Introducing Boston’s New Property Info Tool

This is the fifth 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’s journey, check out our previous blogs.
 

Let us introduce you to Heather. Heather is a wonderful realtor we worked with throughout our project. She has lived in Boston her whole life and, in the past year, helped more than 20 families buy or sell their homes in Boston. She takes pride in her job, telling us, “Buying and selling a home is a big step in life, and I love being the person who helps people in this process.”

Heather’s story was a feature of our final presentation that, after 14 weeks of research, interviews, and testing, answered the question: How might we enable citizens—individuals and commercial users—to easily access, understand, and trust city-based property information?

Designing Around the User

We were impressed by the many roles realtors take on while serving their clients. They are

  • Detectives, trying to understand any information disparities between different sources.
  • “Nervous Nancies,” seeking to understand every data point possible on a property.
  • Educators, identifying and relaying all pertinent information on a given property.
  • Supporters, helping home buyers and home sellers make informed decisions and providing much needed comfort.

Currently, realtors’ days are filled visiting to dozens of websites, calling multiple offices, and even physically visiting City Hall or available properties to answer questions like: What’s the assessed value of the property? Was the lead paint removed? Can a porch be added in the backyard? Charged with streamlining this process, we wondered: how can we make this information accessible in one place?

 

Introducing The Property Info Tool

Based on our user research, we created a prototype of a digital solution that will help realtors - and really, anyone - find relevant information in one place. Key changes in our redesign include:

  • Creating an “one-stop shop” prototype: Having all the city’s property information in one place will reduces the total number of sites (online and in-person) a user needs to visit and simplifies the search process.
  • Integrating permitting information: Surprises in homebuying (like - and this is a true story we heard - having a car stuck in the walls of a home!) are often unwelcome. Therefore, our prototype integrates a history of work done on a property based on permitting data.
  • Introducing field descriptions: Ensuring a common understanding of available information empowers users to make better decisions.

What’s Next?

The City of Boston team will build upon our prototype, research, and findings moving forward. While we are proud of what we accomplished this semester, the work to improve how citizens access city based property information is not done:

1.       Ensure that the new Property Info tool meets the needs of other user groups:

Our prototype is designed around the needs of “super users.” Testing the Property Info tool on other user groups will generate helpful insights about its design, layout, and attributes. Two important populations to test with are taxpayers, who visit Assessing Online to file and dispute their taxes, and City of Boston employees, who need the tool to answer Bostonians’ questions.

2.       Explore sharing Assessing Data with third parties:

An Application Programming Interface (API) for the city’s data could allow for more seamless integration of the City’s data into the lives of its citizens. For example, an APIs could allow websites like Zillow, a site frequently used by homebuyers and home sellers, or MLS, a tool that realtors use, to directly and continuously pull in assessing information.

3.       Improve the offline process

Some individuals choose to either visit City Hall in-person or call the Assessing Department’s assistance number for property information and assistance. To improve their experience, the City can use survey questions or track their requests to understand who these individuals are, why they are going offline for assessing information, and what challenges they might face.

4.       Advertise the new tool

In order for the Property Info tool to improve how Boston residents find and access city based property information, users have to, well, use it! Therefore, the City should have a plan to inform users that the tool is available and how to access it as well as guides/resources to maximize the value they get from using the tool. 

Thank you!

The entire Harvard team wants to communicate their heartfelt thanks to all those in the City of Boston’s Department of Innovation and Technology and Assessing Department. A special shout out goes to Lauren Lockwood, Reilly Zlab, Matthew Englander, Phillip Cheetham, and Francis Gavin who were instrumental in this project’s success. Additionally, we want to thank everyone who we interviewed for their insights. Finally, none of this would have been possible without our course’s teaching team.

 

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?

Prototyping

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.

 

 

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.

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 innovategov.bostonassessing@gmail.com. You can also follow our progress on Marta’s twitter @MartaMilkowska.

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

 

Boston’s Most Visited Web Page

What Web page do Boston taxpayers visit the most?

You might be surprised to learn that Boston’s online property assessment tool, Assessing Online, is the most popular webpage, averaging 3,000 visits each day.

 

This tool provides a valuable service to Bostonians — by typing in an address, residents and other users can access property-specific information, including:

  • tax rates,

  • assessed values, and

  • structural details.

However, the tool is still part of the city’s old website — the City’s Digital Team launched a successful, human-centered redesign of Boston.gov last year. Now they are working to redesign and migrate all citizen-facing applications to become part of the new and improved website.

That is where we come in.

Our Team

Our team of five Harvard students is excited to partner with Lauren Lockwood, the City of Boston’s chief digital officer, and Product Manager Reilly Zlab to tackle this challenge. Our project is part of a class taught by Adjunct Professor Nick Sinai, a former U.S. deputy chief technology officer. Our team members:

  • Osama Arif, the team’s computer scientist and “tech-wizard,” has already jumped into Boston.gov’s analytics data. Osama is currently a junior at Harvard College studying economics and computer science. He has experience in management consulting, quantitative research, and data analytics.

  • Elle Creel brings experience working in management consulting. She’s led projects that push the boundaries of what organizations can do. She’s also designed pilots to test new business strategies. Elle has worked in the federal government, and will bring experience in “bureaucracy hacking.”

  • Doug Lavey comes from a technology consulting background, with his experience with change management in the public-sector. Fittingly, he has decided to continue studying technology and public service as a dual-degree student.  

  • Marta Milkowska has developed public sector innovation programs in healthcare, finance, and energy in more than 15 countries. She is  the team’s human-centered design expert. Marta will guide the development of our user research and prototype testing.

  • Emily Terwelp brings a perspective focused on data and social services to the project. Before starting at the Kennedy School, she worked in public policy research in New York City. Her focus was on programs for disadvantaged youth.

Assessing Online: Current Status

The current version of the Assessing Online tool lets users access information from the City’s Assessing database in two ways:

  1. through a page that lists details about a given property, and

  2. through a mapped version of the data, called the Boston Tax Parcel Viewer.

The list-style page has many data points about each property. This includes the value of the building and land, tax rates, lot size, and exemption statuses. The Parcel Viewer allows users to click between properties and see snapshots of parcel data.

 

The Challenge

We know Assessing Online is popular. What we don’t have is a complete picture of how people are using this information.

City experts think current and future homeowners drive most of the traffic. They assume these users want to understand property values for tax reasons. Users might also want to learn about their neighbors. But, developers and real estate agents represent another potential group with different needs. They might be more focused on finding property owners, or learning about building features.

The Digital Team is also thinking about how Assessing Online could connect to other address-based information since other city services are linked to a person’s home. These include trash collection, voting locations, and police precincts.

The Digital Team’s mission is to “deliver digital services that are welcoming, useful, and designed around the needs of the Boston community.” We’re excited to add to their effort and offer our input through this project. We’ll also be thinking of creative solutions to help make address-based information more accessible to the public.

What’s Next

First, we’ll refine our focus to one or two specific user groups. Through interviews and observations, we hope to understand how people use address-based information like the data included in Assessing Online. These insights will help us:

  • develop prototypes,

  • engage in usability testing, and

  • iterate as we learn more about our target populations.

We can’t wait to start having conversations with users — please stay tuned. We’ll keep you updated with blog posts as we continue our work with the City of Boston. You can also follow our progress on Marta’s twitter @MartaMilkowska. Contact us at innovategov.bostonassessing@gmail.com if you want to learn more or have thoughts on how we can make our project better.

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