Improving the search for affordable housing — Fine tune & deliver

Kristin Taylor
5 min readMar 1, 2020


Using heuristic evaluation, in-person usability tests and interface design to improve the search for affordable housing.

The problem

Rent and housing prices have risen in Austin 42 percent over the past five years, while the median income has only increased 17 percent higher during the same period. Affordable housing is an important city resource to ensure Austin residents with lesser means have access to the opportunities Austin provides. Unfortunately, for those with section 8 vouchers, it can be difficult to find the affordable housing options available to them.

The purpose of this project is to provide a unified database of affordable housing inventory to deliver affordable housing resources for those in need in Austin in one easy-to-access online portal.

Home and search page before (left) and after (right).

Conduct heuristic analysis and deliver quick wins

I started with a heuristic analysis on the current tool interface.

I wanted to be able to test for the biggest unknowns, implementing changes based on heuristics before the tests made that possible.

With the analysis in hand I facilitated a discussion with the Project manager and the developers where we plotted all the issues on a prioritization grid. By evaluating the recommendations based on implementation feasibility and impact to the user, we were able to have a productive conversation about the changes that should be made before usability testing to make that process more useful.

After the conversation I submitted small design and content changes to the developer.

Design and facilitate usability tests

In order to effectively design the usability test I needed to learn more about the process requirements to get housing vouchers through Housing and Urban Development. To do this I met with directors, sat through orientation workshops, and observed in the client waiting room at the Housing Authority of Austin.

After understanding some of the complexity of the process and the current challenges that clients face, I designed the usability test. To make sure our time was valuable and we could ship an impactful tool in the first launch, I designed the test around the biggest unknowns.

Testing with housing voucher holders at the Housing Authority of Austin.

After the usability test script was ready I did a trail run on a new co-worker to make sure I had written the tasks clearly. After that I was ready to facilitate with intended users.

Synthesize collected data

After facilitation I worked with my user research coordinator to synthesize findings. We focused on what was essential to deliver in this first release and then set the team up for implementing the post launch features that would make the tool really useful.

We discovered and documented the complex insights about our users needs and experiences:

Finding #1: The search form is hard for users to accurately complete.

The algorithms used for the tool allow the user to enter three pieces of information — household size, household income and whether or not they have a voucher. This takes all the hard work out of combing through properties that the user doesn’t qualify for. But, because of the design, most users had a hard time correctly completing the search form. If they can’t fill in their information accurately, the tool is not useful.

Finding #2: Wait-lists are not a turnoff, users just wanted more information.

I expected the participants to be frustrated by the number of search results that have a wait-list. This was an assumption that was proven wrong. Our participants live their lives on wait-lists, and during testing they made comments like “I like this place, put me on that wait-list!”

Finding #3: Many of the data points provided were not useful.

The databases that populate the tool are still a work in progress. Through putting the tool in front of users we were able to give the database team more information about what information the intended user does and doesn’t need.

Re-design the home/search page

After the findings I made interface changes that were necessary. At this point we decided that the most important I also polished up the look of the

All of our participants either primarily or exclusively access the internet on their mobile phones. Because of this I started with mobile re-designs and adjusted up to larger screens.

Next steps

  1. Many voucher holders rely on the help of case workers to search for housing. In order to make sure that this tool is truly useful, we will facilitate usability tests with them.
  2. Make changes to the format that the search results are presented to make the data more easy to scan.
  3. Design post launch features like property sharing/saving and wait-list styling.
  4. Work side by side with the developer to help them implement changes.


Improved the search form.

Removed opening disclaimer page and gave users clear, easy to understand content first.

Add more resources to the tool to help those who have questions.

Understood the different challenges that voucher holders face when searching for affordable housing.

Check out the tool here:

To see what other problems I have been solving, check out my work at

Connect with me on Twitter and Linkedin.