Five Steps to Creating a Plain Language Legal Notice
Your new credit card has just arrived in the mail and you pull the card out to validate it. If you’re like most of us, you vaguely glance at the brochure with all the fine print enclosed in the envelope and either chuck it or perhaps file it.
By using the credit card, you are agreeing to all those complex terms and conditions in the brochure that we ignored. Who can understand it, let alone argue with a big organization over the fine print?
Don’t Assume No One Will Read It
A B.C. man recently did just that. He actually sat down and read the 66 page card holder agreement that came from the TD Bank with his new credit card. Buried in the middle of the text was a disclosure that the bank would collect details about user online preferences and activities on browsers or mobile devices. He objected, so TD provide him with an individually modified agreement, and explained that the words may suggest the bank is doing more tracking than they actually are. But the gentleman went to the CBC with the story when the bank’s printed card holder agreement remained unchanged 18 months later.
Clarity Builds Goodwill
While a lengthy and complex legal document may meet the letter of the law, it is unlikely to provide your customers with a meaningful opportunity to actually understand your organization’s practices in relation to collection, use and disclosure of their personal information. Without that understanding, consent is not truly informed and the trust-based relationship you strive to build with your customers may be undermined.
Spotify learned this lesson the hard way earlier this year. It suffered an online backlash when it changed its policy to permit it to collect all sorts of personal information from users such as personal photos and media files stored on personal devices, contact lists and Facebook “likes”.
Spotify responded by creating a new version of the policy using plain language drafting principles. Spotify still seeks the right to collect the same personal information as before – it just explains why it wants the information and what will be done with it more clearly and specifically.
Plain language drafting is a best practice in creating a clear and transparent privacy notice. Plain language doesn’t mean you have to back off collecting the information you need or want to collect. It does mean that you will have to give your users a very clear understanding of the who, what, where, when and why of the information you are seeking their permission to collect.
This will support building an open and trust-based relationship with your customer and user community that will go a long way further for your organization than burying your data collection practices in the legalese so that nobody will figure it out to complain. In fact, the US Federal Trade Commission has brought prosecutions against various companies for unfair and deceptive trade practices where they have “buried” their personal information collection practices.
Five Steps for Plain Language Drafting
1. Identify Your Audience: Understand who you are writing for, and how they will be interacting with your organization. Take into account factors such as the age range (are you targeting kids? seniors?) and the likely computer experience of your target audience.
3. Write the Content in Plain Language: Use short logical sentences and a conversational rather than legalistic tone. Remember that the basic rule is to write for a Grade 8 reading level. Avoid jargon and use common words that your audience is likely to know.
4. Use Information Design to Help Readers See and Understand: People are more likely to read visually appealing material. Visual aids that are helpful in improving readability include headers, lots of white space, easy to read typefaces with a font size that is not too small, and graphic images where appropriate.
5. Test the Design and Content with User Groups: Run your plain language policy by people before going live. Get their input on what works and what may be unclear.