Find Housing Digital Service

Ministry of Seniors and Housing, Government of Alberta

January 2021 – May 2021 

User Experience Design • Public Service Design • Web • Mobile web

Problem

The Ministry of Seniors and Housing wanted to transform Alberta’s affordable housing system. After a 10-person panel release their finding of a service review, the Digital Innovations Office was contracted to help build the new service.

The intent from the Ministry leader ship was: “Work with housing operators to develop a centralized housing portal to manage waiting lists, including vacancies, and develop standardized application forms for the community housing and seniors lodge programs.   This centralized portal could build on existing systems and should utilize universal application forms and a centralized intake process for any future provincial programs.”

Approach

Users & Audience

  • Albertans who are looking but unsure of their options for affordable housing
  • Alberta government staff and call centre workers
  • Private & community housing providers
  • Third-party & community referral services

Role & Team

  • My role: User Experience designer, User Interface designer, User co-researcher
  • Product team also consisted of: a Service Designer, 3 Full-stack developers, a Strategist, and a Product owner

Scope & Constraints

  • Eligibility and policies are based on old acts and legislation from 20+ years ago
  • 4-month time limit to produce Beta software
  • Addresses of housing providers needed to remain private for safety and security
  • Digital service cannot completely replace in-person support, for the most vulnerable citizens
  • Limited to finding housing in first phase of project
  • Focus on mobile-first delivery
  • Final deliverable should give citizens, advocates, and support networks a centralized place to access potential housing options that best fit their own needs (self-selected)

Challenges

  • Diverse and large group of stakeholders, including Ministry staff, politicians and civil servants, policy advisors, third-party service delivery staff, private housing providers, public housing providers, community and social services providers, co-operative housing associations, citizens, current tenants, and staff from other Ministries (Health, Community and Social Services)
  • A large proportion of marginalized segments of society, including: rural, women and children fleeing domestic violence, Indigenous, people living with disabilities (physical, mental, addictions), seniors, veterans, LGBTQ2+, recent immigrants (especially refugees), people at risk of homelessness.
  • Competing, and often conflicting, motivations for housing providers: Community housing, private not-for-profit, private for-profit, housing co-operatives, municipalities and affordable housing grant recipients
  • Intersectionality of a whole person applying (social, community, psychological, emotional, religious)
  • Large stigma and social shaming around access to, and living in, affordable housing
  • Systemic disadvantage and prejudice 
  • English as an additional language / low levels of literacy
  • Mistrust of government (especially from recent immigrants / refugees)
  • Housing is an essential need, but may not be the only or trigger need (food security, lack of access to service, no social insurance, geographical disadvantage, lack of access to digital technology)
  • Systemic complexity and obfuscation of processes
  • Citizens having to re-tell their stories continuously throughout the process, potentially re-living trauma

Our approach

  • Human-centred research and co-design/consultation 
  • Assessment of real need from a wide and diverse set of stakeholders and interests
  • Focus on primary research and workshops
  • Input and feedback would drive and inform additional research / design direction
  • Not “reinventing the wheel”. Leverage environmental and comparative jurisdictional scans—locally, nationally, and internationally
  • Recognize this is a “wicked problem” which requires continuous consultation and integrated approach from multiple stakeholders

Recommendations

  • Create a short 3-5 mins screening and eligibility tool to provide tailored results unique to a user’s situation
  • Use simple language, grade 3 literacy level (sometime people had their school-aged children fill out forms for them, due to language barriers!)
  • Provide estimated cost to rent, calculated based on self-declared income (verification to occur after by provider)
  • Provide a general level of demand for both areas & units 
  • Offer close-to best fit or next-best fit options, allowing them to decide if they wish to make accommodations for earlier access
  • Link out to wraparound services—income support, health, etc—to ensure a useful service with no “dead-ends”
  • Providing supports for physical locations, if applicants require in-person assistance
  • Explore the needs of citizens for safety and security
  • Consider pre-filling the lease agreement and legal forms rather than providing a blank document to speed up the process 
  • Consider providing applicants with the different policies and rules of the different properties they are eligible for to help ensure that there is an appropriate long-term fit
  • Explore opportunities to further assist tenants in the long-term tenancy, particularly as they age.

    Artefacts and deliverables

    Product vision

    Concept model

    Information architecture card sort

    High-level user flows

    Sketches

    Low-fidelity wireframes

    Prototype

    Questionnaire details

    Selecting area

    Results details

    End-to-end service off-ramps

    Results

    Outcomes

    • I was shuffled to a new Ministry and project and had to hand over the UX reigns to someone else before the second phase (applying for housing) commenced
    • Increased engagement and collaboration across Ministry and service providers
    • Prototype and Public Beta user tested and received well by citizens, providers, and Ministry
    • Ministry reported satisfaction and decreased failure demand / eligibility calls at Alberta Supports Call Centres
    • Ministry announced service and success in August 2021

    Reflections

    • More people had mobile devices than service providers reported—more actually had a cell phone than they did ID or SIN
    • Service providers tended to me more technophobic than citizens, due to fear of change or loss of control over process
    • Stigmatization and perception, feelings of guilt and shame fed so much of this project—it was a very difficult project from a user-empathy stand-point
    • The line between housed and not is extremely thin. It doesn’t take much to go from middle-class to homeless
    • Housing is a spectrum, heavily sloped to one side, a seismic shift is required to begin to solve the current housing crisis