Blog: Do we truly have to agree to online Terms and Conditions blindly?2022-03-29
Our day-to-day activities increasingly depend on digital technologies as we use online services in various contexts of our lives. We use social media and messaging applications to strengthen our social relationships. We use online-based tools for work, entertainment, health and well-being, as well as shopping.
The majority of those technological interactions require us to accept the Terms and Conditions (T&Cs) before we can proceed with using the service. Yet, we rarely read or even look at the content of these agreements. Often, we disregard the terms because of a social norm — nobody else reads them, so why would I do it? We also know that, in most cases, the text is long and hard to understand. It would demand spending an excess of time and mental effort on reading, while frankly, all we want to do is to use a service. Similarly, we might believe that we must agree with the terms because there is no space for contractual negotiation.
In the e-commerce setting, T&Cs are often presented at the end of the transaction (i.e., when we are due to pay for a given product or service), commonly displayed as a hyperlink to another page containing the terms’ full text. We are unlikely to change our minds about the purchase at this stage since we have already placed a lot of effort into product selection, filling forms with personal details, and so on. But what if the terms include critical information which could help us understand our rights or duties after completing the transaction? Is the only way of accessing such information via opening the hyperlinked page with the T&Cs?
My colleagues and I have investigated these questions in a study. We wanted to assess if T&Cs’ different user interface (UI) designs can influence the engagement with terms (opening the terms link) and the awareness of information included in the agreement. We also looked at how design affects satisfaction through effects on awareness. Together with the Swedish Consumer Agency (Konsumentverket), we designed an online experiment with 987 participants, representative of the Swedish population. We asked the participants to interact with a fictional online store; mainly, their task was to complete a purchase.
We found that simple changes in the UI design could improve engagement with the T&Cs. For instance, we saw that nudging participants through a visual cue informing about the reading time of T&Cs significantly affects the opening rate of the terms. Similarly, presenting users with simplified information about the terms supported with imagery (icons relative to the text) improves how aware they are of such information. We also identified that “forcing” users to scroll through the terms is another way to affect their awareness. Additionally, our results suggest the link between consumers’ rational decision-making style and satisfaction, which seems to be moderated by awareness. Such a finding implies that the UI design affecting awareness might impact consumers’ satisfaction, potentially affecting the business-consumer relationship.
So, why is this important? The increasing use of technology and the growing interest of policy-makers in transactional fairness and the prevention of malicious and tricky designs make our findings relevant and valuable. The T&Cs are one of the most common ways of presenting consumers with information related to online purchasing. Yet, some of the current UIs presenting such terms might be considered dark patterns — user interfaces that trick users into predictable choices and decisions, beneficial to the service provider but not optimal for users.
Increasing awareness of the T&Cs is one way to ensure transactional fairness and decrease the information imbalance between the service provider and consumer. It is also a way to comply with some of the legal requirements. Online companies could use the knowledge produced in our study to ensure that their designs positively affect consumers. Implementing our proposed designs into their UI design could also benefit companies by increasing consumer satisfaction.
If you want to learn more about our findings and the positive effects of tested UIs on consumer decision-making, see the pre-print of our article “Online Terms and Conditions: Improving Engagement, Awareness, and Satisfaction through UI Design”, in which we also discuss the potential misuse of such designs, which could become dark patterns that trick consumers — hiding information that could be genuinely relevant to their decisions.
Kitkowska, A., Högberg, J., & Wästlund, E. (2022). Online Terms and Conditions: Improving Engagement, Awareness, and Satisfaction through UI Design. Proceedings of the ACM CHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing System.