User Interface Design: No Small Matter

In advance of big changes to the way pensions are managed, the UK government set up a quasi-independent service called Money Advice Service (MAS). MAS has the worthy goal of trying to improve financial literacy, particularly among those about to retire.

As part of its program, MAS set up an online directory of financial advisors, just launched in beta. Given its high profile and semi-official status, the MAS directory has come under a lot of scrutiny, particularly from the financial advisors it lists, all of which are keen to be highly visible in this important new directory that anticipates very heavy use. But let’s look at it from a user’s perspective to see some important lessons on how not to create an online directory.

Sample Directory Listing

Sample Directory Listing

The directory database itself is quite mundane. It presents such information as advisor name, contact details, certifications (if any), and the types of services it provides (from a fixed list of categories). But here’s how a seemingly basic directory quickly becomes complicated.

First, it encountered the issue of business locations. It’s easy to list ABC Advisors at its headquarters address in London. But what if ABC Advisors has 400 branch offices scattered around the country? Do they each get individual listings? Even more confusing, how do you properly represent advisory firms that have independent advisors, many of whom work from home? What about advisory firms that are affiliated with other advisory firms? You may think all of this is annoying, but not a huge deal. But it becomes a huge deal when the user interface is location-centric.

As it happens, the MAS directory is location-centric. It uses a postal code to do a search to return results based on proximity. But depending on how you handle the entity issues described above, ABC Advisors might appear 100 times in results of a specific search (with each of its offices or advisors appearing as a separate listing), or not at all (because only the headquarters location was listed and it wasn’t anywhere nearby). This can be very confusing to users (who often see the multiple records as annoying duplicates and the absence of major companies as questionable data quality). And if you are selling paid participation or paid enhancements in the directory, this can cause an advertiser revolt.

The MAS directory also lets you search by specialty service. Here, results are not returned by proximity, and because there is no secondary sort on distance, the first search result may list a firm 500 miles away, while a firm 1 mile away appears on page three of search results.

Perhaps the biggest issue of all is that searches tend to return hundreds of listings, and the thin dataset gives the user very little information or tools to differentiate or compare them. Apparently, the plan is to add fees and charges in the near future to build out the database. In the meantime, users struggle with a marginally useful directory. Governments can get away with this.  But those of us in the business know how to do it a lot better – or at least we should. User interface design starts with the design of the database itself, which is in turn informed by the user needs and problems you are trying to address. Shortcuts in the design phase mean expensive additional work later, and can potentially endanger the success of your data product.