Don’t like reading terms and conditions? It’s not just you

During my lunch break, I came across this article in the New York Times. It talks about privacy policies for a number of companies — and the vast majority of them are nearly incomprehensible. According to the metrics in the article, comprehending privacy policies requires a minimum of a college degree — and even then, they may not be understandable. As mentioned in the article, the policies were not written to inform the public (read: you) as much as to protect the company. It brought to mind a research article that I read in grad school. It had to do with legal documents, the language of legalese, and how it was nearly incomprehensible. I don’t remember the specifics of it (grad school was a long time ago), but the gist of it was that these documents were purposely written that way in order that any ambiguous language was eliminated and things were made clear. And when I say “clear,” I mean that definitions were defined and unequivocal. Readable, however, is another story.

I could get into data security and how privacy policies exist for your protection, but that’s not why I’m writing this article. (I’ll leave it to people like Steve Jones to address that aspect.) Rather, I’m writing this because I’m a technical writer (among other things), and document readability is a big deal to me. Indeed, this is a major point of emphasis in both of my presentations about talking to non-techies and documentation, and is one of my biggest document pet peeves.

Readability is a huge deal in documentation. Legalese may be a big deal for making sure definitions are unambiguous, but it is inappropriate for something like, say, step-by-step instructions. When I’m writing instructions, I follow a rule of thumb where if an instruction takes longer than a few seconds for the reader to understand, the instruction has failed. I continue to be appalled by technologists who insist on writing every little bit of detail in their instructions and end up with a “step by step” that is one big black body of text. And I’m continually annoyed when that person says, “it’s right there in the documentation,” but the information you seek is buried somewhere in the middle of the 100+ lines of text that (s)he wrote that takes about an hour to read.

When I talk about documentation and instructing people, one tenet that I actively push is the KISS principle. But even this is not easy to do, and people take that for granted. Indeed, this is what technical writers, UX/UI developers, and instructors do; they are in the business of taking incomprehensible technical language and translating it for people to understand.

Do privacy policies really need to be that incomprehensible? I don’t have an answer to that right now; that might be another article for another time. But what I do know is, if their intent is to inform people, especially the general public, they fail miserably.

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