Three UX things we learned making the ‘How to deal with debt’ guide


Rosie Thompson is Head of Client Experience at the Money Advice Trust and has led the project to revamp the Trust’s guide to dealing with debt. In the run up to the launch of the new ‘How to deal with debt’ guide, Rosie shares three key user experience learnings from the project.

The Trust has been producing expert materials, guides and resources for people in debt who want to self-help for years – in fact, the last version of the guide was the 21st edition. Last year over 100,000 people used the guide, including those who contacted National Debtline or were supported through local advice agencies. But when it came to the latest update, we decided it needed a radical overhaul.

With a strong focus on technical accuracy, we knew the guide was valued by advisers. However, we also couldn’t ignore the growing body of knowledge about how people’s emotions drive their behaviours and how seemingly simple things like design, colours, and the words and tactics you use can all impact on how likely people are to act.

Together with the Single Financial Guidance Body who funded the project, and Ogilvy Consulting’s Behavioural Science Practice, we set out to revamp the guide in a way that would maximise the chances of users taking the right action to deal with their debts.

After a lot of work and collaboration, I am pleased to say the guide is now ready.

In preparation for its launch I want to share some of the key things we have learnt along the way that we are now applying to all our written and online advice materials.

1. First impressions matter

Right from the beginning of the project, it was clear that people’s first impressions of the guide matter. We had feedback that there was too much to take in in the current guide and that the process was overwhelming. Some even said it was scary.

The goal of the guide is for it to be used by those with problem debt, without the need for adviser intervention – it’s a complete guide. The fact that people’s first impressions made them want to get “someone to highlight what applies to you”, was clearly an issue we had to address.

As a result of this insight we have made a number of changes including:

  • a front cover that encourages people to open the guide
  • clear instructions on how to use the guide throughout
  • breaking the guide into 3 clear steps
  • ‘chunking’ information into smaller, more manageable individual tasks
  • a design that makes the content feel light and easier to digest, and
  • straightforward language that reassures you as you go along.

2. Encourage courage

We’ve always been hugely proud of writing accurate and technically correct advice. But sometimes it can be easy to focus on the technicalities and forget to recognise people’s emotional journey in dealing with their debt. That first step can often be the hardest. We needed to ensure that the guide met people where they were at emotionally. Without achieving this, we were in danger of losing people at the first hurdle.

As such, we have ‘positively primed’ the start of the guide by calling the introduction ‘Get a fresh start’. Participants in user testing responded really positively to the idea of a ‘fresh start’ for their finances. One participant summed this up, saying, “it almost makes me feel more optimistic and that from now things are going to be different, like there is a turning point.”

That said, from a purest debt advice perspective, a question we asked ourselves was; can people in debt really have a ‘fresh start’? Positive emotions are something we want to encourage, particularly in light of potential other negative emotions people in debt may be experiencing. Tapping into how people feel is a key theme of our new approach to the guide.

Even though a ‘fresh start’ may not be an absolute truth or ever truly possible, the idea and the emotions behind the phrase are powerful enough to inspire people to have the courage to act and persevere.

3. Test, test and test again

One issue when developing a guide like this is that lots of different people will have a view on it. To help steer us through this, we created some design guidelines to underpin our approach, including:

  • Is it simple to understand? Work to the lowest common denominator.
  • Is it engaging? Does it make the reader want to continue, and prevent them getting bored?
  • Is everything we include necessary? If not, cut it down!
  • Does it help the reader through and make it clear where their attention should flow? Does it avoid overwhelming people?
  • Do the design elements make the page easier to take in, not harder?

During every round of testing we were able to narrow in and refine content and designs in light of these guidelines. Importantly, we were able to test specific bits of content and design that we were not one-hundred percent sure about. An example of this was recognising the progress made by somebody using the guide. It became clear that in earlier drafts, some of the wording was a little patronising. With this insight we were able to make improvements accordingly.

User testing also shed light on areas we had not considered before. For instance, some images we had chosen put some people off. In light of this, throughout the guide, we have tried to make images neutral, not offensive and not standard ‘stock’ images.

How to use the guide

A huge amount of work has gone into the development of what we hope is a guide that is clear and easy to use.

We have designed it so that it can be used effectively on its own, as it provides the action and advice someone in debt needs to take.

For advice agencies, it can also be used as part of existing advice processes. Our aim is for the guide to put the person using it in the best position possible to deal with their debts.

The new ‘How to deal with debt’ guide launches on 9 April 2019. It will be available to advice agencies across England and Wales.

Further information about how to order the guide can be found on the Money Advice Trust website.

Next steps

Learn more about the Financial Capability Strategy for people in financial difficulties, including research and further resources.

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