I’m John and I’m a User Researcher working on Land Registry’s prototype Digital Mortgage service.

I wanted to share some of the work we’ve been doing to make sure we’re doing the right things to help people who are about to make one of the biggest financial commitments of their life.

It’s often said that moving home is the most stressful thing in life apart from the death of a spouse or getting divorced. You’ll probably agree with us that it would be a good idea to make the process of completing a mortgage as easy and stress-free as possible.

A completely digital mortgage?

We asked people what they thought of the idea of a digital mortgage. Did they think it might improve the process? Our initial research soon confirmed that people just wanted to get their money quickly and easily and the idea of doing it online was appealing to many.

We decided to look at digitising the re-mortgage process first. Re-mortgages aren’t accompanied by other transactions (like change of ownership), so it might be possible to build the entire end-to-end process, including interactions with lenders, conveyancers and Land Registry. We’d be able to concentrate on basic things like how borrowers could view and sign a mortgage deed online. That way, they wouldn’t need to have a paper document sent to them, or get their signatures witnessed, or wait for post to be delivered.

Testing, testing…

We are doing lots of research with members of the public, including pop-up research in libraries and usability testing in a User Research laboratory, to make sure what we’re developing really will meet the needs of the people who will use it.

A user research session

What we’ve learnt

The problem of ‘legalese’

Our early designs worked quite well, but it was clear that the legal clauses that are needed to make a mortgage effective in law could seem confusing – there was simply too much ‘legalese’ to scroll through, which seemed all wrong in comparison with the simplicity of the rest of the process. To quote one test participant:

“Bit complicated for me. Legal speak. I would need a solicitor next to me to explain these things.”

We thought hard and came up with a radically different design, splitting the mortgage deed into a series of steps which included legalese-free help text. Although we continue to explore other options alongside, the step by step approach is looking promising. We’re getting comments such as:

“Yes! That’s what you need. I think it’s clever to have that plain English message.”

“I like the explanations underneath the legal – feels like there’s a human between me and the official site – not patronising – I like that.”

Is that it? I’ve signed my mortgage?

Our first few rounds of lab testing showed us we hadn’t got the digital signature process right. Some people were not certain that they had in fact signed a mortgage. Some thought the next step would be that a ‘real’ mortgage would arrive in the post.

We redesigned the process in several ways and we think we have solved this problem. One change that really helped was to add an extra screen to the start, setting out what to expect, including the fact that you’d be signing your mortgage online – no paper document, no witness signature.

Signing a digital mortgage screenshot

Is this secure? It just seems too easy

To start with, we didn’t take people through the entire process – the prototype was really just an idea we wanted to explore. But because it was so quick and simple it didn’t seem ‘real’ to some people.  We found they had concerns about how safe and secure doing such an important transaction online would be. This is obviously very important for all concerned – lenders and conveyancers as well as borrowers.

We’re using GOV.UK Verify to allow users to prove who they are online, helping protect against mortgage fraud and prevent identity theft. We found that when we included the ‘Verify your identity’ process in our tests, people felt much more confident about signing the mortgage. Most people felt that the time taken to register with GOV.UK Verify (around 15 minutes) was worthwhile in the context of completing an online mortgage and they found the whole thing logical and straightforward. It seemed right that such an important transaction should contain extra steps to ensure its security.

Using GOV.UK Verify

It works!

Our latest tests have added to our confidence that we are developing something that people will want to use – something that will make the process easier for all involved.

At the end of our test sessions, we ask people what they make of what they’ve just done and the answers are very encouraging, for example:

“I think it’s quick and easy – if I had the choice I would do it this way.”

“Compared to what I went through – easy, quick.”

“Does exactly what it says on the tin.”

“It seems very simple and easy and when I come to do my mortgage if it’s this easy I’d be delighted.”

What’s next?

We’ve successfully completed the ‘Alpha’ phase and are now into  ‘Private Betaphase. I’m looking forward to seeing the first real digital mortgage created by a real lender, prepared by a real conveyancer, signed by a real borrower and safely protected on the register at Land Registry. I’ll let you know how we get on.


John Beale
By John Beale,
User Researcher at HM Land Registry