For many people, college is the first time they start exploring the housing and housemate market. However, there is no centralized platform or guide students can refer to as they begin their search. Their inexperience and the lack of trustworthy resources, coupled with the COVID-19 pandemic preventing many from exploring campus neighborhoods, make the housing and housemate search especially hard for these first-timers.
We designed the solution UniMate, a streamlined platform that helps undergraduate students find college housing and housemates that fit their preferences.
Awarded: Most User Research
The UniMate Team
Undergraduates face the ongoing problem of searching for compatible housing and housemates and knowing where to start. That being said, many college students find it difficult to find housing or housemates, especially if they have not set foot on campus. This might be an even bigger problem with students moving back to campus after the COVID-19 pandemic.
How might we create a platform for college students to find housing and housemates?
To learn more about the typical college housing and housemate search experience, we surveyed 71 and interviewed 10 undergraduate students, most of whom were second-years. From our surveys, we learned about the methods and platforms our target audience uses and the merits and drawbacks of these means, which we further explored in our in-depth user interviews.
Here is what we found:
- 39.5% of respondents found the housing-searching process to be at least somewhat difficult.
- The online platform that was used most by respondents to search for housing and/or housemates was Facebook Groups, which was followed by official apartment websites such as Zillow.
- Students prioritize certain characteristics in their housemates. Over 2/3 of respondents identified good living habits (ex. cleanliness) as “very important” when looking for prospective housemates.
Despite online platforms being the most common way of finding housing and housemates with their direct messaging and curated post features, these platforms still have drawbacks, especially in regards to potential scams and a lack of transparent housing and housemate information. The overall process is also troublesome for many students because many do not know where to start and the process is generally time-consuming.
We started ideating with an affinity map, from which we found the biggest problem among college students is finding housemates with a similar living style and accommodations with renting housing. Students have an easier time looking for housing when they’ve secured a compatible housemate. Finding accommodation was still a problem because our target audience was mostly first- and second-year undergraduates who have little to no experience renting housing or apartments.
Based on our research, we created six different categories to organize common themes and problems we found among college housing. We made “How Might We” statements to better understand the possible solutions to our user’s journey and the steps they take to find college housing:
1. Finding housemates
2. Online sources to find housing
3. Touring apartments.
To cater to this audience of early undergraduates, we determined that our key features would focus on housing and housemates. To address the housing issue, users can filter preferences and view live showings on a map to easily see what options are available to them. To look for compatible housemates, users create a profile to match and connect with others on a personal level.
To further narrow our solution search, we asked ourselves:
How might we create a streamlined platform for college students to find housing catered to their needs and live with housemates that have matching living styles?
We took our research insights and began creating sketches that touched all parts of our user journey. To narrow down our numerous ideations, we decided to vote on certain features within each sketch to include in our mid-fi prototype.
After sharing our design solutions and consulting our How Might We statements, we constructed a user flow to map out the user journey.
Our initial user flow included features such as in-app messaging and face-timing, but, after reviewing the user flow as a team, we concluded that some of the features failed to tackle user pain points. To re-emphasize our problem statement, we refined our user flow to focus on user needs: identity verification, housing search, and housemate matching. We condensed the user flow to effectively target the problem statement by removing some of the inessential features.
After voting on the design solution, we began digitizing the sketches on Figma to prototype mid-fidelity wireframes. In our mid-fidelity prototypes, we:
- Added a simple student verification process to tackle security concerns.
- Incorporated a filter-and-compare feature to guide users through their housing search.
- Created a comprehensive preference selection system to tackle compatibility concerns between housemates.
Before creating an interactive prototype, we continuously refined our designs to find the most intuitive and user-friendly version. We focused on exploring the possible design variations for each frame and feature during the low-to-mid-fidelity stage and iterated several versions of our designs for users to experiment with during usability testing.
Together, we conducted a total of eight usability tests on various undergraduates, ranging from incoming freshmen to seniors. Our main goal was to evaluate users’ ability to navigate our current prototype and to learn which features they’ll use most.
Our users were tasked to find and save housing and housemates using the save-and-compare housing feature, go through the profile and preferences selection process, and view the matched profiles.
From these tests, we found:
- Unclear Icons: Some of our icons were unclear and inconsistent across the app, mainly the “Save” button and map pinpoints. This led to longer task completion times and neglected elements.
- Difficult Navigation: Users were confused about how to navigate the app due to an unconventional menu and the lack of back buttons. Several prototyping issues also got users stuck due to limited path options.
- Convoluted Process: Several users found some steps to be repetitive and overwhelming, such as the profile selection process and save-and-compare screens. They were unsure why a screen was necessary and confused about what to look at and what to do.
We prioritized what we needed to work on for our next iteration by ranking our findings from 1–5, with 1 being optional and 5 being urgent and needing fixing immediately.
After going through our usability test findings, we went back and revised our initial designs and moved on to create our design system. Our design system stems from our research insights: our users reported that they felt unsafe on other platforms due to the likelihood of scams and found the housing and housemate-searching process to be stressful.
- Colors: Based on color theory, we chose turquoise, which represents a blend of trust and community, and orange, which represents fun, as our main color palette.
- Typeface: We chose Univers for its friendly, modern, and simplistic style.
- Component Styles: We softened harsh corners and utilized icons from Feather Icons, a Figma plugin, as the icons accurately symbolized certain functions in our product.
UniMate: The App
With all these changes, we now present to you the main features of UniMate, the app that unites you with your dream college housing and housemate.
Confirm your student identity for a secure searching process
We implemented a more thorough verification process by adding student email verification and text to assure students that the users on this app are verified students. Housing is also verified, as shown by a checkmark icon next to housing names.
Find Compatible Housemates
Set your preferences to match with your future housemates
Users take a survey to create a profile for themselves and their ideal housemates. Having individual questions on separate screens allows users to focus on one question at a time, and the use of icons and whitespace makes the design easy on the eyes. Users can also save and continue the survey later, allowing them to go at their own pace and not be overwhelmed.
Users have the ability to add custom answers to further personalize their preferences and profile. These specificities ensure that users will be able to find the most compatible housemate.
Once users complete their preference selection, they can view their housemate matches. Within each matched profile, users can learn about the lifestyle and habits of the candidate through simple tags and get a chance to connect with them through direct messaging or social media.
Search and Find Housing
Explore and find housing options catered to your needs
Users can search for housing by taking a short quiz to filter their preferences before viewing all available housing options.
Housing options can be viewed on a map or as a list. If users wish to adjust or further specify their preferences as they browse, they can do so in the filter tab.
Within each housing profile, users can read reviews; see floorplans, maps, and street views; and get in contact with the housing complex.
We reorganized the information hierarchy of our initial designs by combining the main functions into one header. We also changed the design of the live locations into pins to indicate to users that they are clickable and created swipe-through cards for easy viewing.
Compare Saved Housing
Revisit and compare housing profiles to finalize your decision
The saved feature enables users to view housemate and housing profiles they are interested in at a cursory glance and compare housing profiles side-by-side according to specific filters. This helps with the decision-making process, especially for undergraduates searching for housing for the first time.
Originally, there was not much distinction between the saved and compare housing pages, so we improved them to be more intuitive and organized. The saved feature targets the issue of cluttered and overwhelming platforms, a common pain point among survey respondents.
View housing virtually or in-person
Users can schedule tours directly on housing profiles they’re interested in and view upcoming tours on their Tours Calendar.
Users also have the option to take virtual tours by viewing floor plans and street views in the housing profiles. Having this direct link to landlords and complexes gives users the centralized hub they’re looking for in the housing search process.
- The COVID-19 pandemic: Our restriction of working remotely led to difficulties with team coordination and maintaining design consistency.
- A short time frame: Due to academic and other personal obligations, especially during the pandemic, it was difficult to devote our full attention toward conceiving the utmost effective, user-centric design solution.
- Designing a simple yet streamlined, functional product: While we believe that our current design addresses the problem, we think that there are features that can be further improved and consolidated, such as the survey and housemate matches pages.
- With more time and resources, we plan to conduct a competitive analysis on other online platforms to better understand our target audience.
- We would like to make our solution more streamlined and comprehensive through feedback from additional usability tests and consistent designs.
- We plan to incorporate social media platforms into our app to increase student interaction when finding new housemates.