Home Rental

User research on the home rental experience of graduate students in the United States

Overview

 

This is a research conducted with graduate students in Pittsburgh and a few other cities on the home rental shopping experience in the United States. The project comprised of initial research, concept maps, stakeholder maps, qualitative interviews, usability testing on PadMapper (An online home rental platform) and co-design exercises. PadMapper did not sponsor this research. I did it as a personal project.


My Role

Domain Research

Social, Economical and Technological trends

Design Concept maps

Design Stakeholder maps

Design and conduct Qualitative Interviews

Design and conduct Quantitative Interviews ( Surveys )

Design and conduct Usability tests

Design and conduct Co-design Exercises


PadMapper Design Recommendations

Must

Clearly highlight the search feature and all the filtering options connected to it

Provide clear visual indicators on the current step of the search process

Provide accurate and updated information

Increase size of the search menu and listing results section

Should

Highlight accessibility options like transportation and grocery stores

Minimize information discrepancy with regular updates on rental listings

Provide flexible lease options

Avoid hiding filters and conditions in the search section by organizing them in a better manner

Provide context and location information using clear communication design, for map based user interfaces

Could

Offer incentives to renters based on proximity to educational institutions

Highlight commute times from listing to nearby locations, specifically universities, at different hours of the day

Encourage tenants to leave reviews about the place and point of contact

Provide text along with symbols to avoid misinterpretation


Phase 1


Domain Research

For both renting and homeownership, information is sourced from newspaper classifieds, referrals, real estate agents and the internet. With the increased usage of mobile applications, landlords and realtors primarily use online platforms to post listings. Some of the commonly used online platforms are Craigslist, rentals.com, apartments.com, realtor.com, PadMapper, Urban Compass and Zillow. These sites provide insights on a listing and helps users compare multiple listings on numerous factors.

 

Social Trends | Economic Forces | Technological Advances

SOCIAL

Demand for flexibility in accommodation

Rise in services that cater to shared housing for short periods of time

Lifestyle choices focused on travel and better experiences

ECONOMIC

Increase in moving population

Number of graduate students enrolled in programs are more than available university provided housing options

Young adults, specifically student population are not buying homes

Post recession recovery is slow

Government incentives to encourage home ownership are not effective

TECHNOLOGICAL

Marketplace of listings on online platforms

User experiences of listings available on online platforms

Internet based crowdfunding for real estate

Virtual reality, drone footage and 3D modeling used for mapping physical spaces to scale

 

Stakeholder Map

Concept Map

 
 

Phase 2


Interviews ( Summary )

Qualitative

The focus audience look for housing that provide basic amenities required for living. Their priority requirements would be proximity to respective work environments(e.g. research facilities, labs), one or no roommates and lower rent than the average working professional in that neighborhood. These are based on observations from personal experiences and those of friends and colleagues.

Quantitative

A survey was conducted online using Google Forms targeted toward graduate students in the United States. 

Users provided valuable feedback such as

“I found my home online but it didn’t have the complete information, like the place was being renovated when I checked it out, and the rest of the building was completed after I moved in…”
“ I wanted my own place that was away from traffic...“
survery screenshot.png
 

Phase 3


Usability Testing

PadMapper is an online platform that aggregates home rental listings from well known platforms like PadLister, ApartmentSearch and ForRent. This central repository of home listings attempt to improve the rental search experience. The usability tests were performed to analyze and better understand the efficacy of this website.

The usability test was conducted with 4 participants. Participants filled out the pre-task questionnaire, followed by the challenge document. Then, they went ahead and completed the challenge. Finally, they filled out the post-task questionnaire.

The total time taken for each participant was no more than 20 minutes. The challenge section was allocated 10 minutes. All participants completed the task within this time. However, they were not satisfied with their experience.

Observation

usability testing 1

Crucial User Interface elements lack the importance needed for better User Experience

75% of participants looked around for the search field. It took them around 15 to 30 seconds to find it. Ineffective use of color between text and graphic assets confused 50% of the participants.

"Why is it so small?"
 
 
usability testing 2

Inconsistent UI elements and their states lack clarity and sense of purpose which frustrates the user

Participants were unable to estimate their selected location due to inconsistent UI. They opened Google Maps on a new tab, studied the location, switched back to the PadMapper tab and winged it based on surrounding geography.

“I wanted my location to be shown clearly”
usability testing 3

Safety is an important factor in home rental searches

Filters and options that focus on safety were not designed clearly as part of the UI. The “Super-Secret Advanced Features” section was not well received by participants. Though walk score option was present, participants did not use it. They felt it was an unnecessarily hidden.

“That super secret option is hidden. Why hide it? Feels super shady”
“I don’t know how this works”
 

Co-Design Exercise

Co-design Exercise 2

The Co-Design exercise is an interesting way to engage users with the design process. It lets users define a map of keywords and sketches that highlight the entities valuable to them.

Team

Our team comprised of three individuals; a moderator(myself), note taker and videographer. Only the moderator conversed with the participants. The co-design exercise was conducted with 3 participants. They were provided with a large sheet of paper divided into three sections: Most Important, Less Important, Not Important
They were provided with a set of keywords comprising of nouns and verbs related to the research topic, in the form of small stickers.

Primary Question

What are the primary factors that determine your selection of a home for rent?

After introducing the primary question, participants were encouraged to use a combination of stickers with text or drawings that they felt represented their thought process. The exercise was timed for 10 minutes. Following which, in a Show and Tell session, each participant explained their approach and reasoning behind them.

Observations

Chose attributes focused on a home that accommodated friends and family. 

Chose attributes focused on cleanliness of the home and specific ones that they wanted to avoid. Carpeting, lack of windows and roommates were some of them.

Chose attributes focused toward homes that accommodated more than one roommate. Other attributes were large windows, utilities, access to public transport and the supermarket.

 

Insights


The most frustrating aspect of shopping for a home is the lack of information online

Primary issue addressed by participants was the lack of information when searching for a home. Information online never provided the complete story. Though online platforms provided options to input the necessary information, ones posting the ad(s) failed to do so.

Preference to live alone, or at most, with a single roommate increases rent amount to be paid

Participants chose residences which were ideal for a single occupant. If that were not possible, the next preferred residence type would be ones that accommodated a total of two occupants. A separate room for each person was an important factor.

Neighborhoods closer in proximity to school areas are preferred

All participants had ‘Proximity to school/work’ as their highest priority. Masters students had 3 times more requirements and considerations when looking for housing as compared to PhD students.

The length of their program and extensive ‘work at home’ related issues creates constraints on housing options for PhD students

  • They prefer houses that cater to single occupants is sought after by them
  • They prefer houses with a minimum of one year lease agreements

The distance between home and work should be accessible by biking or walking

Participants bike or walk to the university. All participants felt the public transportation was unreliable.

Participants finalized on the first shortlisted residence they visited

40% of these participants chose their homes while they were getting renovated. They searched online, narrowed it down to one listing, checked it out and decided to go with it. However, Masters students set more than 6 shortlisted options to choose from.

The one year lease is a comfortable duration of time

Given that the duration of study for PhD and Postdoc students is longer than a Master's program, the yearly lease was a preferred option. However, Masters students preferred more flexibility in lease agreements(6 to 10 months depending on their program).

Investors and flippers pose a barrier to purchasing a home

The participants who want to purchase a home have issues with the down payment and competition from investors. Specifically, they are outbid by flippers and/or investors quite easily. This forces them to look at multiple options in the market and spend more time searching for other options.

 

 

Design Recommendations

Must

Clearly highlight the search feature and all the filtering options connected to it

Provide clear visual indicators on the current step of the search process

Provide accurate and updated information

Increase size of the search menu and listing results section

Should

Highlight accessibility options like transportation and grocery stores

Minimize information discrepancy with regular updates on rental listings

Provide flexible lease options

Avoid hiding filters and conditions in the search section by organizing them in a better manner

Provide context and location information using clear communication design, for map based user interfaces

Could

Offer incentives to renters based on proximity to educational institutions

Highlight commute times from listing to nearby locations, specifically universities, at different hours of the day

Encourage tenants to leave reviews about the place and point of contact

Provide text along with symbols to avoid misinterpretation

 

Guiding Principles

Simplify visual hierarchy to satisfy user needs and reduce confusion

Organize information in a non-cluttered manner. Place similar items together to provide context. This would also reduce the chances of a user getting frustrated.

Provide feedback at every step of the user journey

Provide clear feedback based on user’s actions. Avoid being vague with failed actions. Being precise would make the user experience better.

Observe differences in ‘What they said’ and ‘What they did’ to design better user experiences

Understanding user’s needs take time. Through various types of interviewing, testing and analysis, observe differences between ‘What they said’ and ‘What they did’. These differences can be leveraged to enhance the user experience. This could be done by designing subtle cues at various stages of a user’s journey, or even altering the order of actions performed. These changes could fill the ‘invisible potholes’ in a user's’ journey.

Conduct tests often

Testing frequently is crucial to fix design problems early. These tests would highlight issues that designers and Subject Matter Experts might fail to see.


Co-Design Team

Anshuman Kumar, Xing Suo