January 10, 2022
With affordable housing in high demand, and home seekers having a variety of needs, how do we decide the direction of the platform?

As we build our one-stop-shop for our affordable housing platform, Bloom Housing, from the Bay Area and beyond, scaling this effort amidst a housing crisis in America particularly relates with our mission to connect communities to social services. When it comes to scaling products, organizations have to make decisions that affect their capacity to deliver value to users; from redefining a value proposition, to rethinking the technology, to planning the team structure, setting new processes, and deciding how the vision and strategy should evolve. At Exygy, scaling strategy affects how impactful we are in connecting underserved communities with essential social services. This post includes key takeaways from our team’s experience expanding Bloom Housing. This product was first created in partnership with the San Francisco Mayor’s Office of Housing and Community Development and has since expanded to the City of San Jose, Alameda County, and San Mateo County.

With affordable housing in high demand, and home seekers having a variety of needs, how do we decide the direction of the platform? What should we optimize for? What’s worth standardizing in order to bring efficiencies and what should we customize to meet the requirements and local needs of each region?  While there are other factors to consider, the main challenges are centered around balancing the best pace of scaling and growing social impact digital products while employing user-centered principles. This post will illustrate the strategies we use as we continue to navigate these challenges.

Challenges 

1) Staying true to a typical agile and validation process while addressing the need for speed. 

2) Accommodating requests for customizations while keeping our product vision and strategy.

3) Standardizing functionality while remaining user-centered.


building digital products the agile way


1) Staying true to a typical agile and validation process while addressing the need for speed. 

In a typical engagement, we notice Housing Departments across Counties and Cities receive different, sometimes conflicting requests from a group of stakeholders; there are overwhelmed applicants who are desperately in need of housing and struggle to match up the available affordable housing options with their qualifications. There are housing developers and property managers who are often unfamiliar with affordable housing policy nuances and need support in meeting fair housing requirements and adapting to their specific application management and lease-up process. These requests can become complex very quickly given the variety in property management systems and workflows, and how different housing policies and preferences are across regions. 


On top of this complex stakeholder map, jurisdictions also face public pressure to demonstrate that public resources are used to effectively address the housing crisis. As a result, there is a need to demonstrate user benefits as quickly as possible. Across these four major stakeholders, it’s clear that there are multiple interests in mind as we develop the product. The challenge increases in complexity as we aim to address all stakeholder needs under a tight timeline and remain true to a typical agile and validation process.



2) Accommodating requests for customizations while keeping our product vision and strategy.

The pace at which we build versions of our affordable housing platform is affected by the number of functionality requests we receive. Customizations can encompass a wide variety of requests from local and federal housing programs. Examples of customizations include providing tools to help jurisdictions and property managers better understand housing data and making the platform more adept at preventing scams. These requests improve our understanding of the affordable housing landscape and the complex needs of our users, and we have an opportunity to build a more comprehensive product. However, the more requests we have, the slower our engineering velocity, operations, and implementation efforts become, so we must incorporate customizations intentionally.


3) Standardizing functionality while remaining user-centered. 

Our goal is to build features that address the largest of users’ needs while remaining careful about customizations that will only cover edge cases and do not greatly affect our ability to provide a positive product experience. There is a constant tension between how much to push a standardization approach while being responsive to applicants, jurisdictions, and property managers’ needs. 


Deciding how to address and overcome the above challenges was not a straightforward process. We are still navigating strategies that work best as there are no right or wrong answers, but rather, directions that we need to test. 

Strategies to Address Scaling Challenges

Below, I share the strategies that have effectively addressed the scaling challenges we experience while expanding Bloom Housing. 


1) Doing small things first.

2) Investing time to align stakeholders.

3) Approach each new community with a curious mindset.


stakeholder UX design workshop
Common Application workshop in Alameda County with city staff, property managers, and housing counselors.


1) Doing small things first

For each of our products, we defined multi-year product roadmaps that focused on releasing a series of small features every quarter, typically called minimal viable products (MVP) instead of launching a big functionality later all at once. 

When defining our initial MVPs for Bloom Housing, we knew the early versions would not provide the full benefits of the product but would allow users access to housing opportunities sooner and help us collect insights and continue iterating. As features were rolled out and user feedback was received, the product’s full vision was realized over time. Using MVPs allowed us to address the need to move quickly and add functionalities only after getting enough user feedback.

Had we addressed all of our platform objectives and engaged in multiple rounds of participatory research before releasing any product features, users wouldn’t have a tangible interface for about ten months. Connecting folks to affordable housing is essential, and there wasn’t — and still isn’t — time to wait. With urgency in mind, we launched our first MVP for San Francisco’s version of Bloom Housing, DAHLIA, in 3 months. Home seekers could view listing and basic eligibility requirements, information on the application process, and learn of additional resources.  

After the initial MVP, we began to address other important platform objectives that required further community engagement and technical discovery.


2) Investing time to Align Stakeholders

To avoid scope creep and compromising the speed of executing the product’s long-term vision, we realized the importance of bringing jurisdictions along the design process. We saw great benefits in hosting weekly ceremonies to discuss user research findings and placing city officials at the center of product and design decisions. These scheduled sessions gave us a space to think through feature requests and walk through the trade-offs; would a certain feature require us to de-prioritize other necessary functionalities? Was there user research to support that a new customization request is needed? Would a new request delay the product roadmap, and if so, did the benefits outweigh the delays? Collaborating and bringing along stakeholders allowed us to build trust with one another and maintain transparency while promoting evidence-based and user-centered decisions.  


3) Approach each new community with a curious mindset

I cannot emphasize the above point more. The ability for our products to have an impact is tied to our capacity to engage with end-users. The moment we begin to say “we know that already, we tested it before”, we lose an opportunity to uncover the needs of the community, innovate and try novel approaches. 

When expanding Bloom Housing to new jurisdictions, we start each engagement by connecting with city staff, property managers, CBOs, and a diverse pool of housing applicants. Our product roadmaps always include user research components to hold ourselves accountable to our clients. Our checkpoints serve as spaces to discuss findings from validation and user testing to ensure research is well-integrated into the product strategy. These discussions help us nurture a culture of curiosity that embraces new discoveries. 

At Exygy, we pride ourselves on building digital products that connect marginalized communities to essential social services. In order to talk the talk and walk the walk, our scaling strategies also need to reflect an agile, user-centered, and growth-mindset approach. Navigating this journey is exciting, challenging, and ongoing. We don’t have all the answers, and as we continue to scale our products, we will experience new blockers, test strategies to mitigate challenges and improve our process over time. That’s the agile way. 

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Do you have thoughts on the strategies I have presented, your own experiences, or examples that inspire you? I’d love to connect at antonella.guidoccio@exygy.com .


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Antonella Guidoccio
Lead Product Manager

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