C’mon! Match Terms of Use Text to Users’ Comprehension Level

When users register on a website, they are obligated to adhere to the site’s Terms of Use [i], but how realistic is this obligation when users can’t understand the Terms? It would see the notion that Terms of Use should be written in language accessible to a site’s target audience is a concept sorely lacking in many company’s considerations.

To show how inaccessible the content in Terms of Use are, I ran several through a readability index – which is designed to gauge how easy a text is to read and calculates an estimate of the  (U.S.) grade level needed to fully comprehend the text. (I chose the Flesch-Kincaid Grade level model for this comparison.)

It doesn’t require a lot of thought to see how far out of end-user comprehension many of these Terms of Use actually are. To fully understand the iPhone App store’s or MTV’s Terms, a user needs a PhD – yet their target audience is teens. And little kids don’t stand a chance – they need to be in college before they’ll be able to grasp the Terms imposed by Club Penguin or NeoPets.

Comprehension level required to understand the Terms of Use for common adult sites:
  • Bank of America  – requires a college graduate’s reading comprehension level (Grade17)
  • Amazon – requires a third year college student’s reading comprehension level (Grade15)
  • New York Times  – requires a first year college student’s reading comprehension level (Grade13)
  • Twitter – requires a third year college student’s reading comprehension level (Grade15)
Comprehension level required to understand the Terms of Use for common teen sites:
  • iPhone App Store – requires a PhD’s reading comprehension level (Grade20)
  • MTV – requires a PhD’s reading comprehension level (Grade21)
  • Facebook  -requires an high school junior’s reading comprehension level (Grade 11)
Comprehension level required to understand the Terms of Use for common kids sites:
  • Club Penguin – requires a first year college student’s reading comprehension level (Grade13)
  • NeoPets – requires a first year college student’s reading comprehension level (Grade13)
  • Webkinz – requires a high school senior’s reading comprehension level (Grade 12)

If we want users to improve their behavior and be better digital citizens, it wouldn’t hurt to explain their obligations in terms they can grasp.

Linda


 

[i] For more information on consumers’ obligations, see my blog Website’s Rights and Responsibilities – They are Far More Than ‘Fine Print’)

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