Informed Relocation: Improving Housing Search Processes

August 2023-December 2023
Project Overview
Informed Relocation centers on addressing the complexities of the housing search process, particularly for individuals relocating to new cities. Through a blend of user and stakeholder interviews, surveys, and task analysis, my teammates and I aimed to understand and ease the challenges faced by prospective tenants. This comprehensive research informed the development of LeaseMate, a tailored solution designed to streamline housing searches, enhance information accessibility, and foster community engagement within the housing market.

This is a semester-long project for CS 6755: Foundations of HCI as part of Georgia Tech's MS-HCI program.
My Role
Mixed-methods UX Researcher: User Interviews, Contextual Inquiry, Stakeholder Interviews, Qualitative Coding, Data Analysis, Survey Design & Analysis, Task Analysis, Prototype Evaluation, Usability Testing

In this project, I led the stakeholder mapping and interviews, analyzed user interview data, and identified key design requirements. I crafted and executed the evaluation plan and artifacts, conducted the prototype's usability testing, and played a pivotal role as the lead report writer.

Team Flywheel
Lola Famulegun
Jahnavi Kolakaluri
Zelia Liu
Binta Moncur
Swathi Ram
Problem Space
Neurodivergence, encompassing conditions like ADHD and autism, affects over 8.7 million adults in the US. Due to the pandemic, there has been a rapid shift to remote work which is now embraced by over 33% of the workforce. In this shift, Slack has become a widely used workplace platform; however, our initial research indicates Slack does not address the diverse needs and challenges of neurodivergent individuals, preventing a supportive and productive environment for all users.
Housing plays a significant role in our lives—where we live, who we live with, and housing conditions impact our daily lives and wellbeing. At the beginning of this project, all the members of our team had recently relocated to Atlanta to pursue our Master's studies. Despite our diverse backgrounds and unique factors when seeking housing, we encountered a common challenge: the process of navigating the complex information landscape concerning safety, costs, proximity to classes, and other critical aspects of our new living arrangements.

This project's problem space is characterized by the intricacies of relocating individuals who are navigating the multifaceted housing market. Prospective tenants, particularly those transitioning to new cities for education or career opportunities, face a daunting challenge: the quest for a living space that aligns with their financial, cultural, and personal preferences. This process is further complicated by their physical distance from the prospective locations and the overwhelming amount of information—both accurate and misleading—available online. By tackling this problem space, we aim  to streamline the search for housing, making it an informed, efficient, and user-centric experience.
Identifying the Problem
The core problem identified in this housing project is the difficulty in accessing reliable and relevant information that prospective tenants require to make informed decisions. This gap leads to misinformed choices, dissatisfaction, and potential compromises on critical living standards. To delve deeper into this issue, I formulated the following research questions:
  • What are the key factors that prospective tenants struggle with when searching for rental housing in a new city?
  • How do current digital platforms for housing search fail to meet the needs of users, particularly those far from their search location?
  • What are the specific information needs and preferences of different tenant groups (e.g., students, professionals, families) in the housing search process?
  • How can virtual tours be optimized to provide a more trustworthy and comprehensive view of potential living spaces?
  • What tools and features do users currently use to organize and track their housing search, and how can these be integrated or improved upon in a new solution?
User Characteristics
Neurodivergence, encompassing conditions like ADHD and autism, affects over 8.7 million adults in the US. Due to the pandemic, there has been a rapid shift to remote work which is now embraced by over 33% of the workforce. In this shift, Slack has become a widely used workplace platform; however, our initial research indicates Slack does not address the diverse needs and challenges of neurodivergent individuals, preventing a supportive and productive environment for all users.
This project is centered on the experiences and needs of a distinctive user group composed of college students and newly working professionals who are in the process of relocating due to educational pursuits or career advancements. These individuals are typically distant from their future homes, highly conscious of budget constraints, and possess distinct values and preferences that significantly influence their housing decisions. They embody a diverse demographic that demands a nuanced understanding of their housing requirements, which includes considerations for affordability, location proximity, community features, and cultural fit.

As an exercise, we conglomerated characteristics from users and secondary research to create two potential user personas. These were used to guide us as we researched the attitudes and behaviors of our user group.
Our primary user groups, people moving into a new city and looking for housing, are broad in description and common search processes may vary across subgroups. As illustrated in the graphic below, dividing our user group in this way enables us to explore the user space, examine patterns, and understand the motivations behind the different practices and goals across our user groups.
To begin our initial research, we focused on understanding the common practices and goals of our chosen user groups—students and working professionals in the process of relocating. Through a combination of observation and semi-structured interviews, we gathered insights into their behaviors and objectives in the housing search process.

Within this user group, we observed a variety of common practices:
  • Virtual and In-Person Tours: Users leverage virtual tours to save time and resources, especially when they cannot physically visit potential homes. In-person tours are preferred by those nearby to get a tangible feel for the space and the surrounding community.
  • Online Research: Initial searches often begin with generic online inquiries that gradually become more targeted as users familiarize themselves with options and delve deeper into specific attributes of interest, such as amenities and visual confirmations of the property's condition.
  • Information Tracking: There is a prevalent practice among users to create external records like spreadsheets or notes to track and compare housing options. This indicates a need for a system that can help organize and streamline the information gathering and decision-making process.
  • Stakeholder Consultations: Users engage with various stakeholders, including real estate professionals and current residents, to gather anecdotal information and insights that go beyond the data available online.
Additionally through observation in addition to a semi-structured literature review, we determined the three primary goals of these user groups:
  • Right Housing - Location Priority: Prospective renters highly value finding the "perfect" location, which varies based on individual preferences. Key factors often include convenience to work or school, access to entertainment, and proximity to essential amenities. The significance of location is underscored by its impact on quality of life, with aspects like transportation time being a crucial consideration. Shorter commutes, as highlighted by census data, not only save time but also contribute to a more fulfilling lifestyle.
  • Right Community - Inclusivity and Safety: Our research indicates that renters seek a sense of community where they feel connected and safe. This aspect is particularly vital for marginalized groups such as LGBTQ+ individuals, women, and minorities. The desire for an inclusive and supportive living environment is driven by the increasing need for safety and acceptance in one's residential area.
  • Right Price - Affordability: Affordability remains a primary concern for prospective tenants. Budget constraints guide their search, with many using terms like "inexpensive" and "budget" when describing their ideal apartment. The increasing rental prices, coupled with additional hidden costs, underscore the importance of being well-informed during the apartment search process. Renters need clear information to navigate the financial aspects of renting, ensuring they find options within their financial means.
Analysis of Existing Systems
Next, we conducted an analysis of existing systems, a critical component of understanding housing processes, providing a foundational understanding of the current solutions available in the market. This examination allowed us to pinpoint the strengths and weaknesses of these platforms, identifying areas where users' needs are not fully met and where there is potential for innovation. By scrutinizing the functionality, user interface, and content of existing housing search platforms, we can gain insights into best practices and the pitfalls that our solution should avoid. To cover a broad range of current and traditional resources, we chose to analyze Metro Atlanta Housing Strategy, Sandy Springs Apartment Safety Checker, Zillow, Google Maps, Facebook groups, and newspaper advertisements. We first created individual rankings of each resource in accordance to their ease of understanding, ease of interaction, visual elements, searchability, and accessibility considerations. Then, we weighed the rankings of each resource to create an encompassing parallel comparison.

To encapsulate this research, let's look at how we analyzed Zillow as an example:

Zillow is a leading real estate and rental marketplace we chose to analyze due to its widespread use and comprehensive database of housing options. Our analysis focused on Zillow's user experience, search filters, and the accuracy and timeliness of its listings. We found that while Zillow offers a broad range of properties, users often experience information overload and may encounter outdated listings, leading to frustration and wasted effort.

Upon completing the analysis of the various systems, we compiled our findings into a parallel comparison chart. This chart served as a visual tool to juxtapose the features, usability, information quality, and user feedback across the different platforms:
Chosen Research Methods
After our preliminary research, we began a detailed exploration of the housing search process by employing four key user research methods. These methods were strategically chosen to provide a comprehensive understanding of both the challenges and needs faced by potential tenants. Through surveys, user interviews coupled with contextual inquiries, stakeholder interviews, and task analysis, we aimed to capture a holistic view of the housing market landscape. This multifaceted approach allowed us to gather rich, diverse data, forming the foundation for the development of informed and user-centric solutions for our housing project.

Research Method: Survey
For our first user research method, we employed a survey to acquire extensive data from a diverse group of individuals engaged in the process of searching for housing. The survey was strategically distributed via Qualtrics, garnering over 40 responses from recent relocators. The objective was to harness a rich dataset from participants of varied backgrounds and geographic locations to identify commonalities and variances in house searching behaviors. The survey was designed to capture the essence of our defined target user—working professionals or students moving for new opportunities and typically over long distances.
Our participants, hailing from an array of starting points, displayed consistent patterns in their search strategies, frequently utilizing online real-estate platforms, digital mapping services, and leaning on recommendations from their social circles. Despite these shared methods, a notable majority indicated a lack of sufficient information to make confident housing decisions.

Our findings illuminated key priorities for prospective tenants: affordability, proximity to the workplace, and safety. These preferences aligned with our preliminary research, reinforcing the validity of our user insights. Yet, the general sentiment among participants skewed towards moderate satisfaction, with voiced frustrations over issues such as distrust in information sources, unresponsive contacts, and the lack of universally applicable resources. They mitigated these issues by resorting to community-driven platforms like Reddit, professional networks such as LinkedIn, and trusted Google reviews, seeking high-quality visuals, comprehensive property descriptions, and genuine testimonials. Here I've displayed key quotes along with the overall satisfaction graph:
The feedback we gained from this survey offers invaluable direction for our design interventions, suggesting that by addressing areas like trust, responsiveness, and the inclusivity of resources, we can significantly enhance user satisfaction. The survey was pivotal in refining our interview protocols and shaping our design process to better meet the nuanced needs of our users, steering them towards a more satisfying and informed housing search experience. We compiled the overall findings to serve as a basis as we continued to the next research methods:

Research Method: Stakeholder Interviews
In our pursuit of a holistic understanding of the housing market, we recognized landlords and leasing agents as pivotal stakeholders.
Landlords provide the supply side of the housing equation, and leasing agents act as the critical link between available properties and potential tenants. Understanding their perspectives is crucial to identify systemic inefficiencies and opportunities for enhancing the rental experience. At the beginning of conducting this method, I recognized the following key goals:
  • Identify the operational challenges and pain points landlords and leasing agents face in the current housing market.
  • Understand the criteria landlords and leasing agents use to assess potential tenants and the impact of these criteria on the rental process.
  • Discover the best practices landlords and leasing agents have adopted to streamline the rental process and improve tenant satisfaction.
  • Assess the potential for new technologies or platforms to resolve existing inefficiencies and improve the overall rental experience for both tenants and stakeholders.
  • Explore the expectations that stakeholders have regarding tenant behavior and financial reliability.
I led the stakeholder interviews with a focus on capturing the nuanced experiences of landlords and leasing agents. My responsibilities encompassed the entire lifecycle of the interview process, from drafting comprehensive interview guides that would uncover in-depth insights to strategically recruiting and interviewing stakeholders.

By conducting these interviews, I was able to gather first-hand narratives that were pivotal in understanding the rental ecosystem from an insider's viewpoint. Following the interviews, I analyzed and distilled the conversations into actionable insights. This process illuminated the pain points and priorities from the perspective of those who facilitate and manage housing rentals.

The insights from these stakeholder interviews were critical to further understanding this problem space. From landlords, we learned of the paramount importance of unit condition and the financial dependability of tenants, which directly affect the rental transaction's success. The landlords voiced their need for a streamlined process that aligns with tenants' search priorities, suggesting a gap in the current market offerings. Leasing agents highlighted the leverage and reliance on online platforms to connect with potential tenants. They expressed the challenges in finding financially suitable tenants and ensuring the fairness of the rental process.

Notably, both landlords and leasing agents underscored the necessity for ease in the rental process, hinting at the potential for digital solutions to enhance efficiency and satisfaction. From these key insights, I additionally organized the main pain points these stakeholders faced along with their advice to tenants:
Research Method: User Interviews
The user interviews segment of our housing project provided a platform for deep and meaningful engagement with the end-users of our proposed solutions. I played a collaborative role in crafting the interview and contextual inquiry guide, ensuring that the questions we asked were both comprehensive and sensitive to the users' experiences. I recognized the following key goals for our user interviews:
  • Capture the lived experiences of individuals actively engaged in the housing search process.
  • Identify the most significant pain points users encounter when relocating to a new city or area.
  • Uncover the strategies and resources users currently employ in their search for housing.
  • Understand the emotional and practical implications of the housing search on users.
  • Explore the decision-making factors that influence users' choice of housing.
I personally conducted one of the four user interviews along with the participant's contextual inquiry. While analyzing the data, I decided to create an empathy map to further visualize and organize the interviewee's key perspectives and feelings during the housing search process.
During the user interviews, our participants shared invaluable perspectives that contributed to a nuanced understanding of the housing search journey. For instance, one user outlined the significance of trust and responsiveness in their interactions with landlords and leasing agents, shedding light on the need for transparency and reliability in the process. Another user highlighted the challenges of navigating non-universal resources, emphasizing the desire for a more standardized and user-friendly approach to housing information.

We conducted qualitative coding to extract key themes and insights from our interview data. We sought to identify specific subgroups within our user group who experienced disproportionate barriers during the housing process. Additionally, we identifying overarching trends not only in our user interview data, but also from our initial observations and stakeholder interviews.
Research Method: Task Analysis
Building on the insights gained from user and stakeholder interviews, we transitioned into the task analysis phase. This methodical exploration was designed to dissect and examine the specific actions and decisions users take throughout their housing search. The goal was to identify potential areas for optimization and innovation within the user journey. By understanding the tasks involved, we aimed to streamline the process, making it more intuitive and less burdensome for users.

In the realm of the housing search, our project underscores two critical tasks our users engage in: searching for housing and securing housing. The task analysis method was applied to break down these complex activities into manageable stages, facilitating a deeper understanding of the user journey and pinpointing opportunities for design enhancements.
Task Analysis 1: Searching for Housing

The commencement of the housing search is structured around four principal tasks:

  • Defining Requirements: Users begin by establishing what they need and desire in their new home, considering non-negotiable elements and personal preferences. This step is subjective and can significantly differ based on individual circumstances.
  • Gathering Information: This involves collating data from various sources, including rental sites, social media, and referrals. The challenge lies in navigating through the abundance of available information to find relevant and reliable data.
  • Scheduling Virtual Tours: Virtual tours are a critical tool, especially for long-distance relocations. They provide a glimpse into potential homes, balancing the convenience of remote searching with the need for detailed inspection.
  • Review and Compare Apartments: Users evaluate their options against their defined requirements, weighing the pros and cons of each potential apartment.
Task Analysis 2: Securing Housing

Once a suitable housing option is identified, users proceed with the following steps to secure their housing:

  • Online Application Submission: Involves providing personal and financial documentation, paying fees, and awaiting a response.
  • Application Screening: Leasing agents and landlords review the applications to determine tenant suitability.
  • Response to Application: Users either receive acceptance, prompting further action to finalize the lease, or a rejection, which leads them back to the search process.
Synthesizing Design Requirements
To establish the design requirements for the project, my role was pivotal in organizing and synthesizing data from each of our research methods. I analyzed the survey responses, insights from user and stakeholder interviews, and the findings from our task analyses to distill the core needs and challenges that our design needed to address.

The process involved aggregating common themes, prioritizing user and stakeholder pain points, and mapping out the user journey's critical touch points. This comprehensive analysis led to the identification of specific design requirements that could bridge the gaps identified in the existing housing search process. These requirements became the foundation upon which we would build our design ideation sessions.

In collaboration with my teammates, we finalized eight key design requirements:
Design Ideation
In the next stage of our project, we moved from the research stage to design ideation. During this phase of our project, my team and I employed the SCAMPER technique—a method that encourages creative thinking by prompting changes that can be made to existing ideas to create new ones. This brainstorming process was instrumental in generating a diverse array of concepts, each aiming to address the needs and pain points uncovered during our research.

We meticulously evaluated each concept, iterating through our ideas with a critical eye on how they served user needs and aligned with our established design requirements. This iterative process was crucial in refining our solutions to ensure they were both innovative and practical. As an example, one of my ideated designs was RoboAgent, a decidedly less practical but creative approach to tackling our users' needs. Here, I've attached the storyboard I created along with the initial design mockup:
As we navigated through various design iterations, it became clear that one concept, in particular, stood out for its potential to closely meet our user needs and design requirements—LeaseMate. We converged on this decision through an active team-based dot voting session, which highlighted LeaseMate's potential. LeaseMate, as a culmination of our ideation efforts, represents a thoughtful convergence of user-centricity and design impact.
Introduction to LeaseMate
LeaseMate, the culmination of our research and design ideation, is an innovative platform conceptualized to enhance the housing search and securing process for prospective tenants. Drawing on the insights from over 40 survey participants and six in-depth interviews, LeaseMate was designed to align with the real motivations, behaviors, and frustrations experienced by individuals searching for housing.

In developing LeaseMate, our team recognized the overarching struggle of people relocation to find the right housing at the right price, often while navigating the American housing market for the first time. LeaseMate aims to support these individuals through its helpful functionalities and through integrating a multitude of tools users are already familiar with—such as social media, spreadsheets, and apartment listing sites—into a cohesive experience. It addresses the gap where users often wished for guidance throughout the housing journey.

Through LeaseMate, we highlight six of our eight main design requirements:
LeaseMate's three main functionalities are thoughtfully crafted to parallel the major user needs and existing behaviors of information search, storing information, and trusting community input. Developed entirely in Figma, with components refined in Illustrator by our team's designers, the high fidelity prototype of LeaseMate showcases these key functionalities:
Personal Chatbot: The chatbot serves as the primary interface of LeaseMate, where users can search for housing based on preferences, ask questions for immediate AI-powered responses, and even scan leasing agreements for specific details. This feature supports users who need clarity on the process, terminology, and best practices, aiming to streamline repetitive tasks and improve the efficiency of the housing search experience.
Listing Organization: "My Lists" is LeaseMate's organizational hub, where users can save and manage their housing options. This tool consolidates listings from various sources into one accessible location, making it easier for users to add, edit, or delete properties, create collections, and stay updated on changes such as price adjustments. It reflects our commitment to managing information integration and providing users with timely and orderly content.
Community/Connect Forum: Recognizing the importance of community in the housing search, LeaseMate includes a "Connect" feature that fosters interaction and information sharing among users. This forum allows individuals to engage with peers, gain insights from shared stories, and find comfort in the collective experience of searching for a home. It's a space where community support and user-contributed knowledge converge to empower informed housing decisions.
View and interact with LeaseMate's high-fidelity prototype here.
Evaluation Plan
I undertook the lead role of developing our evaluation plan of LeaseMate project with the goal of ensuring that each design requirement was tested for efficacy and user satisfaction. I crafted a comprehensive evaluation plan that was designed to be scalable and applicable to a broader user base. This evaluation plan was developed to assess how well LeaseMate's features met the identified user needs and design requirements.

The evaluation plan tested each design requirement with a suited method associated with a key testing goal. The original evaluation plan was robust in details so I've condensed the main focus of each method to this table:
Evaluation & Usability Testing
The final steps of this project were executing the evaluation plan and usability testing. It is important to note that while I developed the evaluation plan in the last section to test each design requirement, we were constrained by the course's requirement to conduct a simplified evaluation with our peers. Despite these constraints, which allowed us to test the prototype with only five peers for only an hour, I redesigned a condensed evaluation plan to test two major design requirements through task success rates and follow-up surveys. For this condensed evaluation, I chose to test two design requirements that addressed our users' primary needs Provide Searchable and Accessible Information and Simplify and Centralize Process:

The evaluation process began with an introduction to LeaseMate and its context, followed by a walkthrough of its key features and functionalities. Participants' information was collected to ensure relevance to their experiences, and each participant was then guided through two main tasks within the prototype. The success of each task was recorded and later calculated utilizing the following tables. Additionally, users filled a follow-up survey regarding each task and the prototype holistically.
The results from the evaluation were affirming to our research and design processes. As the task success rates were calculated to only five participants, rather than sharing raw data, I will discuss the results instead:

Task one involved using the chatbot feature to find suitable housing, and the majority of participants completed this task successfully, indicating that the chatbot was easy to use and helpful. The participants expressed confidence in their ability to use this feature independently in the future​​.

Task two asked participants to use LeaseMate to scan their lease and extract important information. Again, a significant portion of participants were able to complete this task successfully, which suggested that the lease scanning feature was easy to use and beneficial, especially for those who felt uncertain about the details of their lease agreements​​.

Through this evaluation, we determined that LeaseMate met our design requirements effectively. It provided searchable and accessible information, and it simplified and centralized the housing search process. The prototype was found to be user-friendly and supportive, reducing cognitive load and easing the overall housing search experience. The feedback indicated that LeaseMate could indeed become a centralized platform with a range of functionalities that users would find valuable​​.
Conclusion & Next Steps
Reflecting on the comprehensive journey of the LeaseMate project, from initial research to prototype evaluation, I see the importance of user-centered research and design to tackle real-world problems. It has been a largely gratifying experience to work users who personally see value in the work we're doing and feel they would benefit from our design. I am very grateful to my teammates who have worked hard to see this project to completion to support prospective renters in their housing search journey. Although the project ended here along with the semester, I'd like to reflect on some next steps for LeaseMate.

Moving forward, I believe LeaseMate is posed for the following advancements:  
  • Expand Stakeholder Engagement: To deepen the understanding of the housing ecosystem, future efforts will include engaging with a broader range of stakeholders, particularly apartment management companies, to integrate their expertise into LeaseMate's feature set.
  • Enhance Data Analysis Techniques: Implementing affinity mapping and other visual data representation methods will allow for more nuanced analysis, potentially uncovering additional insights that could refine LeaseMate's functionalities.
  • Readability and Instructional Design: Improvements in readability and the introduction of a comprehensive instructional walkthrough will ensure that all users, irrespective of their familiarity with such platforms, can navigate LeaseMate's features with ease.
  • Community Feedback and Iteration: The "Connect" feature will be developed further based on user feedback to enhance the sense of community and support, creating a space for shared knowledge and experiences that enrich the housing search process.
By addressing these next steps, LeaseMate can evolve to not only meet but exceed the expectations of its users, solidifying its place as an innovative and indispensable tool in the housing search and securing journey.

Thank you Team Flywheel and thank you for following this project to the end!


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