There’s so many problems, it’s hard to find a starting point.

The user interface for contracts is broken. Words no one understands. Long sentences that are written backwards. Endless blocks of text. No color or graphic elements. No nav menu.

It’s like we challenged the lawyers to beat out the Bulk Rename Utility as the worst product interface ever.

God have mercy on the poor souls that have to use this daily.

Of all the problems with contracts, I think the worst is the nav menu. Or the lack of it. Contracts are really hard to navigate. And the inherent structure of contracts require us to manually move around the document to find section references and defined terms.

Going into the rabbit hole on a standard ESOP

Going into the rabbit hole on a standard ESOP

By the time you find the section reference or defined term you started hunting for, you forget why you’re even there. It’s like a perfect trap for procrastination.

No one likes reading contracts. So if your workflow is broken, you drop it and move on to more interesting things.

If that’s your sales contract, your deal time just got extended by at least a day. Maybe two. If that’s your vendor MSA, then your vendors are signing contracts they don’t understand. If they comply, they’ll either be lucky or wrong.

The reality is that contract interfaces were designed in an age where people had lots of time and fewer distractions. We’ve become accustomed to smarter interfaces that allow us to make wise decisions about where we’re going and why.

Maps have become exponentially more interactive and helpful with live traffic data to help us better navigate our environment. 

Maps have become exponentially more interactive and helpful in the last 5 years with live traffic data to help us better navigate our environment. We need this evolution for contracts.

So we ran a little test to find what the impacts were of poor contract navigability were.

Results from our mini contract navigation test

We found nine (reasonably literate) people and gave them a licensing agreement. We provided three questions to test basic comprehension of concepts in the agreement.


Our readers spent on average 17 out of every 60 minutes trying to find the meaning of defined terms to respond to the comprehension tests.

That’s 28% of the time navigating the contract interface just to understand what it says.

In-text definitions are often used vs. a definitions section to increase contract readability. That’s still poor design if that definition is used elsewhere in the document because the reader then has to keep track of all these definition locations.

What was really apparent was how fast the nine readers went down rabbit holes. Chasing defined terms within definitions. They spent a lot of time retracing their steps to figure out where they started and what they were trying to figure out in the first place.

How often do your sales teams run timed comprehension tests on your contracts?

The risk of a poorly designed contract

It’s a pretty straight-forward equation: the harder it is for people to read, navigate, comprehend and be comfortable with a contract you send them, the more likely they’ll procrastinate.

They’ll opt to do easier or more interesting tasks. They’ll have more questions. They’ll need more people to help them wade through and properly understand.

Ultimately, a poorly designed contract will take longer to get signed.

How much longer?

Saying 28% longer is probably conservative.

The scenario our nine readers participated in was designed with the expectation that they would be able to complete it within 60 minutes. We also didn’t give them a whole licensing agreement, just a part of one.

Had this been a real-world scenario, I’d expect that many of our readers would have dropped the contract and started on another task.

Designing better contracts

The underlying design problem with defined terms in contracts is that it guides the reader away from their starting point.

You lose your spot. It’s dizzying. And, most importantly, it’s easy to drop off.

At Athennian, we’re designing a feature for contracts where you can have in-text definitions so your readers have access to in-context and in-place definitions, and section information.

We call these SmartTerms.


Sometimes small changes have a big impact on productivity.

SmartTerms are really low-hanging fruit for your organization to improve your contract UI to generate outsized impacts on sales velocity, compliance and hiring. It’s easy to get approved by finance and legal.

Are you ready to design better contracts? Athennian is here to help.

Book A Demo

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