As technology begins to play an increasingly important role in how people run their day-to-day lives, it is only natural that that this principle be extended to how our customers manage their tenancies.
If someone wants to pay their rent, why shouldn’t that be made as simple as possible? Why should they have to wait until office hours, when they themselves might be busy, when we can give them the tools to pay right there and then?
Accidents can happen anywhere and at any time – why not let people report repairs straight away instead of hoping that they remember about it later?
We realised that with intelligent use of technology we could streamline some of our processes and free up the more traditional channels such as telephone support.
By putting together a small, agile team to build systems in-house, we saw that we could create systems quicker, cheaper and better suited to our needs than trying to adapt off-the-shelf software. Everything going forward could be made mobile-friendly, and any changes or additions could be handled without incurring extra costs.
Derwent Living App
The first version of the Derwent Living App was developed by Emerald Design for iOS (e.g. iPhone, iPad) and Android devices (Samsung, Sony, HTC etc.). It allowed customers to make payments, report repairs, request services, look at available properties and get more involved.
Launched in July 2012, it was something of a risk at the time – we weren’t sure how popular it would be, but wanted to test the waters as part of our online strategy. It became one of the most popular apps launched by a housing provider, downloaded around 2000 times.
The second version was designed in-house, with Emerald again providing the technical know-how to produce the finished item. Being written in HTML5 rather than using specific Android and iOS development kits meant it could be created for multiple platforms using a single code base. This version came with a redesigned menu system, resident involvement news, push notifications, and the ability for customers to upload videos.
MY Derwent Living
Launched around the same time as the App, MY was developed completely in-house as a resident portal where customers could check their rent, report repairs and generally get in touch with Derwent Living. It shared some functionality with the App, but was designed to work on any device – desktop computers as well as tablets and smartphones.
Initially this was going to be bought in, but as we investigated this avenue we realised we’d have problems with customisation and ongoing costs for licensing and future expansion. Building and hosting it in-house would produce a better, future-proof product while delivering significant savings.
Our best hopes were that we would get maybe 300 logins a month on the system – but the first three weeks saw over 400, and this kept rising until 300 has become an average weekly total. The usage charts in the admin section also revealed a number of other surprises, such as 20 logins on Christmas Day.
Although the Resident Involvement team works hard to gather the views of customers by mail, phone, SMS and in person, by necessity a lot of meetings in person tend to be in and around Derby.
MY Community allows for question and answer sessions, polls, and the uploading of documents and images for evaluation – which opens up the resident involvement process to people further afield. It also allows customers to chat with each other – helping each other out, or just having a natter.
The chat can be moderated, and it was decided from the start that certain users as well as staff could be promoted to do this for us. This means that it’s being looked after even if staff aren’t able to cover it 24/7.
With the existing intranet floundering due to limited functionality and a lack of support, it became obvious that we needed to replace it with something more modern. After initially investigating Microsoft Sharepoint we again decided to create our own system which would be less complex to set up and more flexible to use.
Our most ambitious project to date, we looked not only at what an intranet “should” do, but tried to learn what the best websites that we visited every day could teach us. We came up with the following feature set:
- A more modern look and feel, akin to a leading edge news site.
- A much better search facility – context sensitive and with realtime previews.
- Storage for documents, images and photographic galleries to collect together assets into one location, making it more easily searchable.
- A more sociable site, with anyone able to comment on articles, create blogs, or post short messages or announcements. Users can opt in and out of social feeds, but important messages can be flagged for everyone to see.
- Tied into Active Directory and HR systems for user accounts so that it runs with minimal admin intervention (e.g. passwords match their existing machine logins, users don’t need to be created or removed).
- A useful directory of internal and external contacts, with an auto-generated internal structure chart.
- The ability to use it on any modern device, such as iPads. This includes using high resolution imagery across the board without increasing download times.
We also needed to address the poor expectations people had after suffering with the old intranet. It needed to be fast, it needed to look better without being too complicated to use, and it needed people to engage with the content so that they would keep coming back.
Finding content was a particular problem on the old site, so as well as working on our own search engine – fine tuning the weight of words in different content and customising the word “stemming” to understand concepts such as shortened names (searching for Steve, Steven or Stephen shouldn’t confuse it) – other systems such as favourites and tagging were added. Tags especially meant that instead of a rigid hierarchy of documents going in folders, each message could have multiple associations added – which also lent itself to “skills”, people being able to tag their accounts with their expertise and interests.
The Intranet also needed to pull articles in from external sources, such as importing news from our external website and Twitter account (with image importing and auto-tagging) so that people didn’t miss significant posts. At the beginning of each week and month important articles get collated into a single catch-up post, showing the top 10 articles, new starters and leavers, and other key messages. Even in the very early stages of development we could go to lunch and return to find the front page had changed without human intervention, making the system seem alive.
With a healthy mix of comment and banter among the articles and documentation, the intranet has gone from strength to strength, with new features such as polls and content alerts being added.
Instead of spending a lot of time and effort crafting a specific set of web pages to handle our Customer Satisfaction Survey, the questions were put into a database and a simple site was created that could generate the questions from this database “script”. Re-using technology already used on MY and the Intranet meant that the site itself was ready to go live in less than a week. For those people who didn’t want to fill the survey in online, responses could be filed or transposed from paper by staff using iPads.
Having access to both the answers in a database and anonymised customer data meant that we could then quickly add a full reporting suite with detailed breakdowns for each question, including demographics and heat maps. It was interesting to note that around 75% of customer-completed surveys were from mobile devices (of which over 50% were Android, 40% iOS), and while Windows dominated the desktop responses (90%) there were almost twice as many customers using Linux than Mac OS.
Seeing the figures from a self-contained site like this gave us real evidence that projects which work on as many devices as possible can really pay off, while not overly complicating development. The cost saving compared with the previous survey, which had to be outsourced to a research company, were substantial while returning similar levels of response.
Technology can’t solve every problem, nor should it be expected to – there will probably always be people who are more comfortable picking up a ’phone and talking to a real person. But if we create systems to support those who want to pay their rent at 8pm or report a dripping tap at 2am, it has the knock-on effect of freeing up ’phone lines and other, more time-consuming lines of communication.
As the organisation grows, we want to continue to give customers options which frees up staff time to give each request the attention it deserves.