Regulatory Usability

by Jakob Nielsen on September 3, 2000

Summary: Regulatory agencies should not transfer their rules from the print world unchanged to Web content that is being read in a different manner. Instead, regulations should concern the usability of the actual information and whether users understand it.

Regulatory requirements often reduce the usability of Web content and end up damaging the exact goals they were trying to promote. Regulatory agencies usually base their rules and regulations on design criteria that are appropriate for paper-based documents but which don't work in the online medium .

Some classic examples of legal requirements that harm Web users are:

  • Including a trademark symbol and a trademark footnote the first time a registered trademark is "used in a document." This extra info-junk slows down Web users and make it harder for them to extract the meaning from a Web page. On the Web, the rule ought to be that trademark info should reside on a separate page that is hyperlinked.
  • Generalized disclaimers such as the famous "past performance does not guarantee future results" that is found in all mutual fund advertising and brochures. Well-meaning financial regulators insist on these disclaimers in an attempt to educate the public, but on the Web, pages that are littered with disclaimers make users less capable of understanding the important points.
  • Any "agreement" that is flashed at the user in a dialog box before they can register or use a site.


Regulatory agencies must rethink their approach for the Web age and for the availability of hypertext. Information need not be presented linearly. It is more important to assess what users know and understand than whether specific words are included in specific spots where they may not be read.

To further their true goals, regulations must specify the outcome when the site is usability-tested. For example, "80% of first-time visitors to a financial website must understand that their personal investment outcome may well be lower than the returns seen in the past." Good luck making a site that communicates clearly enough to achieve this goal, so maybe the percentage should be set lower.

Anti-Trust Regulations

I don't like the Government telling Microsoft to make their software even worse by preventing them from integrating features into the operating system. I also don't like the notion of user interfaces designed by the Justice Department.


But there are legitimate anti-trust concerns in the user interface field. The real issue is not whether Internet Explorer is integrated into Windows. That's a benefit to users. The issue is whether people can use something else if they prefer.

The legal test should be as follows:

  1. Take an average person who has never used computers before and is given a machine with Windows installed.
  2. Also give this person a CD-ROM with whatever competing software the case concerns (Netscape, Lotus 1-2-3, a different multimedia player).
  3. Measure the time from the person has unpacked everything until he or she has installed the alternative software successfully.

If at least 80% of novice users are capable of installing the alternative software and if the average time to do so is less than 10 minutes, then the basic operating system is deemed to be sufficiently accommodating to competition.


With the present state-of-the-art in usability, it is impossible to design an operating system that would allow 80% of novice users to install alternative software within 10 minutes of opening the box. But some version of these specifications could be a fair regulatory goal.

Other examples:

  • Opening the WAP "walled garden" enough to allow subscribers to access sites that have not paid off the telephone company. Suggested rule: after two days of using a WAP phone, 80% of subscribers should be able to get at an independent service in less than 60 seconds the first time they try and 5 seconds the second time.
  • Equal access for cable modem customers . Sample rule: a cable customer with less than one years' experience using computers should be able to specify a different portal or online service as their start page in less than 10 minutes.
  • Users with disabilities and their ability to access publicly funded websites, job announcements, and other content on an equal footing with others.

Since the entire Internet economy is one big user interface, measurable usability will become one of the most important regulatory tools . Unfortunately, authorities like the FCC and the European Commission do not have senior usability expertise on staff, so they are not likely to understand these issues, let alone be able to specify appropriate usability regulations.

Legal Documents as Web Content

Many websites contain legal disclaimers, terms-of-use, user agreements, license terms, and other regulations written by company lawyers. These legal documents always have horrible usability and are close to impossible for customers to understand.


From usability studies, we know that users almost never bother to read legal documents when they come across them on a website. People just click the I Accept button without even glancing at the text. Since everybody knows that users don't read these agreements, it is interesting whether they will even hold up in court.

Those few users who do attempt to read the legal documents usually react with disgust as they encounter legalese that seems written to be deliberately obscure and that seems to have only one goal: to confiscate all their rights. Websites lose a good deal of trust by posting such documents.

Legal documents are often necessary on websites, but they should be treated as part of the site's content and not left up to the lawyers. The text should be usability-tested for comprehension and revised until it is understandable by the target users, following the guidelines for writing for the Web . Obviously, the legal department should review the rewrites to ensure that they are valid, but most legal documents need usability improvements if they are going to be part of your user experience.

In fact, if there was one type of regulation that would be a benefit to the Internet economy, it would be a requirement that legal documents would not be binding unless they had passed a usability test with the target audience.

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