Martin Lewis: 'UO is just as important as UX: A tip for anyone developing their website or app'

Martin Lewis: 'UO is just as important as UX: A tip for anyone developing their website or app'

I set up MoneySavingExpert.com nearly 20 years ago – when arguably the modern web was still in its infancy. With an abundance of self-belief (something I had too much of then, as I realise now) I decided not to read any books, or follow prevailing wisdom on how a site should operate – and just do it my way.

By a mix of luck, happenstance, and perhaps a bit of good judgment, it worked. The site has been successful on many metrics. It had a number of characteristics which weren't standard practice at the time – including a financial journalism site written in the first person – as well as not using banner ads, but instead, once revenue was needed, overt affiliate links (which never changed the editorial line) which back then was pioneering and over the years many others have followed (it's still the basis of how MSE is financed.)

Yet for me the really big standout was the focus on UO

You probably have no clue what I'm talking about, that's fine, because UO is just my name for it. Though everyone who works at or with MSE should know what it is – as I wax lyrical about it being the key when we develop or design any new guide or tool.

UO quite simply stands for 'User Outcomes', and when I use it, it very simply means does the user get the right answer, when using or reading the site, apps or tools?

A standard industry term is UX, which stands for 'User Experience'. UX also incorporates slick flow, ease and speed of use, accessibility and intuitive response that makes the experience of using the site easier and more pleasant. And indeed UX is important (something MSE is getting better at I hope).

While I know many UX professionals will include what I call UO in their assessments, for me UO is so important it needs to be separated out, and is our number one priority. If I had to choose between MSE having a scrappy, hard-to-navigate article that gave people the right answer, or a slick, easy experience but risked some making the wrong choice – I'd pick the first.

Indeed, my uncrossable red line for approving a new tool going live as a 'minimum viable product' is always that we believe the UO is right. I can cope with the UX needing more work, though obviously I push for both to be great.

(Please don't read this as me saying MSE always gets UO right. We've a huge amount of content, with a big team and lots of moving parts. I can't promise perfection, this is more about the fact that UO is our primary objective.)

Sometimes good UO may require what some may see as a UX sacrifice

There are times I believe deliberate friction is beneficial, to add thinking time or make sure people have considered everything they should. One example of this is our Best balance transfers guide.

New team members, especially those from e-commerce backgrounds, could consider it badly structured, as it doesn't get people to the action quickly enough. Contrast it to some sites, including comparison sites, which put products up top, so they can get people to transact at speed and in volume. In the MSE guide, you have to scroll or click down to those.

That's due to UO. Our aim isn't just to get people to get a card, it's to...

1) Help them decide if a card is or isn't right for them. For some, the right outcome is doing nothing.
2) Ensure they know how to use it the right way to maximise their benefit.
3) Ensure they pick the right card for their purpose.

To try and help people with the first two, we deliberately structure the guide to have some soft friction before they get to the products. People need go via the important information to get to the 'transactional' bit. Of course we can't force people to read that information, but we can at least ensure they know it is there to be read, and that we think it is a priority to do so.

In many ways that's the choice between MSE and comparison sites. If you want detailed information that takes a bit of time, but hopefully gets a good answer, come to us. If you want a speedy 'product shop' (which can be effective for many), a comparison site will be quicker.

Of course, once the UX professional we work with know this is the brief, they then can and do work their skills to ensure the page does the job and does it well. So it really is up to the site (or, maybe in your case, app / page / product) owner to set this as a priority.

Does the UO rule still stand for purely commercial websites?

I'd argue it does, or at least it should. When I set up MSE, my aim was to get the info out there and promote my broadcasting career – I didn't have or plan any way the site could make revenue. It was only after the server costs became too expensive for me to be able to cover from my freelance journalist's income that I had to come up with a system to bring revenue in.

Of course nearly a decade ago, I sold MSE to a PLC, though as part of my sale terms I demanded the inclusion of a legally-binding editorial code that effectively codified the way I operated when I owned it to 'put the interests of users ahead of the site's financial considerations'. That is still in place today.

One former senior colleague, from a highly commercial background, and I would violently agree that protecting 'trust' in the site was always our number one priority. Me, simply because my vision for the site has always been for it to act in a trustworthy way (and is the driving reason I'm still here, when I don't need to be). Him, because he believed trust in the site was 'our most valuable commercial asset'. Whatever the reason, the outcome was the same.

And indeed a skew to UO may mean people take longer, and transact less, but by more people doing what's right for them, they have a better experience, which improves the brand, creates trust and loyalty – and therefore builds a long-term sustainable user base.

I think there are few business models that wouldn't benefit from that. So while of course it's a spectrum and many won't have or want the single-minded focus on UO, I do think for those building new online tools, as well as the UX, do have someone whose focus is simply: 'Will our users get the right outcome?'

I'd welcome your thoughts, including if you're in the industry, whether you think UO is something that is or isn't focused on.