Split It: A Case Study

Final documentation of our final project for molly w steenson’s Design for Service class. Group: Angela Ng, Gabriel Mitchell, Allison Huang. Find earlier process blogs here: Housing Transitions (03.23–04.26), Foster Care (02.18–03.22)

Our final project in a course called Design for Service taught by Molly Steenson at CMU’s School of Design was to design a service to “fix what’s broken.” Purposefully open-ended, we were given nine weeks to narrow down to a properly scoped problem space, conduct exploratory research, test provocations with users, create prototypes of our touchpoints, design representative diagrams like service blueprints, define a service proposition, and present both a pitch and a case study on our project. Over the course of these nine weeks, our team hit multiple roadblocks and took seemingly endless pivots to create our final service of Split It: a service that rents refurbished household items to young adults sharing temporary living spaces.

Early visualizations of the foster care system

Before we even were considering working with college students and housing transitions, we actually tried to go a humanitarian route and work with the foster care system. We learned that the foster care system was very broken. The hardest part seemed to be transitioning in and out of foster care, especially when foster kids age out of the system. Some of our early ideas included a support group for foster parents, an online support group for foster kids, and a way to give foster kids a voice. However, we didn’t have access to foster kids, who are obviously a big stakeholder in the system. It was too hard to stay in contact with foster parents and caseworkers who were incredibly busy, and there were several privacy concerns. We could not test our service prototypes with anyone at all.

So we decided to switch projects but stay within the theme of transitioning. This seemed to be a space where we could leverage our knowledge from our foster care research, such as the importance of providing both material and social support to someone in a stage of transitioning. We also decided to focus on groups of people that we would have easy access to for research and prototyping. We discovered that transitioning was difficult for young adults, who are transitioning from their parents’ home or on-campus housing to off-campus housing and shared living spaces.

Interior of college students’ homes

Access to potential users for research and testing was surprisingly easy. We visited some homes and listened to different sides of many different stories. We were surprised by how horrible houses looked on the inside and how bad housemate conflicts could get, but coming up with a solution that college kids would buy into was difficult.

Our first round of brainstorming for this new topic area brought up two main proposal ideas: navigating housing from afar (for students moving off campus, recent grads, studying abroad, or moving) and having students moving off-campus/recent grads exchange someone else’s knowledge for a connection to the community. But those two ideas didn’t really resonate with our user base.

Synthesizing research

During another brainstorming session in class, we listed some of the many problems we heard about in our initial research and grouped them into some more general topics: landlord relationships, cleaning and maintaining common spaces, safety issues, roommate relationships, chore splitter/tracker, and neighborhood communities that could provide an intermediary step of community support for skill/resource sharing. We framed them as “what if” questions.

  • What if you had to sign a “roommate contract” along with the lease that you sign for the landlord as an introduction to things that you should be conscious of?
  • What if there was a “common enemy”: a messenger to poke people to do chores?
  • What if there was a way to monitor who goes where, who does what to be able to foster a sense of accountability?
  • What if there were mirrors or some way you could see yourself doing things you shouldn’t be for accountability?
  • What if there were a codified way to know whose week it was to take out of the trash/etc.?
  • What if there were a way to know when everyone was home, or get everyone to meet up at the same time?
  • What if there were a way to split the bill for *everything* in the apartment — not just rent and utilities?
  • What if there were a value associated with not doing your chores: money? Do a favor? Sign up with your roommates and establish expectations
Provocation storyboards

We presented a couple “what if” questions as storyboarded provocations to some potential users, but none of them were particularly viable to our testing group. From their feedback, we learned that students often move off-campus to gain more independence and wouldn’t be very likely to buy into a service that “mothers” them through touchpoints as structured as a roommate contract or chore rotation. Our research then shifted us into deciding to gear our service towards easing roommate relationships and the logistics of sharing things.

We started with a service that delivered household items to the house, but found many other services that were similar. We then looked for a more environmentally friendly option — picking up the unused items again at the end. We started running into many problems wondering what items we should stock — just furniture, or other common supplies that they forget — like toilet cleaner. We then decided to add a subscription box component.

Value flow draft

There were two main value exchanges in the first draft of our service: a “rental” of sorts, where each roommate contributes to a deposit towards shared appliances like a microwave or vacuum cleaner (if all items are maintained well and kept clean, you can get the money back); and a subscription, through which roommates can receive disposable supplies like toilet paper and trash bags.

Chore mediator prototype

A big complaint we heard in our research was running out of toilet paper. We heard that college students didn’t often have the time, transportation, or space to buy and store toilet paper and other supplies. Therefore, our hunch pushed us towards focusing on a subscription box that delivered household supplies biweekly, without the rental component. We tried prototyping a chore mediator, where each housemate would pick chores to focus on and choose supplies that would be necessary for each chore. We found that everyone does their chores differently and that various chores have different levels of appeal; for example, someone might be willing to take the trash out once a week but not do the dishes every day.

It turned out that our hunches about supplies were wrong. However, shared living spaces and the conversation in the beginning of the year could go a long way. We wanted more than just the weekly delivery; we wanted the house to be happy to live together, to come out still friends, and to waste less materials. So we returned to our first blueprint draft and pivoted instead towards the furniture rental idea, without the subscription box.

Workshop prototype

To test this idea, we prototyped a workshop with three people. First, we asked each of them to take a survey about what things they would want for a new living situation. Then we brought all of them together as future roommates and showed them what each of them had marked. We asked them to work towards agreements on what they would purchase, what they would split, and the final price. From the conversation that unfolded, we learned about items we should and should not include as well as some lifestyle differences that we did not expect to hear about.

We shifted towards a model where housemates had to agree on the items they buy and then split the prices equally. They could rent them at the beginning of the school year with the expectation of returning all the items in good working condition for half their money back, thus reducing the amount of trash at the year end. Our service surfaces potential conflicts before they truly emerge. What can be seen as small differences in lifestyle can end up being what destroys a roommate relationship. We hope that the presentation of everyday habits through individually selected items will help roommates become aware of and talk through these differences. Because each item is split equally among the housemates, they will share equally in accountability and ownership.

Split It’s proposition (items) surrounded by secondary values (relationships and environment)

Split It addresses potential conflicts before they truly emerge. What can be seen as small differences in lifestyle can end up being what destroys a roommate relationship. We hope that the presentation of everyday habits through individually selected items will help roommates become aware of and talk through these differences. Because each item is split equally among the housemates, they will share equally in accountability and ownership. While we expect college students to buy into our service because of the cheap cost and ability to get money back, guarantee of quality for the year, and the convenience of delivery and pickup, our values of roommate conversations and an ecology of reuse are secondary effects that we expect to emerge from the housemates’ interaction with the service itself.

Final value flow

Our final value flow diagram shows how the service and the housemates interact. Behind the scenes, our service coordinates maintenance, supply, and delivery along with the front-stage touchpoints the housemates see. Because of the back-end processes that occur, we are able to put forth the values of affordability, high quality, and convenience to get college students to join Split It.

Top left: early draft of blueprint; bottom right: final blueprint

Our earlier drafts of the service blueprint were really helpful in getting a general plan laid out. For the final blueprint, however, we made sure to detail the customer’s emotional experience, not just the steps they would take. This helped us dive more deeply into our service’s “highlight moments” and make key decisions about how major problems would be handled.

Final price view

One issue we dealt with was how pricing would work. We decided that the house price would be split evenly across all housemates. To that end, our service will not provide personal, non-shared items (like a bedroom set); those decisions do not necessarily spark the conversations and lay the foundations for housemate relationships that we’d like to see occur. The pricing model we decided on is more like a purchase of the items with the opportunity to return all the items in good working condition at the end of the lease for half their money back. In our first blueprint, we were able to profit off our subscription box padded by the damages users would incur. This model allows the service to profit (perhaps also by investing the deposits) while the customers see value in being able to get some money back. It also provides some accountability for the shared items, since everyone wants to get as much money back as possible.

Shared shopping cart view

Another issue that came up was how the shared shopping cart would be visualized and what the interactions between the housemates and the service/between the housemates themselves could be like based on what we showed them. By not giving them specific details about how much each specific item costs or even what each one looks like, we mitigate comparisons and questions about the niceness of each item. Rather, we require all the housemates to work through the shared shopping cart together. However, we do realize that new customers might not be able to physically sit together because they’re apart over the summer or aren’t living together yet. Therefore, we designed a webcam feature that allows users to chat in real time without being in the same place.

Pathways for maintenance

We also had to reconsider what happens when something breaks. First of all, our service will provide a certification of quality for each item delivered that guarantees free replacement if the issue is not the housemates’ fault. (We will pick up the broken item and attempt to repair it behind the scenes.) When things do break, one of the housemates will report the issue with as much relevant information as possible so that we can decide what path to take. If the issue seems to be self-fixable, we will send along instructions for DIY troubleshooting and repair. If the item might be repaired on-site, we will coordinate the scheduling of a third-party repairman with the housemates. If it might be repaired off-site, we will deliver a replacement, pick up the broken one, and attempt to repair it behind the scenes. If the item is beyond repair and it is clear that the issue is due to negligence or purposeful damage by the housemates or someone else in the house, we will offer the opportunity to buy a replacement item through our service (paying again for the new item). Repair and/or replacement costs will be taken out of the final reimbursement.

If we had to do it over again, we would start with looking for our user base that is readily available and within the scope of this process. We could have extended the scope of our project that was more directly related to our original intention if we had a more easily accessible user population.