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AskTog, August, 2001

Good Lawyers, Bad Products

   Lawyers are destroying the usability of American products. It's bad enough in the paper world, where user manuals invariably start with an "idiot section" ("Do not use this toaster while taking a bath.") However, consumers soon learn to skip to section 2, and life goes on.

In the world of computerized products, we have not been so lucky. Work comes to a standstill while we look for the button to vanish the tiny box with the even tinier type. Leisure comes to a standstill while we learn that the FBI is going to take time out of their busy schedule to break into our house and arrest us if we dare make a copy of some third-rate DVD.

More recently, lawyers are threatening to bring life to a permanent standstill. They are bogging down automotive and aviation GPS units with the same unread verbiage and OK buttons with which they have attacked software.

Car drivers are required, for example, to agree that the GPS could be distracting while the vehicle is moving. They form this agreement by pressing an undersized button before the moving map will display. Trying to hit this button in a moving vehicle is a far more dangerous task than glancing at a moving map.

Q-tips has been selling a product expressly designed for and used for cleaning the depths of the ear canal. They have been allowed to avoid liability by having a particularly hilarious set of instructions on how to clean the outside of the ear, even though everyone knows (wink, wink, nudge, nudge) that the product's sole purpose is to clean the inside of the ear. The GPS automotive "agreements," which occur at least twice per drive--once when the key is first turned, again after the engine is started--are Q-tips all over again.

(The aviation GPS units are even worse, with distracting legal notices appearing ten or twenty times per flight. In an airplane, however, you have more time to deal with such harrassment. Mid-air collisions are far fewer than mid-road collisions.)

The automotive GPS lawyers weren't satisfied with making drivers curse the car company and the GPS manufacturer every time they have to clear the same legal message they've cleared a thousand time before. No, in their fanatic pursuit of zero liability, they've set up the ideal conditions to actually kill people.

Let me explain. The lawyers have decided they need to protect their corporations against suits by idiots--people who start reprogramming their GPS destinations, etc., while driving. Therefore, once the vehicle starts moving, they've made it so you can no longer change the destination. How does that kill people? Simple. The driver is not the only person who can program the GPS. The front-seat passenger can also select or change the destination. Since they are not driving, they could, of course, do so in complete safety.

Well, they could, except that they are locked out by the speed detector. Instead, the driver must pull over to unlock the system. Where does the driver pull over? How about the side of a fast moving freeway? A small, but significant number of people are going to die because of this purported safety feature. I will be more than happy to testify for the plaintiffs.

What is needed, of course, is a return to the "prudent person" standard in American law, rather than the "biggest damned drunken idiot" standard we now enjoy. (A woman in San Francisco managed to successfully sue the city when she, in a drunken stupor, tumbled down a hill in the middle of the night while attempting to pee on a city-owned bush.)

In the meantime, it is the job of every designer to blunt and, where possible, eliminate the lawyer's attempts to sabotage your company's products.

Can it be done? Yes. Run user tests. Codify the data. Prove that hassling people at the front door of your internet store will result in a 37.2% drop in sales. Show that having an order form sprinkled with threats and Latin derivatives will finish off the rest.

Who are your allies? Product management. The CEO. Anyone else whose job depends on success, rather than thwarting lawsuits.

Can you win? Yes, but sometimes though an unexpected way. Reader David Somers, waded through last month's column on Good Grips, and went on to explore the site, eventually arriving at a real find--their Terms and Conditions.

Well, you can see below what I used to say about them, until, in 2004, reader Paul Brown, brought to my attention that their former Terms and Conditions have been transformed into Terms of Use and are now as lifeless as anyone else's. At least the typography is pleasant. I'm afraid we'll have to look further afield for good examples of content.

The Good Grips people obviously put a lot of work, not only into constructing a fun-to-read page, but in talking conservative corporate attorneys into allowing such a page.

The Good Grips experience appears to reflect an often overlooked approach to solving the dull, obstructive text problem: Talk to the dull, obstructive lawyer. Take the lawyer to lunch. Let the lawyer know that the lawyer is Your Friend. Then lay the Good Grips Terms and Conditions on the lawyer and suggest you work something out.

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