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Making the small print legible

Banking & Finance documents can be really, really difficult to navigate. How might we make them accessible and transparent?

Photo of Jes Simson
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It seems like a lifetime ago, but I used to be a banking & finance lawyer.  If there is one think I learnt during this time, it is that banking documents can be really, really complicated and inaccessible.  They don't need to be. 

Banking & Finance products are relatively simple.  You borrow money.  You agree to pay back that money + some more money at a later date.  If you don't, there's a consequence.  So, how might we translate this simplicity into documents that are more accessible and transparent?  

Here are a few thoughts on design principles that might aid understanding: 

(1) Design for Understanding

  • Complex ideas communicated simply.   Design is beautifully adept at making complex things easy to understand.  In his TED talk "Let's cut the legal jargon!" (above), Alan Siegel argues that "simplicity is a means to achieving clarity, transparency and empathy" (slides available here).  Although complex, banking documents can be communicated with simplicity.  

  • Words matter, use them wisely.   Use simple, accessible language.  Use active verbs.  Use concrete, accessible examples.  Keep sentences short.  Tone matters, make it approachable.  Don't cloak meaning in acronyms, jargon, abstractions or euphemisms.  

  • Accessible Visual Design.  Design the document to aid understanding.  There are ways to design documents so that people won't read it (like online ALL CAPS terms & conditions without paragraphs in a tiny window that we are all familiar with).  If words fail, sketches can be a great way to communicate key points.  

(2) Make risks & obligations bleedin' obvious

  • Put the important stuff front and centre.   It's easy to hide key clauses deep in the  fine print.  Organise and structure the document so that it intuitively makes sense. 

  • Learn by doing.  Interest calculations and payment plans (etc) can be really abstract.  How do we humanise these and make them easy to understand? (see Alan Siegel's example above). 

  • Give weight to real risks.  Cognitively, we humans aren't necessarily great at predicting future events.  We can be really overconfident that good things will happen and fail to realise what might go wrong.  How might we communicate risks and obligations to empower consumers to empathise with their future selves?  How might we empower people to make decisions that are their best long term interest?

(3) Design for Humans

Accept the fact that nobody wants to read the document.  It's a chore.  It's pretty boring.  It's unfamiliar.  The terms are generally one sided.  The consequences are quite scary.  It's really easy to switch off.  

(4) Design for inclusion 

Some legal contracts can be quite paternalistic.  They assume that the lawyer / company know's best. This is really disempowering. 

  • Arm consumers with the unadulterated facts and let them make decisions for themselves. 

  • Clearly define the knowledge that you assume your consumer has and then provide ways for your consumer to acquire that knowledge if they want it. 

(5) Make banking products simpler 

It's difficult to craft a simple banking document when the underlying product is really complex. 

UPDATE: How might we encourage Banks / Finance companies to change their communications?

Here are some thoughts on why banks / finance companies should care about better communications.  Of course, this all has to be balanced against the business benefits to banks / finance companies of their current communications strategies. 

  • Branding: A bank might be able to pitch themselves as more trustworthy, more friendly, and easy / simple to deal with if their communications are user friendly and easy to understand.  Banks in Australia are really trying to position themselves as easy, simple and user friendly, so there seems to be some movement here.   

  • Customers understand their risks and obligations: A customer is probably going to be less risky if they fully understand the risks and obligations that are incurring. Customer service teams might also spend less time explaining risks / obligations to customers (which saves money). 

  • Increased customer satisfaction has a lot of knock on effects - like people referring their bank to friends and less customer churn. 

  • Increase customer lifetime value / decrease churn rates: Banks (in Australia at least) have really low churn rates.  Once someone signs up to a bank, they aren't likely to swap.  Churn rates are problematic where the cost to acquire a new customer is quite high (eg: through big advertising spends, interest rate sweeteners, free transaction accounts etc).  If someone has a really, really bad experience and thinks they've been caught by 'unfair' fine print, then they might leave the bank. If enough people do this, then it's a problem for the bank. 

  • De-risking portfolio: If the financial crisis taught us anything, it's that systemic miscalculation of risk is really, really dangerous.  Surely if you've got whole classes of consumers who don't really understand the risks and obligations they are undertaking or miscalculate their ability to make repayments in the future, this could collectively be quite risky for banks. 

  • Satisfying regulations - Banks have to comply with a lot of consumer protection laws to make sure that their consumers know what they are signing up to.  


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Photo of Trevor z Hallstein

These were great insights .. is there an idea that can float out of this for the ideas phase..?

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