The year is 2015 and Ashley Treni, Dan Kass, and Georges Clement are deep in the research phase for a new product they’re building. No, they weren’t crowded around a whiteboard plotting yet another meal delivery app. They were sitting in Bronx Housing Court observing as trial after trial, individuals fighting wrongful evictions and deficient housing situations pulled out their cell phones to show the judges evidence of the critical issues their landlords failed to address. Jump to 2018 and the trio are co-founders of JustFix, the leading platform for documenting housing issues and taking action to achieve housing justice. Now the team is gearing up to launch Version 2 of the JustFix Tenant App, which they built using codesign.
Housing injustice is pervasive in New York, where an estimated 1.2 million people are currently living in inadequate housing with three or more unaddressed, severe violations. JustFix took a community codesign approach to building products that help individuals win their fight for housing equity… and it’s working. With the help of JustFix’s Tenant App, the success rate of tenants fighting in court has jumped from a mere 10% to 60% when using their Web app. We spoke to Ashley Treni, JustFix’s Co-Founder and Design Director, to understand how codesign has enabled them to build the product their users need.
Codesign is the act of creating with stakeholders (business or customers) specifically within the design development process to ensure the results meet their needs and are usable.
In Codesign, You Are Not the Expert
“We’re not building the things that we think will help the community. We’re listening to the experts and offering that back.”
“Maybe this is intuitive,” Treni shares, “but the people you’re designing with are the experts. They’re the people who will help you and teach you what the existing processes are. They’ll reveal the opportunities where some of those processes can be improved.” Engaging with your users early and often in the product design process will unlock key insights into what you need to build.
“We started JustFix with a human-centered design process, where we conducted research through observation, interviewed folks across NYC, and did a lot of processes in an analog fashion to start,” says Treni. “There were already user behaviors that we could leverage and build some structure around to help people create stories to advocate for themselves.” In fact, a key observation early on was that tenants were already using smartphones to document housing issues. They were capturing photo evidence on their phones and showing the images to judges in court. This gave the JustFix team a great launching point. Treni says, “Seeing the types of technology that people were already using and the types of actions they were already taking helped us design something that would assist the process.”
The team also relied on the expert opinions of organizers who had been working on housing justice issues for decades. Dan Kass, one of the co-founders, had become active with the Crown Heights Tenants Union – a local organizing group in his neighborhood. Trusted relationships with organizing groups like this were critical. “To come into a space like this, we wanted to learn from partners first. We realized there was already this rich knowledge and practices that were already working.” These insights created a foundation for JustFix. They didn’t need to reinvent the wheel, but they needed to make it scale using technology.
“It’s why we decided to be a nonprofit. We are driven by our mission, not by money.”
JustFix recognized that growing their organization was not just about increasing brand awareness or app downloads. They understood that to convey their commitment and build trust, they must entrench themselves in the community they serve. Showing up for the community as a core partner is critical to the codesign process. Without community trust, they wouldn’t have been able to establish deep relationships with community members and leaders, and conduct the research and conversations necessary to build the right product.
It sounds simple, but having a presence and demonstrating commitment encouraged community stakeholders to give honest feedback and use the product, knowing the JustFix team built it with their precise needs in mind. “We all volunteered on the Met Council on Housing Tenants’ Rights Telephone Hotline, which is this incredible nonprofit that provides a hotline, does organizing work, and runs a lot of the campaigns around rent reform and housing justice in New York. Just meeting folks, learning, volunteering, participating in community events, showing up to tenants association meetings or board meetings,” that all built trust, according to Treni. “We’re doing this work because we care deeply about this issue and the people in this space. We want to create tools to augment, not replace, the amazing work our community partners have been doing for years.”
JustFix relied on some serious nonprofit judo. “To the extent that we’re a nonprofit has also built trust… being a tech nonprofit has allowed us to be in conversation with people we may not have been able to. It’s also allowed us to be honest and intentional about what we’re advocating for in a kind of way we could not have done as a for-profit,” Treni says. Their nonprofit status underscores that their bottom line is not money, it’s impact.
And for trust to endure, stay engaged. Treni says that, “JustFix is something we all stayed invested in, we never disappeared… the fact that we weren’t just going to come here, build something, and disappear,” was vital to maintaining trust and engagement with the community.
With Codesign, It’s Analog First, Tech Later
“Oftentimes, we realize a lot of people are asking for the same thing. We ask ourselves, how can we automate that?”
JustFix relies on analog process for their research and development. To see it in action, look no further than the hotline JustFix built to offer tenants real time support. The manually operated hotline unearthed valuable insights that informed iterations on V1 of the Tenant App. Through the hotline Treni explains, “It became clear that every case was unique. The script that we follow, the identification of the type of lease the tenants have, the issues they might be experiencing,” the team realized that, “providing more context, information, and a hand to hold can be really meaningful.” This insight was deemed worthy of product implementation, and led the team to redesign the JustFix on-boarding flow by asking the user for more information upfront. This ultimately results in user pathways that are tailored to each tenant.
During their analog research phase for Tenant App 2.0, JustFix heard over and over that tenants wanted an actionable to do list. “People want to understand more holistically what the whole process might look like,” Treni explains, so the team started by walking tenants through next steps. This insight led them to add a “Take Action” section to their V2 roadmap. The section is, “a to do list that shows the full process that the tenant might engage with.” It also means adding in more Know Your Rights information as tenants take action – answering questions they hear often on the hotline such as, “what happens if I take this action?” More context helps tenants understand possible outcomes related to each action and what to do next. “For example,” Treni says, “Tenants might ask, ‘If I request a rental history from the state department, does my landlord know?’ ‘No,’ we tell them ‘that’s a private request.’ But that’s a question we get all the time.”
JustFix’s microsite What Owns What is another example of how analog research plays into codesign. Treni explains this as “the first tool that does property ownership mapping.” The tool enables organizers and tenants to identify slumlords who own multiple neglected properties but evade legal repercussions. She shared, “You enter your address, your landlord, and other information, and it shows you any other properties they might own.
Before we built What Owns What, people were reaching out and asking, ‘Hey, we’d really love a map in our community of different buildings that have a lot of violations.’ So,” in an analog fashion, “we’d do these smaller tasks for individual community partners. Oftentimes, we realize a lot of people are asking for the same thing. We ask ourselves, how can we automate that?” When the JustFix team sees repeated behaviors in-person, or hears a specific question or feature request overwhelmingly reiterated by the community, they know it’s time to turn that insight into a tech solution.
Listen with an Open Mind
“When you’re too tied to a solution in advance, you can miss the opportunity that might reveal itself.”
Treni daylights as a Design Director, and moonlights as a listener. So much of the work of codesign is listening to the community and ensuring that your product is aligned with the needs of your user. “One of the things I love about our job is that we get to listen. It’s so amazing to go back and do an update and say, ‘Hey – there’s this new feature,’ and a community member will say, ‘Hey we’ve been asking for this!’ ‘Well yeah!’ I tell them, ‘You told us and we listened!’”
Listening without an agenda allows you to let solutions and opportunities reveal themselves. As Treni puts it, listening without, “a hypothesis about what you want to build will allow you to listen in a different way than when you’re trying to map it to a hypothesis you already have. We’re not building the things that we think will help them, we’re listening to the experts and offering that back.” This is core to codesign.
Treni brings up Laurenellen McCann’s teaching on “Build With, Not For.” The idea is that, “We’re all teaching each other – there is no hierarchy.” To succeed in the codesign process, Treni explains, “create spaces where there is shared knowledge. Starting off that way only continues to create strong relationships where that dynamic is always present. It’s not a taking and giving, it’s a learning collectively together. I think that is such a beautiful opportunity.”
The JustFix team is gearing up to release Tenant App 2.0 in Fall 2018. Stay tuned for more details on the product evolution.