Building software that is easy to use isn’t always easy! So we devote a lot of time and resources to user-experience testing here at AppFolio. We recently sat down with J.J., our Senior Interaction Designer, to get a sense of the steps and process behind the development of our Resident Screening reports. These reports contain the same information in a typical screening report, but the display of data is very unique – we like to say they are even pleasant to read!

Can you walk us through the process to develop the screening reports?
The first thing that we did was research all of the various screening reports that were on the market. We looked at many sample credit and screening reports and realized that all of the reports are very difficult to read. I even pulled my own credit report and realized how the information is almost cryptic! Our goal was to not only provide a great screening report with accurate information but also make it easy to read.

Next we interviewed our customers to learn more about what they are looking for in a screening report. We were looking for commonalities across the group to determine the most important information that we could include in a summary at the top of the report.

Once we gathered all of the requirements and feedback, we created a wireframe. A wireframe is raw data laid out on a page in black and white with no design. Then we took this paper wireframe back out to our customers and asked them for their opinion on the content and layout of the information included in the report. We learned right away that there were some changes we needed to make. Then we took the wireframe and developed an actual clickable prototype and asked people to start using it. This is where the usability testing starts.

We had customers start using the report and our developers watched how they used it. I also gave our test group tasks to complete. For example, we presented them with a set of hypothetical online rental applications and asked them to go through the process that they would normally go through to approve an applicant. Then, we would watch and observe them as they used the software so we could learn what they were looking at and what they weren’t looking at, and how they were actually interacting with the report. Within 2 days, we were able to turn around the changes to that report based on what we observed – which is really fast!

After a couple more rounds of testing we brought in a really great graphic designer because we wanted to make the report “pretty” as well as usable. We continued to test until we saw that customers were zipping through the reports and finding information really quickly and easily.

What were some of the things that people were looking for in a good screening report?
In any credit report there are things called trade lines. These are the various accounts that an applicant has with any creditor like credit cards or a home loan. In most credit reports, you simply get a list of all of these trade lines and have to read through them. The important information about whether that person hasn’t paid on time and whether the account is open or closed, may be buried in that list.

We found that our customers really wanted to know if there are negative trade lines and if so, which ones. For example, property managers sometimes forgive a negative trade line if it is for medical debt but weigh credit card debt more heavily.

We wanted to keep all of the information (it’s all important) so we created a summary at the top of the report. We tried to summarize and then bold the information that people were most interested in so that they wouldn’t have to scroll up and down in the report searching for things. Our goal with the summary was to reduce the number of clicks and provide a brief snapshot of all the important data at the top. I think we hit it out of the park!

What types of trade lines are property managers looking to see?
One of our challenges during this project was that much of this information in the reports is highly sensitive. We could pull our own credit reports but it was hard to pull real data. What we did was experiment with “pretend data.” In my interviews with property managers, I learned how common it is for them to see some negative trade lines. When we did the usability testing, we tried out different credit and criminal record scenarios. People are used to seeing a lot of home loan and foreclosure data on their reports because unfortunately, that is more common today. The key information that property managers are looking for is how an applicant has dealt with utility bills or credit that is related to the property. They don’t want to bring people in who haven’t paid their cable bill for example, because to them, it was a reflection on whether or not they were going to pay their rent.

How do you find people to participate in the usability testing?
We recruit customers all the time! I post requests in our forums asking customers to participate, I also reached out to specific customers individually. In the usability tests, we like to get a wide variety of different types of customers and even non-customers so that we can get really strong feedback.

One thing that is really important is to have the actual person who will be using the software as the one who participates in the usability testing. Each feature is different and it is most valuable if we can get direct feedback, so if the on-site manager is the one that runs the screens, then we would want to do the usability testing with that person.

We are always looking for people to participate in usability tests for a variety of features and functionality within AppFolio, so please feel free to email me if you would like to participate: Thank you!