June 8, 2021

Lessons from Mapping the Affordable Housing Process with Participatory Methods

Journey mapping is a design tool used to better understand the overall process the user is experiencing while using a product.

The growing recognition of the need to address equity disparities in our society is promising. Dismantling systems of racism, oppression and injustice is critical especially in the housing space. Since 2015, Exygy has worked with a number of cities and counties in California to increase equitable access to affordable housing opportunities and generate data that can contribute to more informed housing policy decisions. Exygy worked with the City and County of San Francisco to design and build a One Stop Shop Affordable Housing Portal. We are now expanding the portal’s footprint to impact millions of residents living in the wider region. Check out some of our work here.

We care deeply about promoting long-term solutions. That’s why we put human-centered design, co-creation and agile development at the center of our engagement process with each new jurisdiction. We believe that understanding the unique needs, processes, and policies of each region while working hand-in-hand with the community allows us to create long-lasting change, together. In this post, I’ll discuss one of the participatory methods, Journey Mapping, that we used in Alameda County to map challenges and reimagine opportunities to better serve housing seekers. Specifically, I’ll cover our workflow process, insights gained during the Co-Creation Workshop with Alameda County Housing Staff, and recommendations for Journey Mapping in complex settings.

Goals of Journey Mapping

Journey mapping is a design tool used to better understand the overall process the user is experiencing when using your program, product or service. By identifying and visualizing the series of steps users take, their pain points, highlights, and emotions along the way, journey maps help uncover opportunities to overcome user frustrations. It is also a great tool to create internal alignment; this is important because oftentimes, various teams manage different stages in the user journey, and as designers we aim to create a user-friendly product with as little fragmentation as possible.

Below is a template and example of a typical Journey Map:.

user research map
“Journey Mapping 101” by NNgroup.

Journey Maps are flexible tools that can take different forms, and be used in a variety of  ways depending on the process you are mapping and your goals, and how you will be using the findings. Some approaches include: 

  1. Conducting 1:1 interviews with different users and stakeholders, and using those inputs to re-create their journey maps. 
  2. Have the user work on their own journey map and then follow-up with questions.
  3. Invite the user to a live session to work together with them to draft their journey.

Depending on your ability to convene stakeholders, folks’ willingness to have open conversations, the complexity of the process you are mapping, and the time and resources allocated, you may choose one option over the others. 

In Alameda County, we needed to understand the role that cities played in leasing up affordable units and the main challenges experienced by all the stakeholders involved in that process. We wanted to hear first-hand from city staff and create a space to build consensus on the problems they wanted to focus on so we could use their feedback to a) identify priorities, and b) translate their inputs into product features that could help alleviate the largest pain points. Our ability to meet with staff and set goals led us to use option 3 and create a hands-on collaborative journey mapping workshop. 

Mapping the Cities’ Processes

Since Alameda County is composed of fourteen cities that are very diverse in population, affordable housing needs, staff and processes, we divided the workshop into three main activities.

Activity 1: Individual City Mapping 

The goal here was to give voice to city staff and allow them to deeply reflect and document their journey. The instructions looked as follows: 

  1. Each city staff map the main steps in their city’s process
  2. Identify main pain-points 
  3. Identify opportunities the city envisions as a result of using Bloom portal 

Activity 2: Share-out and Mapping of Similarities and Differences

For this activity we wanted to increase awareness across participants and spark discussion on how their processes differed and how simple or complicated it will be to streamline the journey moving forward. The instructions looked as follows: 

  1. Each City presents their journey mapping
  2. Discussion across cities to identify similarities and differences

Activity 3: Mapping Potential Challenges and Stakeholders

In this step, we asked city staff to identify their concerns about the introduction of the Housing Portal, what challenges they anticipated, and which groups of people would be most affected by them. The instructions looked as follows: 

  1. Brainstorm individually
  2. Share-out with the group
  3. Cluster common challenges into different categories
  4. Prioritization of top three challenges and groups of people to prioritize through dot voting

product and design user-centered
Prompt we use for Journey Mapping the role that cities play in leasing up affordable units

Lessons Learned:

  1. Affordable housing governance is not standardized. The City’s role can vary a lot; some cities limit their role to advertising listing opportunities and do not keep track of vacancies, while others do more oversight and compliance, including hosting lotteries, reviewing marketing plans for fairness and equity and unit placements.
  1. The confusing lottery and waitlist processes overwhelms both housing seekers and city staff.  Applicants struggled to understand the complex rules around the lottery and waitlist. That’s not a surprise given the complexity of the process: 

“Everyone gets an application number. Then they are sorted into a raw lottery, but they don’t get that number. They get another number that shows their lottery preference rank. People do not always know that their raw rank and lottery preference rank aren’t the same.”

On the other hand, city staff received many calls from applicants inquiring about lottery results and the next steps, since most housing seekers think the city is in charge. However, in most cases, housing developers own the process, and the city needs to refer applicants back to them: 

“Even though we aren’t directly involved, people call us. I refer them to the housing developer but they get the run around and we’re not really helping people.”  

  1. Systems and processes are siloed. In most cases, developers have their own database system that city staff do not have access to. As a result, there is poor communication between city staff and housing developers about application updates. This creates a barrier for applicants to receive the guidance they need.  
  1. Bringing transparency to every step of the application process can greatly benefit city staff and applicants. City staff felt inspired by having an Affordable Housing Portal that could provide home seekers a experience that is user-friendly, easy to use, has simple language, and at the same time allows city staff to better understand applicant needs (e.g. household size, smaller units versus larger one) to make more informed funding decisions.

User Research Civic Project
Journeys Mapping Workshop with city staff from Alameda County

Recommendations for Successful Journey Mapping in Complex Settings

If you are dealing with a complex problem like affordable housing, and need to engage multiple stakeholders while elevating the voices of each community, we recommend you consider the following tips:

  1. Hosting one Participatory Workshop is not enough. We found that when we told participants there will be more opportunities for further discussion and alignment, participants were more comfortable sharing their thoughts. It is also important to triangulate information, and consider the point of view of all the stakeholders involved in the journey mapping. We did so by collecting inputs from housing seekers and developers through user interviews that allowed us to refine what we heard from city staff.   
  1. Take your time when creating alignment. It’s more fruitful to take the time to go deeper into discussions and allow for as much divergency as needed rather than pushing for a common position.
  2. Create other spaces to continue the conversation. For instance, we encouraged the Housing & Community Development Department in Alameda County to create a Steering Committee consisting of city staff, housing counselors, and developers to continue discussing issues affecting the success of the Housing Portal. These discussions allow us to identify process and policy considerations that need attention, map dependencies across stakeholders, data needs, conduct effective user research, and validate the functionality of the platform. 
  1. Schedule 1:1 meetings with critical stakeholders that could not attend main workshops.  In our experience, some city departments were unable to attend the larger workshop, so we decided to go to their office and host a 1:1 journey mapping with them. This worked really well; they felt appreciated and heard, and we were able to dive deeper about the themes and insights from the previous workshop.

What’s next?

We will continue to: 

  1. Host additional Journey Mapping Workshops with city Staff to refine and update our initial findings. This is particularly important for us given the need to a) stay up to date with potential changes in housing processes and policies, b) quickly translate those into product functionality, and c) identify additional opportunities to digitize or support other steps in the journey.
  1. Meet with City staff on a monthly basis at the Alameda Steering Committee, as well as on a 1:1 basis as new listing opportunities become available in different cities.
  1. Utilize this Journey Mapping methodology as we expand Bloom to other regions, based on its success in bringing understanding, and creating engagement and ownership across users and city governments.

How can Journey Mapping help you engage communities and uncover insights to improve their experiences using your product or services? We would love to hear from you and about ideas and lessons learned.

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Antonella Guidoccio
Director of Product

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