UX Case Study: Documenting Grandmont Rosedale’s Vacant Property Task Force
“Interwalla” is made up of 4 UX professionals from the University of Michigan’s School of Information MSI program. Their names are: Joanne Kim, Tianyue Yang (Maggie), Marcus Thomas, and Matthew Garvin (me)
The Grandmont Rosedale Development Corporation (GRDC) serves to preserve and revitalize the Grandmont Rosedale communities of northwest Detroit through a wide range of community engagement programs. One of these programs is the volunteer Vacant Property Task Force (VPTF). The VPTF works with community members and external organizations to make sure that vacant properties in the GRDC’s neighborhoods are being maintained. However, the process by which the VPTF members document and report their work is unstructured and undocumented, lacking formal procedures. Interwalla’s objective was to examine the ways in which the VPTF currently research and report vacant property and make recommendations for better documentation procedures that the GRDC can adopt for the VPTF. This report details our research methodology, findings, and recommendations regarding these procedures.
Interwalla conducted background research and used the contextual inquiry method to uncover key information about the VPTF’s work process, including information about resources used and sense of collaboration within the task force. We gathered data through interviews with six VPTF members as well as the GRDC’s community engagement manager, then analyzed our data to produce high level findings. Some of these findings include:
• The VPTF members complete much of their work individually and thus use a variety of resources, methods, and tools to complete their work.
• The GRDC and the VPTF value themselves on their strong sense of community and value the community influence and impact they have achieved.
- The members see the VPTF as a group that can eventually disappear as there become less vacant properties; however, the task force seeks new members to become aware of and involved in the team.
With these findings, we make the following recommendations:
• An elevated digital presence through a VPTF webpage on the GRDC website
• Collaborate on an updated Vacant Property Toolbox handbook
• Improve fundraising efforts by using online crowdfunding
- Improve collaboration within the VPTF through co-design strategies
The Grandmont Rosedale Development Corporation (GRDC) is a non-profit, community-based organization working to preserve and improve the Grandmont Rosedale Neighborhoods of northwest Detroit. For the past 30 years, the GRDC has taken a comprehensive approach to community revitalization, with programs designed to renovate vacant homes, assist local homeowners and businesses, beautify the community and keep their neighborhoods safe and vibrant.
The Vacant Property Task Force
The Vacant Property Task Force (VPTF) is one such program that works with community members, meeting regularly to strategize ways to combat property vacancy and blight. The VPTF is comprised of volunteer residents from the five GRDC communities. Members of the VPTF monitor vacant homes in Grandmont Rosedale to ensure that every property is being maintained. Much of their work involves tracking down property owners, reporting vacant homes to the city, and assisting homeowners who are facing tax and blight issues. Members also make sure that vacant homes are being physically maintained by performing tasks such as cleaning the yard and cutting the grass for the vacant homes.
While the VPTF works with community members to make sure that vacant properties are being maintained, the process by which they complete this work is unstructured, lacking formal practice and procedures. Information is maintained mostly through word of mouth. Some of the steps require submission of information through city websites and apps. And while some of the members are tech savvy, others struggle with these technologies. To this end, Interwalla conducted research and analysis through contextual inquiry to analyze the current process, suggest improvements, and make recommendations for optimizing documenting procedures that the GRDC can share with task force members and the general public.
The Vacant Property Task Force, or VPTF, is one of the nation’s most effective neighborhood volunteer organizations, working to preserve and improve the Grandmont Rosedale community of neighborhoods in Northwest Detroit. More impressive still, is the underlying fact that the VPTF was founded in response to the housing market crash of ’07, and the founding members had no experience to guide them through these turbulent times. They just rolled up their sleeves and got to work. Over the years, there has been a reduced need for the task force, which in part serves to speak volumes on their impact and effectiveness. And yet, always looming on the horizon is the threat of another economic downturn.
Our research has shown that as the years go by, new volunteers are few and far between. Who wants to join a vacant property task force if it doesn’t feel like a pressing issue? Further compounding this fact, are barriers to entry. Some of the more seasoned volunteers don’t respect the input from newer volunteers who weren’t around when the issues addressed by the VPTF were at its peak. In some cases, instead of passing on the knowledge and experience they have accrued over the past decade; the more experienced volunteers often prefer to continue to do the work themselves rather than explain how to do it to someone else.
The challenge presented by the GRDC is to optimize documenting procedures so that if and when another economic crisis effects their community, volunteers can be quickly onboarded and mobilized to educate and protect the community from tax foreclosure and the encroaching vacant property and blight issues it brings with it. In the meantime, a resource guide is sought to provide useful tips and guidelines on how the general public can carry out some of this work on their own.
Utilizing data from our background research and contextual interviews, Interwalla constructed an affinity wall to better understand the synergy throughout seemingly disparate pieces of information, to find the common thread that binds every one of the stakeholders we interviewed not only to their neighborhood, but to each other. In this respect our team’s mission has been to provide subtle, yet high impact information solutions, that if implemented, could have significant positive reverberations throughout the entire GRDC.
Interwalla followed the user-centered design processes primarily utilizing contextual inquiry (Holtzblatt, Wendell, & Wood, 2005). Contextual inquiry is a semi-structured interviewing methodology used to obtain information about the context of use. Users are first typically asked a set of questions, followed by observations and further questioning as they work in their own environments (Herzon, DeBoard, Wilson, & Bevan, 2010).
Because of the nature of the VPTF work, or more specifically a lack thereof, Interwalla adapted the process and conducted a more expansive standardized interview in which we had users walk us through specific recent experiences to make up for our inability to directly observe the work process. Our aim was to gather rich detail about work practices as well as the social, technical, and physical environments, and user tools. Contextual inquiry is based on a set of principles that make it adaptable for a range of different situations. This technique is generally used at the beginning of the design process and is a reliable method for gathering the kind of information we sought.
According to Herzon et. al., the four principles of contextual inquiry are:
• Focus — Plan for the inquiry, based on a clear understanding of overall purpose.
• Context — Go to the user’s environment and observe them do their work.
• Partnership — Engage with the users to reveal unarticulated aspects of work.
• Interpretation — Arrive at a shared understanding with the users about the aspects of work that matter.
Contextual inquiry is most useful in defining requirements, process improvement, learning what’s most important to those involved, and informing future projects.
In order to achieve focus and plan for the inquiry, each member of Interwalla conducted distinct background research to establish a generalized profile regarding the problem, the client, the sector, and organizational issues as they pertain to the implementation of information systems. This background research was crucial in informing our team before heading into interviews and observations to gather context.
Matt conducted a participant observation session as a representative of Interwalla at the VPTF monthly meeting held on October 15th. Participant observation is a qualitative method with roots in traditional ethnographic research. Participant observation is precisely what it sounds like, the researcher not only observes the activity, but they also participate right alongside the group they are observing. This method builds trust and adds depth to the researcher’s insights, while clarifying observer bias through self-reflection.
Our interview participants were selected with assistance from our client. We were provided with six individual stakeholders and sat down with the Community Engagement Manager for a total of seven individual interviews. Although the VPTF as a volunteer organization officially has a flat hierarchy, meaning each member has no authority over another, we were presented with a range of subjects from founding members to newer members, the VPTF “Chair”, two members of the GRDC board of directors, and the Community Engagement manager. This range of stakeholders provided Interwalla with a significant cross-section of roles within the program, and their relationship to the greater organization, yielding representational insights and adding depth to our inquiry.
The interviews themselves focused on three primary topics. We endeavored to learn, from each stakeholder’s perspective, about the task force, the tasks, and the environment in which these occur. Being that the Grandmont Rosedale community of neighborhoods is comprised of five distinct neighborhoods, we sought to learn more about these neighborhoods and the community directly from the residents who have made a commitment to their preservation.
Pertinent to our research was a survey of used artifacts, both physical and digital. In the client brief we learned that while some of the task force members are tech savvy, others struggle with digital technologies. We were also made aware that there were communication and organizational gaps, as well as tensions between some of the long-standing members and newer members with new ideas. Any viable recommendation on our part had to consider what kind of tools and technologies each individual user was familiar with, and the extent to which they could benefit from the digital solutions we had to offer. Moreover, we collected a trove of documents which served as previous, less formal incarnations of the type of guide the GRDC is seeking help with creating.
The affinity wall was our primary source for data analysis. It was derived from the KJ Method developed by Japanese ethnologist, Jiro Kawakita. This method was developed in response to difficulties assembling complex ethnographic data into a coherent story yielding insights into the people the research was being conducted on (Scupin, 1997).
As a team, we broke down the interviews in single “affinity notes”, then poured over them looking for meaningful clusters. As we put these together, we came up with a sentence to describe the common thread that made these clusters meaningful and put these on blue sticky notes. Then we studied the blue notes closely and where we found meaningful clusters, we labeled an orange note with a description of the common thread. We found some of these orange notes also had and common thread and we thus labeled a green note with the overarching similarity between them. In this manner we assembled something of a pyramid which tells the tale of the GRDC, the VPTF, and the community in which they reside and serve.
Findings and Recommendations
We derived several important findings through our background research, artifact survey and affinity wall analysis. The VPTF has been so effective that it is on the verge of dissolution. And yet the members of the VPTF and their experience have become integral to the past, present, and future work of the GRDC, that a transformation of volunteer roles may be in order as the VPTF revises their mission.
Our goal was to analyze documenting procedures and provide recommendations for optimizing these procedures to carry the processes and experience the early members had developed, into the future. Our research suggests that the VPTF should focus on the deployment of a website and updated vacant property toolbox in order to document and preserve the processes of the VPTF, updating as needed as a continued resource and model for new volunteers, the general public, and other communities.
The VPTF Needs an Elevated Digital Presence
While the GRDC operates a website, programs like the VPTF get little exposure as they cannot be seen on the header menu, and info related to these programs cannot be found until scrolling halfway down the homepage. However, contact us not only appears in the header menu, but also center stage of the initial loading screen. Our primary finding is that the VPTF Program needs a webpage. From the initial client brief, first meeting, and through the stakeholder interviews and affinity wall
analysis, what we learned is that the VPTF appears ready to create a home for itself on the internet.
• At the first meeting with the client, Interwalla was presented with a number of pamphlets and flyers from over the years that were used to distribute to neighbors and new residents. Several stakeholders referencing these artifacts suggested that they see an updated version of these documents as a website.
• According to our interviews along with recent events in the news, we were made aware of the interest in using VPTF processes as a model to roll out in other Detroit communities.
- With less need for work to be done reporting vacant property, the work of the VPTF has become documenting the processes and optimizing the format so that it can be utilized by newcomers.
Recommendation: VPTF webpage
When we go to grandmontrosedale.com we are presented with a responsive, and well- designed website that looks great on mobile and computer web browsers. What it’s missing are pages for the various programs facilitated by the GRDC. Given the objective of the project, combined with the interest to roll out the VPTF’s efforts as a model for the rest of the city, Interwalla finds this recommendation pertinent to elevating VPTF awareness and accessibility amongst the general public.
In this case a webpage would also serve as a living resource and archive of past and current documentation of processes and guidelines utilized by the VPTF. The GRDC website already has a templated design, hosted on WordPress. That means that a lot of the work is already done and adding a new page to the site should be relatively easy for the site’s webmaster, Loudbaby. For a VPTF webpage, volunteers should come together and collaborate on what content it should contain. In addition, we devised a means of increasing the visibility of GRDC programs.
There is a caveat here, in that on a mobile browser, only the Support Us button is visible:
This is important to consider, because a mobile browser is how most people access and view the internet. To account for this, Interwalla advises either a) making the contact button dominant over support and adding a donation banner somewhere across the top or if possible,
b) making both buttons visible on mobile devices.
An Updated Vacant Property Guide
The primary concern the GRDC presented us with was the need for an updated guide. This was repeated numerous times throughout the course of the interviews. As part of our artifact survey, we took into consideration the previous incarnations the VPTF had created over the years. While a webpage could serve as a digital VPTF guide that the GRDC is seeking, we found that this digital solution would be of little benefit to those who aren’t as tech savvy.
Furthermore, a physical guide is something that can be distributed to new residents and volunteers, passed out at community events, or utilized by other neighborhood associations.
• During our first meeting with the GRDC, Interwalla was presented with several resources and bulletins used by the VPTF members. We learned that most of these resources were not only undated but outdated as well.
• A common resource used by many members of the VPTF is the Vacant Property Toolkit handbook provided by Detroit Community Resources and the Detroit Vacant Property Campaign in association with the University of Michigan Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning. This resource is also outdated and includes names and contact information that are not valid anymore.
• Some members of the VPTF do not use digital technology.
• Volunteers expressed a desire to have a guide to distribute to new residents.
Recommendation: A GRDC branded Vacant Property Toolkit (long-term)
We recommend that the VPTF work collaboratively to establish branded physical guides. In web design, we structure information formatted for mobile viewing first, as that is how most people will see it. This causes designers to establish an information hierarchy, thinking hard about what content is most important for people to access and proceeding from there. We found that this same approach would prove useful for updating printed materials to be used as a guide and resource manual.
In the short term — A Business Card:
As an example, we have included a mockup of a business card that serves as a physical manifestation of the kind of mobile first design considerations described above. The card serves as a quick and easily distributed resource that shares primary contact information and links to the tools and resources the VPTF makes the most use of. A card such as this can be distributed to new residents, displayed at local businesses, passed out at community events, or carried by volunteers and handed out at a moment’s notice should the need arise.
In the short term — A Brochure:
Expanding on the information contained on the card, a trifold brochure could be printed and distributed in much the same fashion. The idea here is that the brochure would contain the same information as the card with the addition of the next most important information as determined by the VPTF. Referring to our web design analogy, a brochure is akin to designing for a tablet.
For the long term — An Updated Vacant Property Toolbox:
Further expanding on the information contained in the brochure, we arrive at an updated toolbox. This toolbox need not be created from scratch. Our recommendation is to review previous incarnations of the Vacant Property Toolbox to determine what information is outdated, and what is still salient. The task force is comprised of members who know what information is useful and what can be discarded. The toolbox should be more expansive and provide a level of detail on par with a training manual. As always, we should consider the audience we are writing for. The focus of the toolbox should not only document the methods and resources used by the VPTF, but also what the VPTF does to make their contributions to the community so effective. In coordination with our previous recommendation, we advise that a digital version of the toolbox be preserved so that new editions don’t have to be created from scratch, but rather can be revised as time goes on. Outdated versions can still be located as an archive on the VPTF webpage, and current versions can be viewed on the web, or downloaded as a pdf document and printed out for distribution or personal use. There is an advantage to this undertaking, in that the GRDC can make use of company branding for greater exposure, further elevating their status and the impact of the VPTF’s work, particularly as the toolbox is utilized in other Detroit neighborhoods and beyond.
The VPTF Can Improve Fundraising Efforts
VPTF Fundraising is central to strategic planning at the GRDC, but many of the past fundraising projects have been high effort for little to no return.
• The VPTF meeting on October 15th focused primarily on soliciting ideas from members regarding fundraising. We learned that while the VPTF is central to strategic plans at the GRDC, many of the fundraising efforts in the past have been high effort for little return.
• One member mentioned that often residents would prefer to just give money to the organization rather than buy something like a holiday wreath, which was still the most successful fundraiser to date.
• Another member suggested a holiday movie screening. Another idea was a mobile display that could be set up at various community events, staffed by volunteers and used to simply ask for donations.
• Some of the stakeholders confirmed in their interviews that much of the VPTF work lately is fundraising in order to buy supplies like boards and equipment. Additional commentary reiterated that the VPTF fundraisers have typically been a lot of work for little return, and that every year goes by, everyone gets older. The VPTF is looking for more efficient, less physical ways to raise money.
- In addition, in recent years there has been less need for boarding up houses, and more of the work is just researching and reporting vacant property or code violations either to the owner or management firm, and then following up with the city if necessary to issue a ticket to spur action.
This recommendation was mentioned in the VPTF meeting on 10.15, and Interwalla agrees that this would be the best move going forward in order to optimize fundraising efforts utilizing information technology. Crowdfunding leverages the power of social networking by engaging connections made not only by the organization, but also the connections of the organization’s members.
What sets crowdfunding apart from more traditional donation pages is the more personalized touch. Crowdfunding often comes with pictures or short videos that highlight the impact of the organization or in some instances, illustrate the problem that needs solving.
Crowdfunding is the best way to expand a nonprofit’s donor base. Similarly, peer to- peer fundraising may also be utilized. This is essentially the same as crowdfunding, but it puts the volunteers in control of producing and promoting the campaign, which can either be ongoing or have a set deadline/amount.
The VPTF Can Improve Collaboration
Any team or organization can benefit from improved communication and collaboration, and the VPTF is no different. In our recommendations above, we elaborated on our key findings and provided recommendations on what the GRDC and VPTF could do to optimize documentation and reporting procedures. What follows is a recommendation for how. The affinity wall analysis alone yielded rich data and several key findings.
• First, Matt observed communication and collaboration issues at the VPTF meeting despite concerted efforts to manage and facilitate discussion and solicit ideas.
• Some members talk over others and don’t respect other people’s ideas.
From the stakeholder interviews and affinity wall analysis we learned:
• Most of the traditional VPTF work can be conducted alone or with a partner.
• Overwhelmingly, the most consistent sentiment among stakeholders was a sense of pride in the impact the VPTF has had on the community, and the strong sense of identity that came with being a part of that.
• While everyone agreed that the overarching mission of the VPTF was to not be necessary anymore, there was a consistently expressed desire to perhaps reevaluate the mission of the group rather than dissolve it altogether.
- Divergent ideas about where that might lead followed.
Recommendation: Co- design
You don’t have to be a designer to benefit from design thinking. Design thinking strategies are highly effective problem- solving strategies which increasingly, are being employed with great success in a range of industries both in the public and private sectors, in particular nonprofits.
For more information, see: https://www.nten.org/article/design-thinking-a-powerful-tool-for-your-nonprofit-0/
Co-design is very similar to participatory design, which advocates for changing not merely the systems, but the practices of system-design and building, to support democratic values at all stages of the process. “From participatory design, we draw several core principles, the reflexive recognition of the politics of design practice and a desire to speak to the needs of multiple constituencies in the process” (Sengers et al., 2005).
Co-design differs from participatory design in that it asserts that users can design the solution for themselves. There are two potential pitfalls in this approach that any organization adopting a co-design process needs to be aware of.
1. When the designer falls back into more of a support role, the result is often a design by committee. To counter this, clear leadership is required in order to keep focus and make tough, holistic design decisions.
2. If co-design is used as research, while quite effective, it’s research and not co-design.
Users can however participate in and employ the iterative strategies designers use to come up with and build on ideas, and co-design is a strategy that is proven to work at scale, from international campaigns, to open source projects, and even in small team environments and agency work (Casali, 2013).
In fact, the GRDC building has a fantastic space with which to facilitate neighborhood workshops (something GRDC already does) or design jams to ideate innovative solutions to neighborhood problems. In this respect the GRDC would be utilizing community involvement through resident and volunteer participation that strengthens the social fabric of the neighborhoods and reinforces the GRDC as the premier conglomeration of the Grandmont Rosedale community at large. The neighborhood organization works best when residents and volunteers seek to maximize interdependence and participation within the community (Huggins, 2002). While a participatory design strategy was beyond the purview of our project, it is our recommendation that a GRDC facilitated co-design process is implemented in the long term as a means of community-based input in the ongoing design process, implementation, and management of data and information systems now and in the future.
“How Might We?”
You may be asking, “Great, but how might we get started?” (Get it?) The good news is, you’ve already begun. Design Thinking sounds new and different, but it’s simply a set of iterative techniques that you can employ in any team environment to achieve better results by putting the structure of the problem-solving methods used by innovative organizations around the world to work for you.
In the design process, we do research in order to understand user needs and define the problem. In co-design, because the users are the designers and the problems the organization wants to focus on are already defined, Interwalla recommends beginning with, “How might we…?” This is a simple, yet powerful rephrasing of the established problem that opens the floor to explore a range of possibilities uncovered in the ideation phase.
• How: We ask “how” because we don’t yet have the answers we seek. Beginning with “how” helps participants explore a variety of possibilities instead of diving straight into what we think the solution should be.
• Might: The usage of “might” is important as it emphasizes that our ideas are only possible solutions, and that we shouldn’t be too attached to the initial ideas that spring to mind.
- We: “We” is critical to the overall co-design strategy as it immediately implies and reinforces that this is a collaborative effort, and that the solution will be found through teamwork.
According to the Interaction Design Foundation (IDF):
“How Might We” (HMW) questions are the best way to open brainstorm and other ideation sessions where you explore ideas that can help you solve your problem. By framing your problem as HMW questions, you’ll prepare yourself for an innovative solution.
For more information please see: https://www.interaction-design.org/literature/article/define-and-frame-your- design-challenge-by-creating-your-point-of-view-and-ask-how-might-we
Brainstorming is a well-known and commonly used activity employed by teams within organizations to generate a bunch of ideas to solve a problem. But a lot of brainstorming sessions are unstructured and ultimately fail to achieve the optimal results.
Brainstorming is a useful tool at any point of a design or work process and is often utilized throughout. As an example, for this project we brainstormed interview questions and used the interview data to brainstorm problem statements in order to brainstorm ‘how might we’ questions that we then brainstormed answers to.
At any stage of the design thinking process above, when you need to generate ideas to solve a problem or challenge, the goal should be to generate many ideas that diverge from one another. You then take these ideas as Michelangelo takes a block of marble and whittle away at the superfluous pieces until you reveal the masterpiece hidden inside.
We recommend the co-design strategy as a means of optimizing website and guidebook content while reinforcing group cohesion and community interdependence. Soliciting ideas from VPTF volunteers are a major part of team meetings. Taking a closer look at how to develop HMW questions and brainstorming sessions can make these meetings more productive and fruitful.
Over the years, some of the most innovative design thinking experts from the world famous IDEO and Stanford’s d.school have developed best practices8 that GRDC can implement to provide structure to ideation sessions and meetings including but not limited to the VPTF.
- Set a time limit
It’s important to set aside a specific period in which everyone in the group operates in brainstorm mode.
The facilitator needs to stress and enforce the importance of prohibiting judgement and keep group focus on generating as many ideas as possible.
Worst possible ideas are encouraged!
• Stay focused on the topic
Brainstorming should always address a specific question.
Attempting to address multiple questions in a single session doesn’t work.
How Might We…? tend to be the best questions.
• Defer judgement or criticism, including non-verbal
Brainstorming sessions are not the time to judge or criticize.
It’s crucial that participants feel confident and safe to put forward wild ideas.
The best ideas come from those who dare to be different.
• Encourage weird, wacky, and wild ideas
At best, you get an incredibly innovative solution.
At worst, you get an idea you don’t use.
Wild ideas often give rise to creative leaps.
- Aim for quantity
The more ideas, the better chance you have to innovate.
• Build on each other’s ideas
Brainstorming works well when participants build on each other’s ideas.
Our minds are highly associative, and one thought can trigger another.
Building on each other’s ideas helps participants get out of their own thinking structures when they can’t come up with anything else.
• Be visual
At UMSI, we are particularly fond of Post-Its.
Use sketching or models to visualize your idea.
Act it out. (bodystorming)
• One conversation at a time
You’re here to ideate together.
Don’t obsess over your own idea.
After time expires or all ideas are presented, select the best ideas through various methods like “Post-It Voting”, or “Bingo Selection”.
You can take the best ideas and build on them in further brainstorming sessions.
For more information please see: https://www.interaction-design.org/literature/topics/brainstorming
Our research and analysis yielded key information regarding the VPTF’s procedures, concerns, and team collaboration. We translated these findings into clear, executable recommendations that the GRDC can implement both short term and long term.
In conclusion, our recommendations address most of our key findings. The VPTF web page provides the task force with an elevated digital presence and a hub for past and present documentation by the members. This is pertinent given the VPTF’s desire for greater publicity and new member involvement. Given VPTF’s history of fundraising efforts, we suggest crowdfunding as an effective way to expand VPTF’s donor base and improve fundraising overall. Due to expressed desire to revisit and perhaps change the VPTF’s mission, as well as a strong sense of community and identity within the VPTF, we suggest co-design strategies to foster greater collaboration in the team’s decision-making process. Lastly, we suggest that these strategies be used to optimize a team-wide effort to update the VPTF’s outdated documentation. We hope that our recommendations will meet the needs and concerns of the Vacant Property Task Force and fit within the larger mission of the Grandmont Rosedale Development Corporation.
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