Contracts: classic cognitive overload

Have you ever read something for a particular interest or need, and realised it applied to your pet topic? That’s what’s happening as I read Presentation Genius by Simon Raybould. Although it’s about how you can become a presentation genius, it has plenty of applications to contracts. This post looks at cognitive overload (as developed by Sweller in the context of problem-solving).

A 2010 paper looking at cognitive overload in contract negotiations refers to the ‘good old days’ when contract users:

could not make their way through the legalese, the complex sentences, the fine print, the sheer length of the document

Not so long ago (yesterday perhaps) in my opinion!

The paper goes on to recommend that a seller (or contractor or consultant) needs to ‘convey sufficient information about a product [service or goods] prior to the contract, without boring buyers or driving  them to distraction.’ And therein lies the rub!

I wasn’t surprised to find that Stefania Passera has already written a paper on contract design dealing with this issue. She says that “Contracts contain lots of special terms, concepts and information… and presenting this content as a wall of legalese text overloads readers without legal expertise… and neither does it help them to develop mental models to make sense of the meaning.”

Cognitive overload occurs when too much information is presented for us to be able to process it efficiently – that can adversely impact our ability to understand the information, remember it or apply it.

What should you do?

You can lessen the user’s cognitive load by both structure and display ie:

  • keeping the contract structure as simple as possible and breaking it into logical steps
  • using visual presentations such as flowcharts, digrams and tables to introduce variety.

Stefania concludes, and since I couldn’t have put it better myself, I won’t try:

In many industries, contracts are important touchpoints with customers, but nowadays their potential is completely untapped: organisations seeking to be truly customer-centric should give information design serious consideration in order to transform contracts from necessary evils into clear, user-friendly interfaces.

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