When you have the job title Chief Clarity Officer, you get used to people saving their mail and “important papers” for you to decipher. Yesterday, it was my cousin asking me to help her understand a health care proxy. The day before, it was a friend’s college-age daughter asking me what she would actually do at a company that had a job description that said: “Collaborate on cross-functional teams… drive continuous improvements and problem solving for engineering roadblocks.” Other than tell her that she would be working closely with people who write grammatically incorrect sentences, I didn’t know what she would do. Last week, a neighbor wanted to know if the temperature sensor on his oil burner was covered under its unintelligible warranty. Today, I was the one stymied while trying to get the best deal booking a flight.

There are several chronically confusing, confounding, and annoying communications that all of us deal with in daily life. Here is my list of the 7 items that, if simplified, would save money for business, increase customer satisfaction, and improve confidence and trust in government:

1. Insurance policies

Complexity is so rife in the insurance industry that insurers run television ads that mock the “blah, blah, blah” of a typical insurance policy and the audience immediate relates to its truth.

“If no beneficiary in a class is then living, proceeds will be paid to Beneficiaries named in next lower class who are entitled to payment. No one in a class will receive payment while there is a Beneficiary entitled to payment in a prior class…” It is tragic to think that every aspect of the insurance industry (health, life, auto, homeowners) is misunderstood, often with dire consequences.

Health insurance is by far the most confusing. By encoding procedures, listing multiple charges for the same service, and including providers you don’t recognize, patients are unable to verify or challenge the accuracy of hospital bills and Explanations of Benefits. I laugh when I see companies telling consumers to “…fight insurance fraud, report overcharging…” Who can tell if the charges are accurate, nevermind deliberately wrong? An entire cottage industry has cropped up just to challenge consumer bills and claw back overcharges.

2. Data plans

If we don’t even understand what a gigabyte is, do we know how many we need? Phone bills used to be a minor part of one’s budget, but now are typically close to $200 per month as all family members, including children, have phones, tablets, and other devices. The invisible nature of data makes it very hard to monitor use, leaving consumers dependent upon data providers to offer alerts, trackers, and plan recommendations, rather like having the wolf offer a menu to the lamb.

3. Instructions

Instruction manuals became tomes as companies wrote them to protect the company from liability rather than to communicate how to use a product. Apple came along and took the approach that the manual should be unnecessary; product use should be seIf-evident. While a breakthrough, there are still many mysterious functions on my i-Pad and strange reactions on my i-Phone that are only evident through trial and error.

The passage below is from the “protect rather than inform” school of useless instructions. If a person actually needs to be told to “Read, Keep, Heed and Follow instructions” as separate commands, then he or she is probably a danger to society. The instructions below are for a radio, by the way, not a nuclear reactor.

Important Safety Instructions

  • Read these instructions.
  • Keep these instructions.
  • Heed all warnings.
  • Follow all instructions.

4. Federal government forms, letters, explanations

It is particularly upsetting when major life decisions, with significant financial implications, are convoluted, off-putting, and riddled with jargon. This example from the United States Social Security Retirement System erodes confidence and trust:

“If you turn 62 before January 2, 2016, deemed filing rules will not apply if you file at full retirement age or later. This means that you may file for either your spouse’s benefit or your retirement benefit without being required or “deemed” to file for the other. In your case, you may also restrict your application to apply only for spouse’s benefits and delay filing for your own retirement in order to earn delayed retirement credits. However, if you turn age 62 on or after January 2, 2016, you are required or “deemed” to file for both your own retirement and for any benefits you are due as a spouse, no matter what age you are.”

The young also get caught in the net of complexity. The FAFSA process (applying for financial aid to attend college) has been the subject of comment and derision by the U.S. Congress and the White House. No wonder, if a college student wrote a sentence with this many negatives (“neither, nor, noncitizen, not eligible”), they would flunk the Freshman English course.


5. Job descriptions

“Utilize resources to increase knowledge of products and practices by connecting with team leaders and department managers and recognizing how featured items and themes tie into the department…” This is the job description for a deli clerk in a grocery store. Overwriting, puffery, and chest-pounding are both unnecessary and counter-productive.

6. Voting propositions

The foundation of our democracy is our ability to vote, yet many ballot propositions are so vague and/or convoluted, that we do not know if we want to vote yes or no. This proposition never specifies how much the tax increase will be, surely a factor that voters might want to consider:

“The issuance of $194,565,000 of school building bonds for acquiring, constructing, renovating, and equipping school buildings in the district and the purchase of the necessary sites for school buildings, and the levying of a tax, sufficient without limit as to rate or amount, to pay the principal of and interest on the bonds and to pay the costs of any credit agreements executed or authorized in anticipation of, in relation to, or in connection with the bonds.”

7. Warranties and consumer contracts

If the wording of a warranty doesn’t confuse you, the wall of impenetrable, all uppercase, bold type surely will. As consumers, we expect that warranties will tell us about protections—a bit of “good news” in the event that a product fails. However, most warranties spell out limitations, exceptions, and exclusions in a quantity sufficient to kill the confidence of most buyers.


You are already thinking of ten more examples of complexity: income tax forms, click-through agreements on websites, bank fees, car leases… Each of these costs companies millions of dollars from unnecessary customer service calls, product returns, and diminished customer loyalty, yet they persist. The irony is that many industries creep along perpetuating confusion until an upstart, usually a technology-driven disruptor, enters an industry and throws off the shackles of the status quo. This is happening now in banking (Simple.com), life insurance (Haven Life), and health insurance (Oscar).

If many consumers are having these experiences, why don’t companies break from the status quo and communicate clearly? Two common mistakes are asking the lawyers to take a crack at simplifying and approaching simplification through revision. Asking those who complicated the material to simplify the same material is unrealistic. Simplification through minor revision is equally fruitless when transformation is needed.

Clarifying lays bare the inanity of an underlying process, product or service. Like preventive medicine, permeating the product development process with simplicity as a guiding principle saves companies from having to cure confusion at later stages. To achieve a highly effective customer experience, companies must take a blank slate approach and consider:

  • Product definition
  • Process redesign
  • Systems changes

Companies only scratch the surface of simplicity when they focus on plain language and clear design. Both are critical elements of simplicity, but less obvious dimensions need to be considered—speed, convenience, customized content—to create a “wow” factor for customers. A holistic approach, based on the principles of empathy, distillation, and clarity, is necessary to achieve breakthrough simplicity. Simplifying the seven items on my wish list requires creativity, technology, and humanity.

Cover image: Maite Tiscar