Readability Means Access

(This is a repost from when I published it last fall. It was an interesting thought that I wanted to have filed on this blog.)

Growing up, I’ve always thought it was strange that I was enrolled in AP English literature classes and was reading the classics with relative ease while I couldn’t read a mortgage contract to save my life. Initially, my reaction was to blame the education system for teaching me a skill – deciphering the metaphors and symbolisms of dead white men – that had no application to the modern world. But even after grad school, I still can’t figure out the differences between three health insurance plans.

Allison Arieff, a NY Times columnist, wrote an interesting piece calling for support of a national design policy. Part of her argument is that official documents like contracts, mortgages, credit card information are inherently hard to read for the average American – never mind a high school kid. The consequence of having a national design policy would be the liberation of information to the masses.

Whether it’s intentional or not, poor design has kept crucial information hidden from the people who need it the most. People who are buying their first home, getting their first credit card, or frantically filling out a form at the emergency room are all vulnerable to making mistakes while making these very important decisions.

Clear and understandable documents will allow us to better use the counsel of experts. I remember my parents spent hours with the realtor understanding the terms of the contract. What they should’ve been doing is strategizing the best way to tackle that huge mortgage. Good design has the ability to make the grunt work easier so you can spend more time on bigger things.

And lastly, good design is good customer service. Nothing is a bigger “fuck you” than 42 pages of legalese in 10-point font. When we think about how everything is a touch point for a brand experience, something that looks like a page from the dictionary is starting the relationship off on the wrong foot. It sets up a relationship that is not about the brand in service to the customer. It’s a relationship about the brand doing what it wants and the customer working around that to align with the brand.

That may be nuanced. But I think it adds to why we think governments, HMOs and mortgage companies are inaccessible bureaucratic monsters that we have to do battle with to get the things that they are supposed to be offering us. Readability means access. And these are the organizations that shouldn’t be holding things from us.


2 responses to “Readability Means Access”

  1. girlgeum says :

    By using language that people can understand goes a long way. But maybe that’s it, they don’t want to. How else will people be trapped into paying for what they really didn’t understand in the first place?

    Did you read those books because you enjoyed them or you had to?

    Do we read contracts or other things like them because we enjoy them or we have to?

  2. Nien says :

    Haha, that’s true. Sometimes it does seem like a huge scam where people are purposely making things hard to understand.

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