Lesson: Don’t Bury Important Stuff in Your TOS
Today, someone at one of my favorite link sharing sites Hacker News shared a link to a four year old article from the San Francisco Chronicle about photo sharing site Ofoto (which is now Kodak Gallery). The article relates the story of a woman who signed up for Ofoto in order to store photos because the site offered free image sharing space. 12 months later, though, her photos were deleted without warning (sort of).
As it turns out, Ofoto had a clause in their terms of service saying they could delete a user’s photos if the user hadn’t purchased one of their products or services over the past 12 months. Apparently, the stipulation was buried deep in the fine print. To Ofoto’s credit, they said they tried to contact the customer five times by email before deleting her photos — which was their policy, but the email address on file wasn’t valid.
Kodak Gallery still has the same rule, but it only mentions it in tiny print on their sign up page, and in bold in the first paragraph of their TOS. That’s better than Ofoto, but shouldn’t such an important bit of information be made more clear to users? Burying that information in fine print, or even worse in the terms of service, almost ensures that users will miss it.
So why don’t people read terms of service and other web site policy documents? Because we’ve been conditioned not to. User agreements and policies are more often than not thousands of words long (i.e., multiple printed pages), and written at a college grade level. Would you read a terms of service document that’s 8 pages long and reads like a college text book? Would you read every one you come across in the course of using the Internet on a daily basis?
So there are two important lessons here:
- Don’t bury important information in policy documents. If there is anything vital that your users should know, spell it out to them clearly and somewhere they’ll actually read it.
Both of these lessons can be boiled into one simple axiom: a positive user experience should be paramount. According to the Chronicle article, that was the lesson Ofoto learned as well. “[Ofoto] may start alerting members to the looming demise of their photo albums when they log on to the site — a much more consumer-friendly approach,” they reported. Of course, four years later Kodak Gallery has the same policy and doesn’t seem to make much of an attempt to make it clear to users before they sign up. Seems like they might still have some learning to do.