Risks pay off in unexpected ways

The story of how we stripped McAfee’s privacy policy from legalese and added ninjas in its place.

Who reads privacy policies anyways?

Everyone knows what a privacy policy is: pages of dull gray legalese. As a result, few people read them thoroughly. But McAfee, a prominent security technology company, wanted to make their policy easy for anyone to understand.

We didn't start with the obvious — brand requirements or technical parameters. Instead we asked, "Pirates or ninjas?" That set the tone for our relationship with the team and, as we later learned, helped define the project.

Embracing unusual ideas

How a silly idea turned into a reality.

Our design process always begins with opening up problems, exploring opportunities, and focusing on the concepts that stick before closing down on solutions. We start with sharpies and paper long before Photoshop or code editors.

In this case, we explored many ideas:

  • What if we presented the policy in a video?
  • What if we offered "legal" vs "human" modes?
  • What if the policy was in Q&A format?
  • What if it was a storybook?

Almost as an afterthought we threw in a wacky idea — what if your privacy was protected by an awesome ninja and the privacy policy told his story?

We almost took it out — a cartoon would probably be too flippant for a serious company like McAfee. After all, privacy is serious business. But, at the last minute, we put the ninja back into action. We meant it as an icebreaker, and to our big surprise McAfee loved the idea.

From Sketch to Illustration We went through a few iterations before finalizing the ninja illustration.

Trailblazing new ideas

User tests via sketches and wireframes.

Illustrating a legal document in a flipbook cartoon was risky. We knew that older token solutions, like tweaking the line height and a few changing margins, wouldn't work. With no prior examples that mixed martial arts with legalese, we took about a week longer than usual to test the ideas. But over several iterations we found that a "graphic novel" format was the most approachable, easy to understand and navigate.

The more we explored the concept, the less traditional our ideas became. The ninja would not be decoration tacked onto the margin — he would be integral to the content. He'd be building a firewall. He'll lock data away for protection. He'll analyze your system for loopholes.

Taming risks with follow-through

The final design informs users of their privacy in story form.

McAfee originally hired us to develop the concept. But later they asked us to actually build out the prototype storybook. Over two weeks we built a single-page microsite with animated, jQuery-based "pages." Our engineers discovered that until then, no one had created a reliable flipbook animation — at least not the kind we were looking for. Rather than settle for another effect, we wrote our own JavaScript page flip code.

From a technical view, the entire policy is a single HTML document. Our engineers used custom-written JavaScript to make each page appear in as the user flipped through pages. This action was deceptively simple. At the time, our JavaScript writing style organized long blocks of code with specific names. While convenient to call upon, these blocks were difficult to manage. As the project took shape, convenience for our engineers declined.

Instead of slogging through cryptic JavaScript functions, our engineers developed a more elegant way to manage namespaces. This technique turned out to be so handy that we adopted it for the then-beta Foundation 4.

It was a move that's still paying off. Today, organizing code with techniques developed during the McAfee privacy project is making the transition from Foundation 4 to version 5 far easier than the transition between versions 3 and 4.

The value of an idea

Thinking outside of the box really helps.

What started out as a wildcard idea — and almost didn't made it into the presentation — turned into something the whole McAfee team could own. Part of taking risks in design is knowing when they're appropriate. Storybook or not, the policy remains a legally binding document. The legal team was adamant on certain phrasing — as they rightly should be — but we were able to break it into easily digestible chunks. And illustrate it with ninjas.

Great ideas are like ninjas. They won't reveal themselves to people who don't take a little risk.

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