Finding the human in human-centered design

This is the second blog post chronicling a Harvard student team’s collaboration with the City of Boston to redesign Boston residents’ experience using City property information, including Assessing Online. To read about the team and the project scope, check out our first blog post.

“Am I understanding correctly? You used Assessing Online just one time in the year that you searched for a home?” -Team member  

“Yes, that’s right.” - Prospective Boston homebuyer

It did not take long for things to get tough. Just three weeks ago, we were excited Harvard students ready to take on the redesign of the City of Boston’s property assessment tool.

Our first goal was to determine who are the primary users of the tool. We spoke with City of Boston employees about property assessment in Boston and learned that the tool was designed for Boston residents, not businesses. We did online research on the the process to buy a home and pay property taxes.

We then developed a hypothesis that there were two primary user groups:

  1. People looking to buy a home in Boston.
  2. People who own a home in Boston.

Our approach

At a guest lecture in our class, Mary Ann Brody, of the United States Digital Service, talked about using a human-centered design approach. This approach begins with meeting and understanding the people who will use what you design.

We used human-centered design principles in the following ways:

  • Develop user empathy: To build empathy, our team filed property taxes and applied for a residential exemption. We used the City website to determine what to do and to access the necessary forms. This experience informed our user questions and helped us empathize with challenging parts of the process.
  • Design for the full user experience: We want to understand users’ stories, experiences, and values. We wrote questions for our users that asked about the complete process, not just about assessing. Our interviews covered all of the tools or services used in the home-buying and home-owning process (websites, in-person visits, etc.), the motivations for users’ actions, and the emotions users felt during each step of the process.
  • Meet the user where they are: We want to speak to users as they experience the process. To achieve this, we contacted organizations that offer classes for homebuyers.
  • Keep the focus on discovery: In the early stages of design, we want to keep an open mind and deeply understand our users. We avoided driving to insights or imagining solutions.
    • We wrote open questions to let the user share his or her true experience. We asked, “How did you feel when you were deciding how much to offer for a home?” We did not ask, “What was most frustrating about the bidding process?”
    • We took notes on exactly what the users said. We will have time later to form insights and conclusions.
Our team experiencing the process of filing Boston property taxes and applying for a residential exemption.

Our team experiencing the process of filing Boston property taxes and applying for a residential exemption.

User conversations

Despite our thorough plan, as we talked with users, our hypothesis crumbled. Neither group regularly used the tool! Here are some comments that we heard:

I used the tool once when I was planning to make an offer on a home. I had already visited the home, met the owner, and decided to bid. From the tool, I wanted to confirm that there wasn’t something sketchy happening. I looked at the exterior condition and the square footage. I clicked on the owner to see if they owned other properties.”

-Anna*, Prospective Boston homebuyer

“I have never used any sort of City assessing tool. When I was buying our home, I relied on my real estate agent and sites like Zillow. After buying, maybe I could have used the tool to apply for a residential tax exemption. I got a letter from the City saying that I was eligible for the exemption. I called the City to figure out what documents I needed to submit and brought them in person. I then started getting the exemption and I haven't had to do anything since then.”

-Marcus*, Bought home in Boston 3 years ago

These were not the responses we expected. We knew that thousands of people visit the site each day. If homeowners and homebuyers are not frequently using the tool, who is?

Pivoting to new users

In the classroom, Mary Ann described that design is iterative and messy. We were now feeling this firsthand.

A visual of what the design process looks like at each stage. The Uncertainty and Research phases are messy. We expect as we continue to research that we will gain more clarity in our direction.

A visual of what the design process looks like at each stage. The Uncertainty and Research phases are messy. We expect as we continue to research that we will gain more clarity in our direction.

Our team reflected on what we had learned and had additional conversations with City employees. From this research, we learned that real estate agents and bankers might be major users. Was it possible that the private sector uses the tool to answer financial questions from clients?

Based on early research, our new hypothesis looks promising. Our team has quickly learned not to make assumptions and to expect surprises. We are eager to find out what the next weeks of interviews will reveal about the users of Assessing Online.  

Learnings we will take with us

We have learned a lot through the design process:

  1. Fail fast: Before making a complete plan, we should have conducted one or two conversations with homeowners and homebuyers. We would have quickly realized these were not our primary users, and pivoted sooner. Moving forward, we will strive to test faster.
  2. Trust the user: We have learned an incredible amount from City of Boston employees. They have a deep understanding of assessing, taxes, and permits. However, some City employees believe that the tool’s primary users are homeowners and homebuyers.This taught us a valuable lesson about the importance of trusting users and their experiences.

If you have used the Assessing Online tool, we’d love to hear from you and learn about your experience. Contact us at You can also follow our progress on Marta’s twitter @MartaMilkowska.

*All names have been changed to protect the identity of our users.

Osama Arif, Elle Creel, Doug Lavey, Marta Milkowska, Emily Terwelp