By Liezl van Zyl

Poor writing can ruin your great design

Legal design is taking off, but good design is so much more than good graphics. Here's how to ensure that your content doesn't ruin your design.

The legal design movement has been gaining momentum around the world. We’ve seen great work from companies who are doing user research, creating contracts, systems, and processes that build relationships, solve problems, and improve access to justice. You’re expecting the ‘but’, right? Well, here it is: great design is nothing without great content.

This article is based on Julie Chabin’s blog. I’ve simply applied her words to contract design. I’ve always believed that we can and should learn from other fields – whether it’s UX writing or design, biomimicry, behavioural economics, or the art of hostage negotiation.

By the way, even if you’re not a designer or interested in UX, her article is a must-read because it’s great and has fantastic resources. Also, she has a ‘Lorem Ipsum’ tattoo.

Design your content
“You could be a great (lawyer), but a terrible (legal designer). Most people don’t know how to talk to readers because they don’t understand who ‘readers’ are”.

Think about who you are creating the contract for. What kind of relationship do you want the parties to have? What problems are you trying to help them solve? You need to put yourself in the reader’s shoes; not necessarily your client’s shoes, lawyer’s shoes, or whatever shoes judges are wearing.

Here are the UX writing rules that absolutely apply to great contract design:

💡 Good writing rules

  • Clear: I can understand it even if I’m not an expert
  • Short: it focuses on what matters now
  • Aware: it takes my current situation into account
  • Helpful: it helps me with my goal
  • Honest: it’s not trying to trick me into something
  • Spoken: the interface is having a conversation with me

Know who you are talking to

Your contract won’t ‘speak’ the same if it’s a business-to-business contract sent to marketing, a privacy notice for a gaming product, or a medical consent form.

While you may have a personal writing style (or your profession has a writing style), remember that legal design speaks the language of your reader.

💡 Find the contract’s voice

  • Research how other products aimed at that audience ‘sound’. Not necessarily other contracts – any other products the reader consumes.
  • If you have a marketing department, look at how they speak to your readers. This will give you a sense of the existing tone of voice and will help you identify writing that is off-brand. Yes, contracts reflect a brand. For better or worse.
  • Create personas to help you write copy that works for the reader. If you don’t know what that means, we should talk. I can help.

Make it clear

Good writing should help readers quickly understand what they can do and how they can do it, even if they don’t read every word. Yup, it shouldn’t be a surprise, readers don’t read every word of your carefully crafted contract. It’s your job to help them get what they need just by scanning your contract.

Also, don’t assume that readers understand technical terms, acronyms, or your jokes. Even if you’re part of the same crowd.

💡 Keep it simple

  • Use plain language
  • If you must use a technical term, explain it
  • Avoid idioms, jargon, and acronyms
  • Remove unnecessary words

Keep the context in mind

Be aware of the context in which the reader will read the contract. We know that readers seldom look at contracts in detail when the relationship is fresh, new, and exciting (think prenups, policy wording, or terms and conditions), but that they scrutinise them when things go wrong. Be aware of the hot state readers are in when they really read the contract. Now, write for that reader.

💡 Adapt to the situation

  • What are the readers trying to do?
  • What do they need to know?
  • What information isn’t needed right now?
  • If the situation requires reassurance, what can be said?

Be true and accurate

There is a lingering misconception that plain language (and legal design by extension) is not precise. To which I say: Joseph Kimble. Find him, read him, you’re welcome.

The purpose of your contract is to manage a relationship, and as we know, relationships thrive on clear communication; on dialogue instead of a monologue. So, make changes if it feels like a speech and not a conversation.

💡 Copy checklist

  • Can it be shorter?
  • Is the contract talking about the parties, or to the parties?
  • Have you preferred the active voice?
  • Have you used the most basic form of the verb? Need a refresher? Check out writing hacks for lawyers.

Test your contracts

Companies spend large sums of money testing which cucumber or blend of wool customers prefer, but little to nothing on how their contracts make their readers feel. Talk to your readers to identify pain points and to learn what vocabulary people naturally use. You will be surprised. When we do our user testing, we always ask a standard question within the context of a contract clause: what is a natural person? The answer we’re looking for is that a natural person is an ‘individual’ or something to that effect. Instead, we get answers like ‘a person who does not wear make-up’. True story.

💡 Test the text

  • Test the content during reader interviews
  • Run A/B tests to make data-driven decisions
  • Update your contract with your learnings

Some resources

We’ve seen many legal design projects that are heavy on the design, but without any real change to the language. That is not legal design.

If you want to learn about what legal design is, here is a great white paper by our friend Anna at Aclara Legal Design.

If you want to get better at writing for humans, here is a course.

If you want to improve your legal design skills, here is an online masterclass.

And if you want to have coffee with me so that we can talk about this some more, DM me on LinkedIn. @Liezl van Zyl.

Go, be amazing!