Co-Designing Eviction Free NYC

by Ashley Treni — co-founder and designer at JustFix.nyc

We were incredibly excited to have the opportunity to design and build Eviction Free NYC with the Right to Counsel Coalition. For the last few years, the Coalition has been developing strategies around implementation, making recommendations regarding legislation, and creating opportunities for education & outreach. When we joined last summer, it had been identified by various committees that a web portal or centralized resource to provide information about this right would be imperative.

This article is the second in a series — click here to read the general overview of this project and click here to read about our engineering process.

We put together a project brief to help flesh out the details of the portal — to document who our users would be, types of information, and potential features it could contain. Together with the Coalition we gathered some early insights:

  1. The website would fulfill four main goals: a) educate people about the Right to Counsel, b) help them determine eligibility, c) help them learn how to respond to an eviction, and d) point them to legal service providers and community organizations.
  2. Acknowledge the sensitive nature of this issue and how people in this situation must feel, especially in the context of doing research and capturing an appropriate tone and language for the website.
  3. The RTC Coalition is comprised of many different advocacy groups (stakeholders) including community groups, tenant advocates, and legal service providers. While they share a common vision for Right to Counsel, there may be different perspectives (ex/ language and content) that we would need to facilitate and synthesize.
  4. The roll out of RTC will be happening progressively over the next 5 years, and many pieces of the initial roll out are still in flux. We would need to create something that would be responsive and adaptive in real time to provide the most up to date resource.

We began our human centered design process like all at JustFix.nyc — information gathering and interviews — with both tenants and advocates alike! We were excited to have the opportunity to create a two way educational environment, where the Coalition would bring their expertise to help design the most effective resource and we in turn could teach them about the co-design process.

JustFix.nyc Design Process:

  • Step 1. Information gathering and facilitation
  • Step 2. Interviews and journey maps
  • Step 3. Design iterations
  • Step 4. Design + Development strategy
  • Step 5. Distribution and ongoing user testing

Step 1. Information gathering:

Ideation of potential features and information types

To kick off this collaboration, we researched the current process of responding to an eviction, and how RTC would change that process. The Coalition shared documents and resources (many of which were still in the process of being written!) about how these processes would be incorporated into each Housing Court. One of the challenges we faced is that each borough’s Housing Court is different — there are different processes, types of evictions, local organizations, and ways to access resources. We had to first create a strong understanding of the holistic process, the individual nuances of each location, and the details regarding RTC.

For phase 1 of the 5 year roll out, there are 3 “active” zip codes per borough eligible for RTC and individuals in those zip codes would then need to be screened for income eligibility. It was clear that the first component of the site would be a simple questionnaire to help us identify where individuals were coming from and if they were income eligible.

Based on the results of the questionnaire, we could provide a personalized list of steps of how to respond to a specific type of eviction (nonpayment, holdover, or NYCHA) based on their location, and how to connect with a Right to Counsel attorney.

Step 2. User interviews in Housing Court:

I went to Brooklyn Housing Court to have some conversations with tenants and generally observe the space. I wanted to have a better understanding of how tenants currently respond to an eviction notice, what information they need, and how they access the current resources available to them. I spent a few hours shadowing Housing Court Answers (an incredible organization with a help desk at each Housing Court) who support people across the city with information about their rights, referrals, and help with the intimidating legal paperwork. I spoke with individuals who were waiting to meet with the HCA staff or who were waiting on line to speak with the Clerk. I tried to get a sense of how people felt when receiving the notice and the steps they took to figure out what to do. A few people came to Housing court immediately to get help with next steps and answers to questions. Several searched online to learn about their rights in this situation. Housing court itself was crowded, not very welcoming, felt tense, and it was hard to figure out where to go.

Free pizza and candy helps to incentivize user testing!

As I talked with more people, I found that changing my “script” sometimes led to a more engaged conversation. Naturally, people were more inclined to answer personal questions once they understood why I was asking, but I also needed to begin with a personal question to engage them. By the end of the interviews, I felt strongly that I understood the cadence of questions to ask to foster engagement and also excite people about their ability to access Right to Counsel.

Insights:

  • The most common phrase searched for online was “what are my rights?” over “where can i get a lawyer?” People wanted to know “what do I do now?”
  • People generally knew whether they are income eligible or not. The question that created the most response was “Do you receive any type of public assistance?”
  • There is very limited cellular reception in Housing Court.

Our early design artifacts included journey maps of how tenants currently respond to eviction proceedings, using our lessons learned from interviews and observation in Housing Court. Understanding the context helped us identify the following design insights:

  • Responsive website available on all devices. Our users would primarily be tenants searching for help, but also potentially advocates helping people find information.
  • Optimize for mobile so people can access the site while they are in Housing Court. Consider an offline mode or way to access the information with limited cell reception.
  • There are several types of court papers, and not everyone knew what kind of eviction they had. We could give examples of court papers to help people determine what type of eviction they are in.
  • Needs to be multi-lingual!
Early journey maps and user flows of responding to an eviction

Step 3. Design Iterations:

Our goal was to keep the site extremely simple with clear objectives, using plain language, and building context with information along the way. I started by creating a user flow with the steps of the screener - informed by the conversations I had with folks in Housing Court. I then started to identify which pieces of content should be present on each page, and used that content to create wireframes of the first design. From there, we created a few iterations of the prototype, getting feedback from the Coalition along the way.

Insights and feedback:

  • Everyone using the site would need to go through the eligibility screener. How could we encourage people who aren’t in RTC zip codes to continue the screener so they can connect with other resources?
  • Eligibility screener must help people understand what qualifications are while also teaching you about Right to Counsel along the way. It is important that those who don’t qualify understand why!
  • We wouldn’t be able to definitively determine income eligibility, so provide information about what might qualify and let people determine for themselves.
  • Everyone regardless of eligibility should still get the same steps and a list of resources.
  • Helping identify our target audience helped us to move away from certain vernacular and focus on more plain language. (example: shifting from “Court papers” to “Eviction notice”)
  • Make Print and Text URL options prominent so individuals can save their results and don’t have to go through the screener multiple times.
First iteration wireframes of screener flow

Step 4: Design + Development strategizing!

Using the prototype as a tool for conversation, Dan and I did a technical scoping to ideate the best way to build the site— taking into account the considerations around flexible and evolving content, language access, accessibility, and usability. The prototype also helped us identify which features were imperative to the success of the initial launch, and which we could save for future iterations with our limited timeline to have this completed in time for the town halls!

We decided to build the website on top of Contentful (a content management system) that also had flexible options for adding multiple languages. It would give the Coalition the flexibility to update content as needed. Contentful also allowed us to easily pull in media assets (like the sample PDFs of court papers and logos of organizations) so those could be added and changed throughout the roll out.

In terms of usability around accessing the results potentially in a space with minimal service, we came up with two solutions: an easy print view, or sending an SMS with the unique URL that could be accessed in “offline mode.”

For more detail about the development decisions and technical build — read Dan’s article about how he built Eviction Free NYC!

We finalized our design assets including:

  • Sketch file and Style Guide
  • Site map and JPGs
  • Assets (Icons + photographs)
  • Final prototype
  • Master content doc with translations
Site map of Eviction Free NYC!

Once the content and translations were added to Contentful, we did a few rounds of feedback from the Coalition, before doing a final round of QA!

Step 5: Distribution and ongoing user feedback:

Feedback session at an RTC Coalition meeting!

Eviction Free NYC launched just a few weeks ago, right before the borough based Town Halls — to spread the word far and wide about their right to a free lawyer! The website is currently being distributed through organizations and individuals within the Coalition and we will be ramping up digital marketing efforts to connect with those searching for information about their rights online. We have already received a lot of meaningful feedback from tenants and advocates about the website and are keeping track of all the insights and suggestions (see our feedback form in the footer of the site!). We are excited that Eviction Free NYC is highly adaptable so that it can continue to be the most up to date resource for the 5 year roll out of RTC.

Screenshots of different stages of evictionfreenyc.org

We’ll have the opportunity to continue user testing Eviction Free NYC and gathering insights for our next iteration of the site. Next steps also include the integration of more languages and additional features to help tenants connect with legal service providers!

This article is the second in a series — click here to read the general overview of this project and click here to read about our engineering process.