Avoiding the Cheeseburger

This is the fourth 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 the other posts on our blog.

 We were a little nervous when Ryan Panchadsaram, former Deputy CTO of the United States, cringed at our idea. “Beware of the one-stop shop,” he said. He was talking about a concept that many tech experts call the “cheeseburger problem.” It comes from the idea that when you offer someone a cheeseburger, they will probably say yes even if they didn’t want it before you asked. This becomes a problem when designing online tools because people agree to things they won’t use in the future.

But the realtors we interviewed said they wanted the information in one place. We were confused—was a “one-stop shop” going to meet the needs of realtors? Or were we falling into the cheeseburger trap?

Taking a step back - why focus on realtors?

To make sure our work is as useful as possible to the City of Boston, our team chose to narrow our focus even further. From the three tasks we originally identified in our user interviews, we decided that informing home buying and selling decisions was the area where we could create the most value.

It was crucial that we refocus ourselves on the humans behind this task, though, so we decided to target realtors because they use the city property information much more often. Also, because realtors provide an incredibly important service to Bostonians, we knew we’d be reaching the everyday citizen as well. Realtors work with 20-30 homebuyers per year, both helping them take an exciting new step in their lives and making sure the properties they buy are safe.

Next, we developed solutions together using something called the KJ method. This technique involves a lot of free brainstorming so you can come up with creative ideas, but then also uses voting to prioritize next steps. This process led us to the idea we were talking about with Ryan—an integrated experience for accessing city property information.

Confirmation from City Hall

Since our last post, we also had an update session with several members of the Department of Innovation and Technology and the Assessing Department. During this meeting we had City Hall employees pretend to be realtors. Several people confirmed what real realtors had told us—it is annoying to have to visit so many different sites. One person even said, “there should be one website to rule them all!”

But we still had Ryan’s voice in our heads. Were we offering realtors a cheeseburger they wouldn’t use?


To defend against the cheeseburger problem, we realized we needed to understand exactly what kinds of information realtors use and why. So, we built an interactive, discussion-based prototype to get at these questions. We asked realtors to go through four exercises using paper prompts to simulate an online experience:

  1. Pick Four – we presented realtors with four blank boxes and asked them to tell us which pieces of city data they would put in these boxes and why.
  2. Assign Points – we then gave realtors ten points to allocate across nine pre-determined categories and observed how they made their decisions.
  3. Landing Page – we showed realtors two different landing pages and asked them questions about their preferences.
  4. More Details – and lastly, we showed realtors different options for how information could be presented, asking why they preferred certain choices over others. For example, realtors could choose to see permitting information in a scanned PDF or in table format.

So far we’ve done these exercises with three realtors, and we’ve learned a few key points:

  • They like having the information in one place.
  • They have different preferences on the smaller details.
  • In general we learned that realtors will still use multiple listing services (MLS systems) as their primary tool, but that they like to verify information on city websites.

We’ve also learned a lot about prototyping. It is great to be scrappy, but you also have to be hyper aware of the mindset of your user. For example, walking into a realtor office and asking someone to “look at our prototype” does not work. It is critical to build rapport, help them understand how you got to where you are and validate their status as experts.

What’s Next

Next we plan to develop a second prototype that combines the priorities we learn about during this first round of user testing.  Dana Chisnell has helped us think about how to do this, and we’re excited to share more about what we learn in our next post.

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