Better by design

Nigel Thomson, Housing Consultant at Civica discusses how the user experience is critical to help housing providers transform future services 

Today’s social housing providers face the combined challenge of increasing tenant demand and reduced budgets. Cloud-based technology, AI and automation are providing the answers, improving services for tenants and the way they interact with providers but just as important is how we interact with the technology, as users or customers.

Software developers now spend equally as much time on the user interface (UI) and user experience (UX) as they do on the actual programming of features and functions, and need to take into account the context in which the system is being accessed. A Housing Officer needs to be able to update the system directly when carrying out a visit, so the system needs to be as easy to use on a tablet or phone as it is in the office. When it comes to tenants ‘self-serving’, for example logging their own repair or booking an appointment, the requirement for a seamless user experience increases tenfold. If a tenant can’t instantly access the services they need, they will simply pick up the phone and avoid the experience altogether, doubling the time spent in trying to resolve an issue and adding to the call centre’s workload. The tenant is also unlikely to repeat their online experience, for this or any other function.

Housing management systems have been around for the last few decades, and have evolved at a relatively modest pace compared with other technologies that have come and gone over that time. A few years ago, Civica took the brave and unusual step of starting from scratch in the design of Cx Housing, the digital platform for social housing, focussing on the user experience (Cx stands for Customer eXperience) and employing UX designers as well as programmers to provide an intuitive and engaging user interface. As consumers, we don’t need to be trained to search for an item for sale on Ebay, so why should it be any different when we’re searching for a person or property in a housing system?

This shift in emphasis required a change in mind-set across product and programming teams. Civica was able to draw on specific expertise in this area with designers who had developed websites for major commercial customers. This experience was embodied into the core development process, typically involving business analysts to write the specifications and programmers to cut the code.
Another important point is that user interface design is iterative and doesn’t stop with the release of a specific version. The actual UX can only be measured when a piece of software is ‘tested in anger’ for the purpose that it was designed. So it’s vital to engage customers and end-users in the design process as it evolves. Some of the best features of Cx have been suggested by early adopters and are often less to do with functionality and more with the way data is presented or made accessible for a particular purpose.

It’s critical for the long-term sustainability of any software that customers who have invested in it feel they have a say in its future. Our developers can benefit from their perspective and business expertise, plus the knowledge of their customers and how they think, act and behave, especially when it comes to engaging with a software application.

You’d expect your housing system to allow you to collect rent, manage repairs or help let a vacant property. But today’s customers are looking for that interactive Instagram or Amazon-style experience when carrying out these tasks. So wherever the use of cloud-based technology takes the social housing sector, be it enhanced artificial intelligence, Internet of Things or advanced analytics, the user experience will remain key to unlocking the potential of any future digital platforms.

Published in Housing Technology Publication – July 2019