Why Every Terms of Service Page Needs Summaries

by on 06/03/14 at 10:31 am

Have you ever read the terms of service agreement that you agree to when you sign up for a website? A survey shows only 7% of users read the full terms when signing up for online products and services. Terms of service agreements are so wordy and legalistic it’s no wonder why users don’t read them.

One research study found that most terms of service agreements have between 1000-8000 words. On top of that, users need at least a college sophomore reading level to understand them. A related research study estimates that the average user sees about 1462 privacy policies a year. If users read every privacy policy for each new site they visited, they would each spend about 244 hours per year to read them.

All this shows websites are to blame. Websites need to make their terms of service comprehensible. If they don’t, users could abuse the site, violate laws or harm other users without knowing so. Websites could also lose many users if they’re not clear with what their terms mean.

Websites need to change how they present their terms of service pages to users. There’s not much they can change about the length and wording. This is because legal contracts need precision and clarity so that users can’t interpret or bend terms in their favor. But one thing websites can do is offer a summary next to each term that simplifies the length and wording into layman’s terms. There are a couple of websites already doing this, but more need to catch on.

If terms of service agreements had term summaries, more users would be able to read and understand them. This would allow them to know what rights they have, and what rights they’re giving up before they sign up for a website. Not only that, but websites would have more users following the rules.

Forcing users to read a lengthy, complicated terms of service is unjust. Every terms of service page should have term summaries so that it’s user-friendly to read. Maybe then users will finally know what rights they have and feel safer using new websites.


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8 Responses to “Why Every Terms of Service Page Needs Summaries”

  1. Vincent

    Jun 3rd, 2014

    Relevant: ToS;DR

  2. Kurt Sinclair

    Jun 4th, 2014

    If your TOS are a selling point (ie contain no terms that are likely to dissuade), then by all means display a summary. It serves as a persuasion asset, likely to further attract the user to your service.

    If however – like most businesses – your TOS contain terms that are likely to dissuade, you’d do better to stick with the ‘bad’ pattern.

    It may well be what the user wants but you’d be crazy to display them, knowing that it will cause fewer users to perform the desired action.

    I just don’t see it working commercially.

  3. eeklipzz

    Jun 5th, 2014

    Thanks so much for putting this together! I shared this information on to my team at work, which generated a lot of talk on how we handle terms of service. We came to a consensus that your “good” example would be even better if the summaries were on the left instead of the right. I wonder what can be done about mobile though.

  4. Tobias

    Jul 30th, 2014

    Hi, I don’t think this is the right way to go. Adding an extra Layer of information to a page that is already overloaded with information is the wrong way to go.
    Also: Your summary has to be legally valid. So writing the summary correctly is hard and make writing a good terms-page even harder.

    I believe the right way is to spend this extra time and effort in structuring your base-text with good headlines and writing good copy.

    And yes, this is really hard but some companies/startups start doing a good job.

  5. Niclas

    Jul 31st, 2014

    Nice article! Thanks!

    Awesome idea, eeklipzz.

  6. Ross Hall

    Sep 15th, 2014

    In the UK certain financial services products are required to have a summary document by regulation. Sometimes called the “Key Facts” document, these are intended to bring the significant conditions and exclusions to the attention of the customer. Having worked with these for about a decade I have some observations …

    1. The process of pulling together the summary has value. It can lead to challenges against the underlying terms and conditions, prompt a rewrite in “plain english” and so on;

    2. It also prompts a review of customer service data. What are the most common sources of “I didn’t understand” type complaints? These can prompt inclusions in the summaries, as well as reviews of processes, products and so on;

    3. The good and bad need to be balanced. Saying what isn’t covered by an insurance policy isn’t such a bad thing as a lot of assumptions float around.

    Below is a link to some research by the FSA (now the FCA) on their key facts documents that may be of interest…

  7. Law Doctor

    Oct 8th, 2015

    As an attorney who specializes in a very different field of law, integrating the above idea into a site will likely reap the benefits one seeks; however, the negative externalities from doing so are too great. Ask yourself, why utilize a TOS and why do lawyers write so freaking cryptically? The malleable nature and inherent vagaries of the English language are the foundation of the U.S.A. judicial system. So by “dumbing down” the TOS, you are effectively opening the litigation door. Lawsuits are won and lost by, what appears, trivial alterations. I know of two cases that turned on a semicolon placement and the use of “that” over “which.” I don’t write my own TOS. Anyone with a high school education and a spare couple of hours is capable of fully understanding your legal risks and expectations.

    • Law Doctor

      Oct 8th, 2015

      That said, there is a movement within the legal community to create a more understandable approach to contracts and, case in point, similar documents outlining legal expectations. I applaud the author for recognizing and bring to improve upon an archaic standard.

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