Remaking the Mortgage Disclosure

Posted by Public Policy Lab

In an effort to make the home-buying experience easier and safer for consumers, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau held a symposium last December based around the redesign of the mortgage disclosure form. The agency invited experts from the behavioral economics, public policy, linguistics, and design fields to participate.

By taking a service-design approach — examining the steps a consumer takes through the process of buying a home, and the emotions and anxieties that accompany the process — Boston-based design firm Continuum identified the mortgage-disclosure form’s potential to function as a visual guide for the entire home-buying experience. Continuum realized that the form needed to seamlessly fit into everyday life and illustrate steps beyond the buying process; it needed to show  how buying a house would fit into an overall budget.

Their design (pictured above) followed a set of basic design best practices:

Speak the language that people understand: Translate financial units and concepts into terms that click with the consumer’s mental model.

Keep vocabulary clear and consistent: Make sure your words mean the same thing in every place they appear.

Pare down to the data that matters: Cut out the information aimed at the bank; leave in only what the consumer needs.

Make it easy to grasp: Use engaging visual cues that can shortcut the process of understanding.

But even more important than the look and feel of the document was its meaning in the context of its use. Continuum realized that by the time consumers usually receive the mortgage-disclosure form, at closing, they’re already past most of the crucial (and stress-producing) decision points in the home-buying process. At that point, the form is a narrative of decisions that have already been made. As the firm describes it,

The challenge we had been given — get the look of the form right had turned into something very different: get the story of the home buyer right. To solve the problem at this deeper level, we would need to remake the users’ experience, so that people could move smoothly, calmly, and wisely through each of the moments that make up the home-buying process.

Continuum’s experience points to a perhaps unintended consequence of applying service-design methods to public-sector projects. Government agencies may seek out design expertise in order to improve users’ experience of public communications or service, but with the expectation that the design recommendations will be specific to the look and feel of a single point of interaction: one form, one sign, etc. Service designers, however, are interested in the entire “user journey” what citizens feel and experience as they move through an entire arc of interactions with a service, from first contact to resolution.

A service-design approach has great potential to significantly improve citizen experience. But agencies and designers will need to make sure they have the same expectations for end result before committing to this approach. The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau is currently working to integrate ideas for the mortgage-disclosure form. It will be interesting to see what design concepts emerge as policy guidance.