ur clients often ask us to ‘simplify’ their contracts. What they want is for their clients to understand the terms so that the negotiation is shortened, and the parties know who is responsible for what. We’d call that clarity. But what is the difference between simplicity and clarity, and should you always aim for both?
Sometimes we’ll sacrifice simplicity as an objective but still manage to achieve clarity. For example, there are some topics that are inherently complex. To make sure that we communicate clearly, we may employ a number of techniques, like adding examples or offering support outside of the text. We may even want to add another layer of content for readers who are interested in a more in-depth explanation or further reading.
Simplification is a different goal and if you can simplify your product, process, and contract, you absolutely should. But you should also know that there are limits to how much simpler you can make complex contracts.
So what is our approach?
A contract design approach that has always helped us improve user experience, has been to start with the bigger picture. Spending the bulk of our time understanding the audience and purpose of the contract help us choose the right content, style, tone, and packaging. We set clear objectives for our final product. Sometimes simplicity and clarity are both on our list of objectives. Sometimes.
We aim to achieve simplification on two levels. Firstly, on the product and process level. Complexity in communication is often introduced by products or processes that are unnecessarily complicated. If a client can simplify the product or the process, or both, before we start creating the agreement, our work is that much easier.
Secondly, we want to offer ‘just in time’ content as opposed to ‘just in case’ content. We narrow the content down to the essentials by asking ourselves what the reader needs to be able to do or understand once they have read the agreement.
We see to it that the content that we have thoughtfully included is made clear by applying the principles of plain language to ensure that the audience can easily find what they are looking for, understand it, and use it.
Specifically, we introduce clarity by using
- a clear navigation structure;
- language that is familiar to that audience;
- sentence structure that takes into account the reading abilities of that audience; and
- pronouns and the active voice to make clear who is responsible for what.
In summary, simplification and clarity are excellent objectives in the contract design or redesign process. However, where simplification has limits, we believe clarity is always achievable.