Broadening and Narrowing our User Research

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

It was a rare, gorgeous March afternoon in Cambridge. As Harvard students played Frisbee on the quad, our team was deep into a meeting. It had been three weeks since we expanded our user research beyond homeowners and homebuyers and after conducting dozens of additional interviews, we arrived at the same basic questions: Who is our user? What is our problem?

However, this time was different. We were not leaving until we had our answers.

Different Answers but the Same Questions

Three weeks ago, our Harvard team’s early user research for the redesign of the City of Boston’s property assessment tool revealed something surprising. We interviewed homeowners and homebuyers, the users that this tool was built for, and found that they used it much less than we expected.

We decided to broaden our user group and interview other city departments, banks, and realtors, all of whom city employees indicated might be other possible users of the tool. We learned a lot about homeownership and the home-buying process. Yet, we still had not found a user group that had a clear and compelling need we could meet. We needed to answer some important questions about the purpose of our work before we could move forward:

  • If we focus on the needs of realtors and the private sector (the tool’s most active users), are we delivering value to citizens?
  • If we redesign the tool but keep the information the same, are we addressing the the core issue?
  • Given the number of user groups, if we address one group’s needs, are we harming another population?

We mapped the reasons why people interact with the tool to understand our user and determine what to do next: User’s interaction with the property assessment tool

We gathered two key insights from this graph:

  1. The major and valuable use cases of the tool are commercial as the jobs on the top right of the plot (with both a high frequency of use and a high magnitude of user need met) are those carried out by realtors, lawyers, loan officers, etc. on behalf of their citizen clients. 
  2. There are only a few citizen use cases that fulfill real needs, with most of the jobs carried out by homeowners and homebuyers being at the bottom left of the plot (with both a low frequency of use and low magnitude of need met).

Thinking Outside the Box and Inside the Task

Our attempts to synthesize the information from more than 25 user interviews led to a “chicken and the egg” problem:

  • Do we pick a user group (e.g., homeowners) first and define their problem?
  • Or, do we identify a problem (e.g., need to find address-based information) and then select a user group facing this challenge?

The teaching team of our class challenged us to focus on what users do on the tool, their tasks, rather than their occupations. For example, rather than focusing on homebuyers, we would focus on the need to determine the value of a property, a task that both homebuyers and realtors do. We found that many of our user groups used the assessing tool for the same task.

This brings us back to that rare, gorgeous March afternoon. The team brainstormed all of the activities each user group does on the tool (yellow post-its). We then grouped similar activities and classified general shared uses of the tool across user groups as user tasks (pink post-its). Here is what came out of our process:

This synthesis session revealed that adding value for commercial users will also add value for citizens because commercial users (realtors, loan officers, lawyers, etc.) use the tool to meet the needs of homeowners and homebuyers. We thought we had to focus on either commercial users or citizens, but we learned that we can create a solution that benefits both.

We agreed to focus on three key shared user tasks and made note of the specific activities carried out by each user group within each general task (user jobs) and difficulties users expressed in carrying out each task (user pains):

Coming back to the Users

These three tasks have allowed us to synthesize and prioritize the findings from all of our interviews. Our next step is to learn more about the humans behind the tasks. We will dive deeper into each key task to understand what users are trying to accomplish, what is difficult today, and what is working well. We will utilize human-centered design approaches like journey maps and user personas in this step. This will help us determine how we can add value for the actual people carrying out these tasks.

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