As we write another quick message on WhatsApp or tap a virtual button to pay for groceries on our phone, it’s easy to forget how far these technologies have come, even in the last decade. Not so long ago, most digital services, and particularly business management systems, were the preserve of technical specialists. In many instances, user interfaces were entirely character-based and needed a user manual or even extensive training to operate effectively.
Like many service industries, housing providers need to complete many complex processes while at the same time have staff dedicated to answering customers’ inbound calls. Increasingly, housing providers are also offering customers the ability to self-serve using digital portals and apps. These scenarios require staff and residents to regularly use IT systems to enter or obtain information, and it’s vital that they can do this quickly and easily.
Some organisations in our sector have a high staff turnover, resulting in a constant need to keep training new people on IT systems and their effective use. Housing providers need their housing management systems (HMS) to manage a wide range of activities, from housing management and allocations through to scheduling repairs and rent collection. Historically, these processes have been managed by complicated and often disparate systems which were neither intuitive nor easy to use.
User experience is key to digital transformation
Housing providers are realising that they need their systems to be easier to use, more accessible and integrated across their whole organisation as well as adaptable to changing needs. Users expect their IT systems to work in predictable and intuitive ways, just like the apps we use every day on our phones; anything that gets in the way of users completing tasks will cause frustration, inaccuracy and, not least, inefficiency.
Some of the impetus for digital transformation has come from forward-thinking housing providers, which has inspired innovative suppliers to develop cloud-based, browser-delivered systems with contemporary user experiences (UX) and user interfaces (UI).
To ensure that housing providers can achieve their digital transformations, housing solution providers such as Aareon are focusing on simplifying UX, ensuring that systems are process-driven and intuitive. A well-designed UX engages the user and encourages organisation-wide adoption, in turn helping to increase productivity, decrease training time and costs and, ultimately, allows staff to get on with their jobs, leading to greater job satisfaction.
“Customer research and feedback are the key starting points for developing UX. It’s important to understand how different users will use the system, what their priorities are and include stakeholders at every level.”
Libbie Coulson, UX Designer, Aareon
A consistent approach to improving UX
Housing management systems must be able to carry out many different tasks and a consistent approach to the UI helps users develop familiarity and seamlessly complete tasks in different areas. We are all familiar with apps for social media, email, Amazon, eBay and so on. These apps generally behave in a predictable manner which enables us to quickly understand how to use them. We need similar usability in housing systems to enable users to focus on getting their jobs done without frustrations or delays.
While many business management solutions cover a wide range of activities, housing providers have many specific requirements, alongside industry regulations that must be complied with and reported on. The services that housing providers deliver may be handled by different teams but are often linked, so it’s important that key information, such as tenant accounts, are easy to navigate and can be accessed throughout the system. For example, if a tenant’s contact details are updated, the change should be applied once and made available in real time throughout the system.
Aareon consider UX to be absolutely vital to our applications’ designs so we’ve recruited a dedicated UX designer, Libbie Coulson, to support our deployment of improved design and functionality across all Aareon products. She brings a wealth of experience designing accessible and user-friendly enterprise applications with specialist functionalities for a variety of industries.
Good UX starts with users’ needs
The importance of customer-facing UI design has been recognised and much better understood over the past five years or so. The best design decisions are based on detailed analysis and evidence, focused on the people who will actually be using the solution, rather than the people who are designing it; good UX isn’t created through one person’s opinion or developed in isolation.
“Our focus as a software provider is on how the process should flow for our customers and their users, so the system fits the user’s needs, rather than the user having to fit the system’s design.”
Paul O’Reilly, Solution Manager, Aareon
With a system such as Aareon’s, which supports business processes across entire housing organisations, it’s important to understand how different users will use it and what their priorities are. Consultation should include stakeholders at every level of the business, and any changes to the UI or the users’ journeys should be tested with real users before they are implemented.
We have worked closely with our customers for over two years in the design of our new Aareon HMS solution and held many engagement workshops for the re-design of our digital solutions to craft an exciting single solution that is fully integrated both in functionality and look and feel. We find that answers are often ‘in the room’ if you ask the people the right questions and let them explain how they want the system to work for them. We are continuing to use this approach as we make further changes and refinements across the Aareon portfolio.
Prioritising access to important information
Large quantities of complex data often need to be handled and displayed, so the facility to quickly and easily understand what is on a particular screen is vital for staff to be effective in their roles. A system like Aareon’s new browser-based HMS, with integrated digital solutions, is a single, fully-integrated system. Using a common look and feel, all the data that the business needs is shared throughout the system, but information is prioritised for different contexts.
For example, a tenancy record has hundreds of fields, but many have very specific uses and aren’t always needed. The UI design must consider what is hidden or shown by default and how to order them into a ‘process’, rather than just a series of fields. This allows the user to focus on the process, not the screen layout as was the case with older systems. Our focus as a software provider is on the way the process should flow for our customers and their users, so the system fits the user’s needs, rather than the user having to fit the system’s design!
UX improvement at Aareon is an ever-evolving process as we enhance our solutions and use continual improvement to keep our system aligned to our customers’ current and future needs.
In our experience, most housing providers are eager to embrace digital transformation and there’s high demand for services in the cloud. For some, a more cautious approach has been selected, and they may not be keen to navigate a new user interface that they are not used to. It is our challenge to engage with all users and ensure their needs are supported by our future enhancements and that new interfaces are compelling as well as intuitive.
At Aareon, we are committed to driving progress and ensuring that our solutions deliver the best outcomes for our customers, their users and their tenants, so we always welcome and listen to feedback.
Our aim is to adopt a consistent UX approach across all Aareon products to deliver better service to all our users and help them have the information they need, when they need it, in a format that lets them focus on the task at hand.
Libbie Coulson is the UX/UI designer and Paul O’Reilly is the solution manager at Aareon UK.