracts, people complain frequently about time-consuming negotiations. The business faces transaction costs with each negotiation, and lawyers are perceived negatively because they can spend months bogged down in redlining. Sometimes, the costs of reviewers negotiating low-risk clauses far exceeds the economic impact of the risk itself, should it ever materialize. 

As a consumer, we often encounter so-called dark patterns in privacy policies or online terms, which deliberately make it challenging for the consumer to make an informed choice about privacy settings, or to actively read the fine print. Despite the distrust, people end up clicking “I accept” because it is the only choice that allows them to save time and effort.

Just think about the last time you had to interact with any public office, submit information, fill in a form, or make a request. The experience was likely difficult, confusing, and frustrating. People are expected to adapt to archaic processes, documents and interfaces, rather than the other way around.

"A well-designed document functions better than a poorly-designed one because it better supports the users in achieving their goals"

Some people think that contract design just involves making something ‘look nicer’ - is this a step forwards, or part of the problem? 

It’s not part of the problem, but this perspective is misguided. Of course, making a document look pleasant can help convey the sort of values we’re trying to communicate, and set the right tone of voice for the overall experience. There is often a natural beauty in clear, simple solutions, but ‘looking nice’ is not the point. We should be evaluating what design does, not how it looks.

People associate ‘design’ with visual expression, and don’t acknowledge the process that led to those design decisions. A person who is not trained in design may think that legal designers have slapped a handful of icons over a document, and that is enough to make things clearer. They evaluate the impact of design in terms of aesthetic: “this is the same, it just looks nicer.” 

The perception is that design is superficial and therefore a low-priority task, which isn’t true. Effective design has an impact on cognition, behavior, and emotion – a well-designed document functions better than a poorly-designed one because it better supports the users in achieving their goals. 

How can companies get started with improving their contract design? What steps do they need to take to make their contract design more user friendly? 

  1. Consider the purpose and think of the relationship you’re trying to establish. Take a step back and gather information. What’s the goal of the transaction, what are you trying to achieve, and how is it different to what the counterparty is trying to achieve? What does a win-win situation look like?

  2. Contracts don’t make things happen, people do. It’s important to map out the key people involved with a contract and their tasks. Who are the internal and external users of this legal document? Who needs to know and do what, in terms of taking practical actions, during the various steps of the contract lifecycle

  3. Think holistically about design. Think of the overall content strategy of the document – what should it say from a business and legal perspective to foster ease of doing business? And how should you say it to build understanding and trust with the counterparty? This is when you work on information architecture, language, and visual presentation, iteratively. 

  4. Don’t drill down on finer details. A classic data visualization adage, “overview first, then details-on-demand” springs to mind. Start from the overall concept and information architecture of the document. Prototype and validate different approaches before drilling down to an exact design. The later stages are for perfecting words and graphics.

  5. Hypothesize and gather data.You will need to figure out what improvements you are trying to secure with your new design. Will this design-led document reduce time-to-sign? Lead to less redlining? Establish a better reputation as a business partner? Make hypotheses on how the new design will have a positive impact on behavioural and business metrics – and be serious about following up on those metrics after you launch your redesign.

  6. Dive deep into design. The visual stages of design really come into play at the information architecture level. The overall content strategy also falls under the design phase - visuals and language complement each other, and it’s important to rethink language as well as contract structure.

"Like any other customer touchpoint, contracts should be treated as a venue for value creation and meaningful interaction"

Drafting guru Ken Adams was discussing ‘airportese’ recently - proof that legal isn’t the only industry to suffer from jargon-overload! Are there any other industries you think are particularly guilty? 

Airportese is a dialect of bureaucratese - anytime there’s an official situation, and there’s something you want people to comply with and take seriously, the bureaucratese creeps out. It exists everywhere, because people believe that the only way to be taken seriously is through formality. But you can actually be credible and eloquent without compromising on a human tone of voice.

How can contract design change the way people feel about legal overall? 

You want to design documents that accurately reflect the organization’s values - and if your document doesn’t, then you will lose value in these transactions. 

Like any other customer touchpoint, contracts should be treated as a venue for value creation and meaningful interaction. You should send a coherent message, provide evidence of trustworthiness, and make it easy for the counterparty to act upon such information, so that both parties win. 

Etiquette is also important. Unclear, careless communication is disrespectful to the recipient; it sends the message that clarity and transparency are a luxury. Companies work hard to establish a clear communication strategy that supports brand value in other areas of the customer experience, but when it comes to legal we forget even the most basic notions of marketing, branding, and customer experience. 

Clear communication can help create a powerful and stable relationship that is grounded in respect. Respect the counterparty, and ensure you cater to their needs. Such effort will not be lost on them, and will work as a token of your trustworthiness. 

Thanks, Stefania - until next time!

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Want to learn more about contract design? Check out Stefania's work with the IACCM contract design pattern library.

Topics: Better legal design

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