Terms of use
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When changing your terms of use, do you respect your customers?

Recently I received an email from a WordPress-related business telling me its terms of use had been updated. The email didn’t specify what had changed so, for some strange reason (a lawyer’s idle curiosity perhaps), I clicked through to see the latest terms, half hoping to see a change log or a blog post summarising what had changed. Did I find any such thing? No. The terms themselves only had a “Last modified on X date” entry. No change log. No explanatory blog post. And the site contained no archive of previous versions that would enable me to do an automated comparison, assuming I’d be motivated enough to do that. (I suppose one could try the Wayback Machine but a paying customer shouldn’t need to resort to that.)

These terms were over 4,500 words long. I’m not sure how any user is supposed to understand what has changed in these circumstances. In many if not most countries, users will bound by the changes, thanks to what’s called a unilateral variation clause (a clause that allows one contracting party to amend a contract’s terms without the consent of the other party) together with a fairly standard “you’re responsible for reviewing the terms on a regular basis” statement, but the point I’m driving at here is not a legal one. It’s a ‘respect your customers’ one.

Imagine a commercial plugin developer who releases an update to a commercial plugin and says, simply, “we’ve updated the plugin folks”, without any reference to the reason for the update or to what has changed. Just as that’d be poor form, so too is it poor form (in my view anyway) to change your terms of use without any summary of the changes in a notifying email, a change log underneath or linked to from the bottom of the terms, or a blog post.

A statement in any of these places doesn’t need to specify the changes word by word with military precision, but it is helpful to summarise the changes for the (perhaps small) subset of customers who might actually care about what could be a change to their contractual rights or obligations.

I mention this not because I was particularly irked by not being able to identify the changes on this particular occasion (the business in question is superb and I trust it) but because usability / customer experience considerations shouldn’t stop at the point at which a lawyer cobbles together some terms of use for your business or makes some changes to the terms when requested. To the contrary, if I’m a paying customer and my rights or obligations are being changed unilaterally, it is entirely reasonable to expect to be told – even if only in summary form – what is changing.

Now, I know that many sites don’t do this and that many customers wouldn’t care but, in a competitive market, why risk losing those customers who might care about such things to a competitor?

(Featured image: Sergey Nivens / Bigstock.com)

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