ContractsProf Blog

Editor: Jeremy Telman
Oklahoma City University
School of Law

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Empirical Study Shows Diagrams Made a Contract Easier to Use and Understand

BrianNLarsonThis guest post highlights some fascinating empirical scholarship relating to business contracts and is written by my soon-to-be colleague, Brian N. Larson (at left). Brian will join Texas A&M University School of Law this fall as associate professor of law. He comes to Texas A&M from Georgia Institute of Technology, where he has been assistant professor of rhetoric and technical communication and founder of the Responsible End-User Licensing Lab. Enjoy! - MEB


Passera, A. Kankaanranta & L. Louhiala-Salminen, Diagrams in Contracts: Fostering Understanding in Global Business Communication, 60 IEEE Transactions on Professional Communication 118–146 (2017). Available from IEEE.

Stefania Passera and her colleagues performed an experimental study to assess the value of diagrams in a complex business-to-business contract. They provided 122 subjects, experts on contracts drawn from an international pool with a wide variety of mother tongues, two versions of the same commercial contract in English. They were identical except that the version the “treatment” group used included diagrams, and the one the “control” group used was text only. Participants performed location and comprehension tasks the researchers specified.

Here are the key takeaways:

  • The group using the version with diagrams found relevant information and solved comprehension tasks significantly more quickly than the control group.
  • The treatment group also performed tasks significantly more accurately than those using text-only contracts.
  • The previous two effects worked together, so participants in the treatment group performed with significantly higher efficiency (a function of objective performance and subjective, perceived mental effort) than the control group.
  • Cognitive style—whether the participant was a “visualizer” or “verbalizer”—did not interact with the treatment. In other words, cognitive style did not have a statistically significant effect on results, but the sample size here is probably too small to rule it out.

Given the study’s careful statistical analysis of data, it is a little disappointing that the authors did not report the sizes of the effects they measured. (Statistical significance is different than practical significance, after all.) Nevertheless, the study adds to an existing literature that supports the idea that good visual design improves comprehension and suggests that contracts are no exception to that rule.

Passera et al Fig8

Above: an excerpt of fig. 8 from the article shows an example of a diagram accompanying text.

The study leaves unexplored two issues important for law professors: (1) How can lawyers and law students acquire the communicative competence to create effective contract diagrams? (2) In the absence of that competence, what happens if the text and diagram appear to be at odds?

- Brian N. Larson

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Ken Adams, writing about this post and article, raises or gestures at (or both) interesting questions about comparative importance of prose and design in a blog post here:
That stimulated a useful exchange between Adams and Passera on Twitter (where they are @KonciseD and @StewieKee). I'll see if Passera is willing to share some of her thoughts here!

Posted by: Brian Larson | Jun 15, 2017 10:00:06 AM