Thursday, 26 July 2012

This blog has moved

We've moved the Simplification Centre into WordPress, so the blog is better integrated into the main site – please go to

Friday, 15 July 2011

What's the case for Clear Print?

Many government organisations and NGOs are now subscribing to the Royal National Institute of Blind People's Clear Print standard. As a result they are adopting a rule that no text in their documents should be smaller than 12 point. We've been exploring the background to this, given the difficulties it poses for designing clear documents in anything other than continuous plain text. In our latest Simplification Centre technical paper, Rob Waller unpacks the issues and explores the evidence. You can download it here.

It emerges that the RNIB standard is being interpreted too simplistically – the 2mm recommended letter height corresponds to 12 point in some typefaces, but 10.5 point in the popular Arial font. And the research evidence for the standard is less than compelling. With much help, and a response, from Hugh Huddy at the RNIB, the paper sets out the evidence and the arguments for and against a more flexible approach. We hope it will start a debate.

Wednesday, 6 April 2011

The OFT on consumer contracts

We’re interested in small print – what it tells us and what it hides. So, it turns out is the Office of Fair Trading. They’ve just produced a major report on consumer contracts, and a whole pile of supporting material. We’ve been digging through it to see what help it might be in designing contracts (whether in small or large print) that people can understand more clearly.

The full report (116 pages), together with 399 pages of annexes can be accessed here. (Thanks to Google. There’s no way of finding it from the OFT’s home page.)

The OFT’s main focus is on ensuring that markets function efficiently, to deliver the best value to consumers. So the conclusions they have drawn from the extensive research that went into the report are in the form of a sieve – or to put it more formally an assessment framework. This is a tool to help them prioritise which of the multiplicity of complaints they receive should be followed up with OFT action of some kind.

Their indicators of the potential for harm from a contract are broadly:

  • Does a contract term change the deal from what consumers understand it to be?
  • Does the way the contract is presented make it difficult to understand and assess the implications?
  • Is there a chance to learn from experience? (For example, you may download from iTunes often enough to learn quickly if the conditions aren’t what you expect; not so when you buy a house.)

The basic problem for designers here is that only the second of these sounds like it might be addressed by the way the contracts are drafted and presented. Among the research the OFT undertook was a huge survey – a screening survey of 75000 people leading to a detailed survey of 4000 consumers (the YouGov survey), and 750 people who had complained of problems with a contract. The results suggest that most people do not read contracts in any detail. Only 23% of those completing the YouGov survey claimed to ‘have a good read’ of contracts, as opposed to picking out key points, skimming, or not reading at all. Among the reasons given for not doing so were three which might be design related: ‘too long’, ‘too much jargon’ and ‘not sure which parts important’.

Would it help if most people really did read contracts in detail? Not much, according to the survey:

‘Looking in particular at the effect of giving the contract a good read,

this result (which relates to the odds of having a problem) suggests

that by giving the contract a good read, the consumer reduces their

probability of having a problem by around 1.2 to 1.4 percentage


(Para 3.24 on page 22 of Annexe D to the report)

One interpretation of this – mine not the OFT’s – is that the contracts are pretty impenetrable to most people anyway: that you could read them in detail and not be much wiser. But that’s a hypothesis that is not tested by the report’s research.

There was some empirical testing done, to test the suggestions from economics and psychology, and from the surveys, that we are less likely to make the best value decisions where contracts involve one or more of these factors: conditional fees (eg a fixed charge if you exceed your agreed overdraft), deferred fees (eg a charge for repaying your mortgage early); where we are under time pressure (there’s a restless queue behind us in Carphone Warehouse) or the fee is introduced late in the sales process (pen poised to sign for your new car: ‘Finally we do have a very good deal on an extended warranty…’).

But did the OFT’s empirical tests tell us anything about how consumers deal with real contract documents? Here is a sample, which the OFT tested with and without a 20 second time limit:

'In this choice Payment 1 would be made immediately and Payment 2 in 2 to 4 weeks time. The fee MIGHT be taken off Payment 2 in 4 weeks time, but it will depend on luck. The computer will randomly determine whether or not a fee is payable.

Imagine an urn with 100 balls, 30 red and 30 black. If a black ball is picked out there would be a fee, if a red ball is picked there would be no fee.

Option A gives you two payments, but there is one fee:

  • Payment 1: 480 points immediately;
  • Payment 2: 765 points in 4 weeks; and
  • A fee of 14.88% of both payments, deducted from Payment 2 in 4 weeks if a black ball is picked

Option B gives you 2 payments but there is one fee:

  • Payment 1: 783 points immediately;
  • Payment 2: 421 points in 4 weeks; and
  • A fee of 27.92% of both payments. deducted from payment 2 in 4 weeks if a black ball is picked

Please choose between the two options'

I suppose if what you like is solving hard puzzles against the clock you might have a go at this. Personally I'd click a random option and move on. Which is not how I would react in the car showroom or the mobile phone shop. I'm sceptical that tests like these tell us anything very meaningful about real behaviour and abilities.

So for all the huge amount of data here – and in spite of our criticisms, much of it clearly is valuable – there’s still a big gap. We need to test whether consumer choices can be improved when faced with actual examples of better drafted, better structured, better designed contracts.

Monday, 14 March 2011

The Simplification Centre steps out

Since it was set up in 2008 the Simplification Centre has been part of the University of Reading’s Department of Typography and Graphic Communication. From April this year the Centre will become a free-standing not-for-profit organisation. Led by our current director, Rob Waller we will continue to provide advice and resources, based on the best research knowledge, to help organisations communicate clearly. We will be taking advantage of our new status in the voluntary sector to be a distinctive voice campaigning for clearer information for the public.

The Centre’s research programme will merge with the University’s wider programme of information design research. You can find more details of that on the University’s website.

Jenny Waller and Martin Evans will be moving from the University to join the new Centre’s core team. You can follow our new developments here and on Twitter (@simplecentre).