Monday, October 22, 2012

Do you know what you're signing up for? The Official Style's function in one of today's popular retailers

To view the terms of use discussed in this blog, click here.

At one point or another all of us have been offered the chance to sign up for a discount card or store credit card while shopping. Most of the time we are in a hurry and don’t have the time to really comprehend what we are signing up for, but may do it anyway. Nearly all the programs we sign up for will have terms of use, which functions as a legal document pertaining to the program we are signing up for. Barnes & Noble’s Membership card program is no exception. The “terms of use” main function is as a legal document protecting the company and their interest. Though this is its main use, there are two additional activity systems: Barnes & Noble management/employees and Barnes & Noble customers that effect the interpretation of this document. The relationship between these two activity systems allows Barnes & Noble customers to gain a more accurate interpretation of the document by interacting with Barnes & Noble booksellers and ultimately allowing these terms of use to be more accurately understood.

From a customer’s point of view, these terms of service are the stipulations and guidelines for signing up for the Membership program and maintaining its use. This text also functions as a preventative measure against miscommunication and possible conflict between the company and the customer. When a customer attempts to decipher the text of these terms of service, they may find it difficult. In the passage shown below, the average readability score is 15.7. For most people, reading at this level is not easy, it would mean they must have three years or more of a college education. As far as the actual language of the text goes, it is actually quite technical and full of legal jargon. Using words like “merchantability,” “fitness,” and “non-infringement” may interrupt the customer’s interpretation of these words and essentially disrupt the context of the document. Because one of its functions is to inform customers of the company’s rights during the membership period, as well as what guidelines and stipulations customers are agreeing to, this jargon choice may stand in the way of that. Many customers do not like complicated, time consuming programs that cause extra stress or work for them. When they begin to read these terms of service though, they may feel that this program is a bit overwhelming, as the jargon used causes the reader to do extra work. The first full paragraph shown in the image below is actually one sentence in and of itself. This single sentence contains 43 words. The second paragraph, which is also one sentence, contains 53 words. Though not all of the language is as complex or legal, the length of each sentence really does make digesting the message quite difficult and time consuming.

While customers are exploring this text, they will find obstacles within the text that may prevent them from fully interpreting the terms. The first excerpt (shown above) uses appositives to list other details associated with what is or is not included in warranties. For instance, they say: “...expressly disclaim all warranties of any kind, whether express or implied, including, but not limited to the implied warranties of merchantability, fitness for a particular purpose and non-infringement.” This style choice breaks up the sentences main points and message, which really makes it hard to interpret. This excerpt alone really shows how the use of both the official style and these writing tools help command the messages used and communicated within the activity systems.

The second excerpt shown below emphasizes the impersonal writing style associated with this document. Though they refer to the subject as “you” the style of the writing reads very impersonally and in more general terms, as though they are talking to a larger group of people. By addressing the reader as “you” and adding that small personal touch, they are emphasizing the responsibility of the customer to be aware of these stipulations and active in preventing any issues that may arise with the company. Even though they pass on the responsibility to the customer, they provide them with alternative ways of interpreting the document by giving them the opportunity to speak with an actual employee of the company.

The terms of service also caters to a relationship between Barnes & Noble booksellers and Barnes & Noble customers. Because Barnes & Noble booksellers are required to sell the membership card to their customers, this allows those customers to gain another method of learning and becoming informed about the membership card. This also provides an outlet for them to ask questions and gain clarification. When customers sign up for other membership programs online and out of the store, customers are do not have someone to discuss the terms with, forcing them to decipher the message on their own. The ability to share these terms of service verbally is an additional type of activity within this system, which becomes a very effective means of moving towards their goal.

The membership program’s terms of service have several functions within Barnes & Noble. At the heart of this program is the customer. Unless the customer is aware of the program and the stipulations it includes, the program itself will not be as successful. Because Barnes & Noble has taken the time to create a relationship between all three activity systems mentioned, I feel confident that several customers will be much more likely to gain a correct and accurate interpretation and they will also feel comfortable knowing the company took time to communicate with their employees. While Barnes & Noble customers are reading these terms of service they may be wondering whether or not they can trust other terms of service. Are other companies willing to let their terms of service be clearly explained like Barnes & Noble? Do they really know what they are signing up for? All of these questions are legitimate, as today’s world is full of scams; sometimes turning customers is to very untrusting shoppers. Though this is sometimes inevitable, the companies who really take the time to let their message travel through the divisions of labor will have the largest number of people working towards a common goal of success.

--Melissa Moss

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