Just a couple of weeks ago, I wrote an open letter to Apple, about the shabby state of their end user agreement. The gist being: your superpower is elegant user experience. So why is the user experience of your writing so appalling?
This time it’s Spotify. They’ve updated their terms and conditions in such a way that it basically sounds like they’re making a land-grab for their customers’ private information. Understandably, it’s created a shit-storm of negative publicity.
Magazines like Wired are calling the updates ‘eerie’ and ‘ridiculous’. Influential customers, like Minecraft creator Markus Persson (2.4 million Twitter followers), have tweeted they’ll be cancelling their accounts. And Spotify CEO Daniel Ek has been forced to respond with a blog saying SORRY, and going into a detailed clarification of many of the points.
Are Spotify really trying to sneak one past us? Have they just expressed themselves badly? As a long-time Spotify customer and enthusiast, with just a gut-level sense that they’re not in the screw-your-users-for-profit game, my money is on the latter. But in truth, when you read the updated terms, it’s just not possible to tell.
For instance, their updated terms contain sentences like:
With your permission, we may collect information stored on your mobile device, such as contacts, photos, or media files. Local law may require that you seek the consent of your contacts to provide their personal information to Spotify, which may use that information for the purposes specified in this Privacy.
If you wanted to design a sentence to discombobulate your readers, you couldn’t do much better than this. It’s essentially giving you the linguistic cue that something fishy is going on here by using the vague legalese ‘we may collect information…’, while at the same time presenting itself as utter nonsense (‘seriously, Spotify, you’re saying I might actually have to get permission from my friends because I’m using your music player?!’).
Contrast with the clear, unequivocal, decidedly not legalese language on Daniel Ek’s SORRY blog: ‘Let me be crystal clear here: If you don’t want to share this kind of information, you don’t have to.’
(And, of course, in contrast with just about everything else Spotify write. Even their error messages are usually carefully crafted and engaging.)
I think one thing is abundantly clear: the interplay of privacy and trust, and how this is interwoven into our relationships with the brands in our lives, is currently the defining subject of the social and digital age. And if you’re a brand that’s trying to conduct that relationship with your customers through an end user agreement document that’s the length of a novel and the complexity of Shakespeare, you’re mad. It’s like trying to have an intimate conversation with someone down an extremely long toilet roll, while speaking in a silly voice.
End user agreements are a broken format, not fit for purpose.
I have a challenge for you. There’s a bit of user experience out there in the world that really really sucks. And it’s not just ‘out there in the world’ – it’s in every single one of your products.
I’m challenging you to change it. Everyone else is acting like this is basically impossible. And, well, we all know you have form when it comes to doing the things nobody else can.
The good news is, compared to designing the iPod, this will be a complete breeze. In fact, I’ve already made a start for you, just a few paragraphs further on.
So let me explain what this challenge is, and why you should care so much about it:
Every single day, billions of people across the world are bored, confused and frustrated by the way businesses write to them. Not the glossy advertising stuff. The important stuff: the contracts, the terms and conditions and so on. The words which are meant to explain where we stand, what we’re all signing up to.
You take meticulous care over even the tiniest details of all your products and services. Yet when it comes to your own end user agreements, you seem to have a complete blind spot. They’re a horror show.
The last time my iTunes updated, a menu popped up asking me to click to agree to the updated terms. In the bottom of the screen, the page count said ‘page 1 of 99’. Your Apple Music terms are nearly 20,000 words long. They’d take nearly two hours of my life to read.
And not only are they too long, they’re also a pretty difficult read. If you check the Flesch-Kincaid readability level of your terms, they score in the low thirties. That’s about the same level as the Harvard Law Review – a level that you need a college education to read easily.
I’ve asked lots of people if they’ve ever read one of your end user agreements. Every single one of them has said something along the lines of, ‘Of course not! I just click accept!’*
Frankly, Apple, I think you should be ashamed by that. That’s the equivalent of saying: ‘It’s tricky to make the battery small enough to fit into this iPhone, so we’ll just stick a big bulge on the back.’
It’s lazy and inelegant. And very unApple.
As I said earlier though – compared to, say, inventing the iPod, or launching Apple Pay, this is an absolute breeze.
I’ll show you how easy it is. Below are a couple of paragraphs from your current end user agreement. (Note ‘force majeure’ and ‘thereto’ in the same sentence!) Followed by a few more paragraphs in which I’ve made them sound more, well, Apple.
iTunes will provide the Apple Music Service with reasonable care and skill. iTunes does not make any other promises or warranties about the Apple Music Service and in particular does not warrant that:
(i) your use of the Apple Music Service will be uninterrupted or error-free. You agree that from time to time iTunes may remove the Apple Music Service for indefinite periods of time, or cancel the Apple Music Service at any time for technical or operational reasons and will, to the extent practicable, notify you of this;
(ii) the Apple Music Service will be free from loss, corruption, attack, viruses, interference, hacking, or other security intrusion which shall be events of Force Majeure, and iTunes disclaims any liability relating thereto. You shall be responsible for backing up your own system before, during and after using the Apple Music Service, including any content or data used in connection with or acquired from the Apple Music Service.
(Word count: 273; Flesch Kincaid reading ease score: 33.1)
But you could so easily say:
We do our best to make Apple Music as reliable as possible. But we can’t promise there won’t sometimes be problems. For instance:
(i) We might need to turn off Apple Music because of technical problems.
What’s important about this: we might need to do it at short notice, and we might not always be able to warn you beforehand.
(ii) Apple Music might get hacked, be infected with a virus, or be affected in other ways that are beyond our control. (Lawyers call this ‘force majeure’.)
What this means for you: we’re always working to try to make sure these things don’t happen. But if they do, we’re not responsible for the effects it might have on your system and data. If you’re worried about that, you should back up your stuff. Ideally before you use Apple Music, but during and after too if you want to be extra safe.
(Word count: 151; Flesch Kincaid reading ease score: 73.3)
Isn’t that already feeling more Apple?
And the thing is, if you do this, it’ll change the world.
Because where you lead, entire industries follow. And while I’m happy to go round to them one by one and make the case for them fixing up their writing, frankly, if you do it, then everyone else will just do it too. Overnight, it’ll become the new default standard for communicating legal stuff to customers.
Which would be pretty cool, right?
(And, obviously, if you want a hand, just give us a call. We’ve already made a start, after all.)
*Obviously, some people have read them. Otherwise a Google search wouldn’t bring up all those examples of the bit that says you can’t use iTunes for the development, design, production or manufacture of nuclear, missile, chemical or biological weapons…
It’s a fairly insignificant problem in the grand scheme of things. But it’s always annoyed me that I’ve never really had a satisfactory way to describe my own hair colour. It’s not blonde. It’s not brown. It’s somewhere inbetween.
None of the usual descriptors were quite right. ‘Mousy’ is too unflattering; ‘caramel’ too pretentious; ‘dirty blonde’ too unhygienic. And having two kids with similarly indeterminate barnets has only deepened my identity crisis.
So thank you, L’Oréal, for bringing the word ‘bronde’ to our attention. I don’t know whether they actually coined the word or not, but they’re putting their considerable marketing muscle behind it, and for that, I applaud them. Their new ad campaign – starring the patron saint of brondeness, J-Lo – describes the shade as ‘sexier than a blonde, spicier than a brunette’. Yesssss. Take that, ‘mousy’!
I normally have a low tolerance for fashiony portmanteau words. ‘Shoots’ is too ambiguous (it means ‘shoeboots’, in case you’re wondering). ‘Coatigan’ sounds as frumpy as it looks. And don’t even get me started on ‘treggings’. But ‘bronde’? Utter genius. It’s succinct, useful, accurate and impossible to argue with.
I’m going to be randomly dropping it into conversation until it catches on. Brondes of the world, who’s with me? We will not rest until it’s in the dictionary. We’re worth it.
Since I can remember getting emails, circa AOL dial-up era, my dad has used the same sign-off. ‘Thanx.’ On a road trip from New York to Maryland, I asked him about it. He said that email was so new and futuristic that he wanted a ‘thanks’ that matched that, hence the x.
Now, his ‘Thanx’ is a kind of throwback. To me, it’s personal. It brings back memories of really slow internet. Lengthy emails about college financing. It’s his signature signature.
But in a world of millions of emails from people you haven’t been road tripping with since the 90s, can you really have one sign-off that fits all?
There are plenty of people who think it’s time to say nothing at all, as Rebecca Greenfield recently suggested in Bloomberg Businessweek. She said, ‘sign-offs interrupt the flow of a conversation, anyway, and that’s what email is.’ I agree that not signing off can sometimes be the best option, like when there’s lots of back and forth in an email thread.
But conversations do end, unless you’re stuck with a broken record type (good luck there). Imagine if we ended a conversation with a friend or colleague and walked away without so much as a peace sign. Awkward.
What about when you’re sending a proposal to a prospective client? A one-off message to a far-away colleague? In the recent semantics war against ‘Best’ and other one-size-fits-all sign-offs (see here and here), what’s the way to go if everything is too boring, too impersonal, too lazy?
I say don’t be scared to mix and match. Pairing the context and tone of your email with your sign-off is both thoughtful and professional.
Think about what you’re saying and who it’s going to. Maybe you know them well, or maybe there’s a chance your email will end up in a black hole. Either way, don’t be a ‘Best-er’ who can’t come up with something better. Sign-off, and mean it. It’ll prove you’re not controlled by robots, at least.
To the future,
Foo Fighters’ frontman Dave Grohl has worked hard to earn his reputation as the nicest man in rock. And yesterday’s press release really captures why it’s true.
After breaking his leg at a show in Sweden, the band have had to pull out of their UK tour, including two Wembley Stadium shows and their first ever headline slot at Glastonbury Festival. Gutting. For them and 240,000 ticket buyers.
So what does Dave do?
He tells a compelling story. And it’s a great read full of ups and downs.
He tells the truth, there’s conviction to everything he says.
He writes it as he’d say it in person, ‘fucks’ and all.
It’s proof that if you deliver your bad news in the right way, you can do it without alienating your fans (or customers).
But don’t take my word for it. Look at what their fans had to say.