Terms of Service are part of UX!

I feel like many e-commerce, services and electronics companies don’t take the user experience of their legal paperwork into account.

Let’s say, we do a focus group test for a sign-up process for some sort of digital platform or product.

We have 20 candidates sign up for our service and look at how much time they’re spending.

In e-commerce, the speed and ease of these processes often determines the success of the product. If a sign-up process is terribly slow, the conversion rate at the sign-up process will drop, so product designers try to make this process as efficient as possible.

Now let’s say we have a sign-up process that is designed to take three minutes in which the user is asked to accept the license agreement and terms of service.

For the sake of the trial, one might encourage users to just accept the agreement without reading because reading the ToS just takes a very long time. Or one might even provide a placeholder ToS string that is presented to the users in the trial.

But here’s the catch:

If your final service or product comes with terms of service that take an hour to read, then the sign-up process isn’t three minutes long. It’s an hour and three minutes!

One could argue that users don’t read the terms of service anyway and as such, they’re not affecting the time of the sign-on process. 

However, UX research should take into account what the user should do. For example, when doing testing an automotive on-boarding feature, you’ll ask users to fasten the seat belt (even if you’re doing the test in a simulator without the vehicle actually moving). If putting on the seat belt ends up being a horrible experience, ignoring it doesn’t make it better, but your engineers should come up with a better seat belt!

By providing ToS, you’re implying that the user should read them. Expecting that users don’t would mean that you wouldn’t need the ToS in the first place.

For a product offering that expects users to accept ToS, the ToS themselves are part of the UX design. In this case, your corporate lawyers are taking on a part of the UX role. The effect of the legal paperwork they add to the end user's experience cannot be ignored.

Going back to our focus group, we basically have three options for UX research and product design:

Option 1:

We don’t need extensive ToS.

The sign-up takes 3 minutes

This is, obviously, the best-case scenario, but in reality, your lawyers probably wouldn’t like it.

Option 2:

We do need extensive ToS.

Run the focus group and see if users read the ToS.

  • If they don’t thoroughly read it, the design of the sign-up process should be changed until all of the candidates read the entire ToS, because the ToS are an integral part of the sign-up process.
  • If they do read it, it’ll take them over an hour to sign up. If this is too long (and conversion rates wouldn’t be satisfactory), blame your lawyers and not UX designers.

Option 3:

We do need extensive ToS but assume users don’t read them.

(Don’t do that!)

We run the focus group but

  • Encourage users attending the trial to not read the ToS
  • ...Or replace the ToS with a short placeholder
  • ...Or ignore if users accept the ToS without reading

This means that we would say “here is this legally binding document governing our business relationship but I hope you don’t read it”.

Apart from the obvious hypocrisy this creates this problem:

If your own user tests show that the ToS aren’t being read and understood, one could argue, you accept them as not being read, potentially rendering them legally non-binding.


Terms of Service are a part of of product design. They define the way users think about and interact with the product. We can’t just ignore it, for the sake of UX. If we want better user experience, we should make the ToS easier to understand and read.

“But our lawyers say it’s necessary” is not an excuse.

If your lawyers think it’s necessary to have ToS that take an hour to read, then the product should be designed in a way that every user reads them, even if it takes an hour. If your UX team doens't like that, then there's a clear discrepancy between UX and legal. But this cannot be resolved by ignoring the ToS for the sake of UX.

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