Easy reads? Yes, please
In recent years, the interest in reading ease of business communication has grown considerably. The financial services industry – an industry that designs and sells products which are intangible and consist entirely of words – is a case in point. Against the backdrop of waning levels of consumer trust in financial institutions such as banks and insurers, several initiatives have recently been deployed in the financial services arena aimed at garnering consumer trust by ‘simplification’ of legally relevant written material such as contracts, standard contract terms, disclaimers and correspondence. Indeed, conventional wisdom is that consumers highly value simple words and sentences and are suspicious of ‘legalese’, legal mumbo jumbo. Moreover, there is ample evidence showing that consumers are badly motivated to read general contract terms in the first place and that they easily suffer from information overload and cognitive depletion when they actually do read. Unsurprisingly then, the policy goal of improving reading ease (‘readability’) of legal documentation has found its way into regulatory agendas. Various EU rules and national rules instruct financial service providers to communicate in a clear, fair and non-misleading way. Moreover, article 5 of the EU Unfair Terms in Consumer Contracts Directive (93/13/EEC) simply commands that general contract terms shall be drafted in plain, intelligible language and that in case of ambiguity the interpretation most favourable to the consumer prevails.
Hence, it seems that lawmakers, regulators and courts alike are keen to support the ‘plain language movement’ by embracing the strive for simplicity in legal documents such as general contract terms. Indeed, at first sight there is much to be said in favour of the ‘plain language movement’. For example, research shows that plain language, consistent use of vocabulary, avoidance of overload and ambiguity, adaptation to the readership and ease of document structure may impact on comprehension, that the use of headers may aid recall and retrieval tasks and that adding connectors, logical structure and coherence markers between sentences is beneficial to inexperienced readers. Likewise, in the area of legal communication there is evidence showing that simplification of legal documents improves clarity for non-expert readership.
But what does it do for consumers?
So, in light of this literature it seems reasonable to assume that simplifying language merely has beneficial effects and that improvement of reading ease automatically accommodates consumer needs. Indeed, when asked, consumers state that they value attempts to simplify wording and structure of general contract terms and that they prefer simplicity over ‘legalese’. But the question remains: what does improved reading ease actually do with consumers? Do consumers develop different attitudes towards the user of the general contract terms? Are they more likely to develop trust in the user of the easy to read contract terms? Do they show more confidence in their own interpretation of the contract, given that they have a better understanding of the wording of the contract? Do they think and act differently when confronted with easy to read contact terms as compared to consumers who are exposed to ‘legalese’?
We know preciously little about whether ‘easy to read contracts’ actually cause consumers to change their attitude towards the contract and the counterpart who drafted the contract terms at hand. The available evidence is ambiguous at best. Therefore, together with co-authors Pieter Desmet and Mark Van Dam, I conducted an experiment on the effect of reading ease in general contract terms on consumers’ perceptions and actions concerning their contractual position. In a recent article for the Journal of Consumer Policy, we report the experiment against the background of the existing literature. In our experiment, we focus on one specific aspect of the effect of reading ease on consumer attitudes and the ‘thinking and deciding’ processes in consumers, namely in a situation of conflict at the stage of performance of the contract.
What we found
Our findings show that easier-to-read insurance contract terms inflate estimates of the compensation that will be awarded in the case of an accident. Second, we investigated whether reading ease also influences the willingness to engage in conflict in case of claims denial. We measured the participants’ willingness to engage in advice seeking, complaint filing or legal action and found evidence for an indirect relationship: improved reading ease raised expectations of coverage which in turn was an important determinant of the willingness to seek information, file complaints or undertake legal action. However, contrary to our expectations we did not find a direct effect of reading ease on this willingness to engage in conflict. One of the explanations for this may be that although the difference in reading ease between the ‘hard’ and ‘easy’ to read versions is in itself significant, the effect size is rather subtle.
What are the implications of our findings? It is clear that in both the European and national context, lawmakers, regulators and courts are increasingly taking an interest in the simplification of legally relevant written documentation in consumer markets such as standard contract terms. This is especially the case in the domain of financial consumer products, where complexity of the product is matched by the complexity of the contractual wording used to describe the product. Regulatory standards in this area are used to push financial service providers to switch to ‘easy to read’ general contract terms. Our findings indicate that enhancing reading ease may also inflate consumer expectations in regard of the performance levels of the professional counterpart. These heightened expectations in turn can influence consumers’ willingness to engage in conflict when such expectations are disappointed. To be clear, we do not advocate that this should stop policy-makers from insisting on improvement of reading ease as a goal in itself but we do point out that there is a caveat. The least that can be said is that blindly regulating towards enhancing reading ease without taking into account its effects on consumer attitudes, expectations and willingness to engage in conflict, may result in parts of the picture remaining unseen. It seems to us that consumer trust in the insurance industry will not benefit if ‘easy to read’ contract terms give rise to raised levels of expectation, only for these to be disappointed in the subsequent claims process. So, ideally, insurance companies would include a ‘road testing’ phase in their product approval procedure to test both the effect of their use of enhanced reading ease on cognitive aspects such as comprehension levels in their consumer audience as well as the effect on the attitudes and the ‘thinking and deciding’ processes in consumers.
Read the article
- Willem H. van Boom, Pieter Desmet, & Mark Van Dam, “If It’s Easy to Read, It’s Easy to Claim”—The Effect of the Readability of Insurance Contracts on Consumer Expectations and Conflict Behaviour, Journal of Consumer Policy (2016) forthcoming