Collaborating on user research with tenants, volunteers, software developers, and affordable housing advocates

Photo by Liz Sanchez-Vegas on Unsplash

In 2020, in the early months of the coronavirus pandemic, I joined a housing rights technology organization called the Anti-Eviction Mapping Project to contribute user research and design skills to a tool that would help keep tenants in their homes. The site, called Evictorbook, included multiple datasets on the histories of building owners and serial evictors across California and was meant to facilitate better understanding of who was causing the housing crisis in the state. The data was there, but the challenge was to make it understandable, accessible, and actionable to the people it would have the greatest benefit for: tenants and housing organizers.

screenshot of landing page for Evictorbook
Landing page for Evictorbook

Who are the users?

Initially, the tool was created to serve a small and distinct group: the housing organizers of the San Francisco Anti-Displacement Coalition who wanted to research the largest corporate property owners in San Francisco.

However as the project grew, so did the audiences and use cases. We started to see that if this tool was designed well, tenants across California could utilize it to understand their own rights and their own landlord better. Advocates for affordable housing could use it to bolster their cases and to draft policy. While much of the data was in the esoteric language of local housing law, it was important to make it useful to the average tenant in a precarious housing scenario. Someone like this might not have time or capacity to become intimately familiar with the nuances of housing law, but would need to understand it to have the best chance at staying in their home.

In order to reach these people, we posted to a variety of mailing lists and message boards with a screener questionnaire to gather as many types of relevant people as possible who would be willing to speak with us and to test out the existing site and prototypes. We spoke to tenants who have and haven’t organized before, attorneys, volunteer tenant educators, and experienced professional organizers.

Expanding the capacity of volunteers

Slides from “User Research 101” training for housing advocates and technologists

One of the most interesting challenges for this particular project was navigating how to collaboratively work with a team of remote volunteers. I started as a volunteer and then transitioned to a full-time grant funded role, but throughout the project, people joined with vastly different skillets, capacities, and amount of time to offer. It was important to demystify user research, work collaboratively with those most likely to be impacted, and disseminate learning across as much of the team as possible, even though that team was constantly shifting.

We did this in a couple of different ways:

  • Before talking to users, the team created research questions and objectives together. What kinds of information do tenant organizers need about properties and property owners? How do tenant organizers use this information? What are people’s current processes, methods, and tools for researching properties and property owners? How do people learn how to do this research, and from who? What are obstacles and opportunities to using the existing tool? In what scenarios is the kind of information found in Evictorbook most useful?
  • I facilitated online trainings on the basics of user research and interviewing, in order for people to use these skills not only for Evictorbook but also in other parts of their lives
  • Collaborative synthesis —we read interview transcripts together and divided the work of coding and synthesizing to get the most eyes on the user interviews as possible
  • We informed design and technology decisions through these findings and shared them with funders who could have an impact beyond even the scope of this one project

Facilitating anti-oppressive/equitable/non-toxic meetings

Additionally, as a non-hierarchical group, it was also critical that everyone learn how to facilitate in a way that distributed power among the group and made sure that everyone’s voices were heard, not just those with coding skills who might feel most comfortable in an online open-source project space.

We created a guide with norms and ideas about how to facilitate, and rotated facilitation and notetaking duties to a different person every week. Some remote facilitation strategies that came out of this were one-on-one breakout rooms so team members could build community and rapport in informal conversations about things other than the project, and encouragement to use multiple modes to learn and contribute.

Branding with the Bay Area for All Coalition

Virtual whiteboard from branding session with question “What concepts, feelings, goals, or meanings do we associate with this project?”

When the project expanded from San Francisco to Oakland, it gained the sponsorship of the Bay Area for All coalition, “a collaborative of grassroots and policy organizations ready to partner with nonprofit affordable housing developers and other key stakeholders in Oakland to take housing that is occupied by low-income residents off the speculative market and preserve it as permanently and deeply affordable.” We wanted to give these local advocates the power to decide the meaning and branding of the tool. I facilitated branding workshops to generate powerful concepts, ideas, and emotions around the project, which then went into the name and branding of the site.

Research findings

screenshot of narrative data visualization on Evictorbook.
Screenshot of narrative data visualization on Evictorbook

Through contextual inquiry and multiple rounds of prototype usability testing, we learned several things:

  • People initially came into tenant organizing through frustrating, emotionally charged, and confusing situations with their own landlords.
  • Having more information is in itself empowering and motivating for tenants.
  • Most participants began by using ad hoc methods such as speaking to their neighbors and doing web searches on the specific problem they were having with their own landlord
  • Tenants who had joined a tenants union mentioned that they learned from peers in the union about additional laws, websites, and agencies, but still ultimately were responsible for doing their own research.
  • Tenant’s rights information and housing law was considered to be confusing and complicated, often taking many years of trial and error to learn. However, the use of proper legal terminology is still important for people bringing court cases, searching for data, or just trying to communicate with other affordable housing advocates. With this in mind, we designed an in-place glossary to provide more context on terms while still including the specific legal term.
Building metadata and in-place glossary
  • Participants mentioned that landlord, property, and eviction information can help determine whether a landlord is being truthful (and legal) in the reasons they are giving for evictions, especially in the case of supposed owner move-ins.
  • Neighborhood-level information, and information about large corporate landlords that are involved in active displacement and eviction was seen as a priority for tenant rights organizations. It was seen as useful for tenants rights organization to combat new gentrification and to organize outreach.

In conclusion

User research involving the people most affected by a project is essential, even if it requires creativity and humility to find people, facilitate, and shift power. We faced limitations from having a constantly changing team, by only talking with English speakers, and through operating in an entirely remote environment when many tenants do not have easy access to the internet or video calling software. By understanding more fully how tenant organizing happens, on the level of tools, data, and technology in context, we were able to provide access to unprecedented housing data in a way that made the most sense to the average Bay Area tenant or housing organizer.

See also



User experience researcher and designer, interested in equity, democratic participation, and community technology

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store
Maya M. Wagoner

User experience researcher and designer, interested in equity, democratic participation, and community technology