Redefining proptech software from the resident outwards

Piyum Samaraweera
Piyum Samaraweera | 8 min. read

Published on March 20, 2019

Having spent over ten years developing SaaS software for the small business, residential  property manager market, Buildium knows first hand how challenging a property manager’s life can be. We see, hear, and live it, through our customers, every day.

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The property manager serves myriad constituents from residents to vendors to property owners. Their days are spent in firefighting mode. A resident calls in saying their sink is leaking; it snowed last night, and the association’s streets haven’t been plowed; the condo board would like to see the latest budget report (sometimes all at the same time). As the Head of Product, I think of situations like these all the time to try and get into the head of our customers.

The common thread in these interactions is the resident. But the reality is that most software providers in the proptech space build solutions by thinking about the properties that a property manager oversees. The fact is, if the property (or unit) is vacant, then the property manager isn’t making money. And if the property manager isn’t making money, they certainly won’t be able to deliver sustained value to their owners.

At the end of the day, the focal point for the property manager in today’s market ought to be the resident, from the first impression to the daily interactions—and everything in between. At Buildium, we believe this center of gravity in the industry has already shifted from the property to the resident.

This is a big shift. The industry has traditionally focused on the “unit” or the “door,” but the more we looked at the data we realized that, while it might seem subtle, it’s a completely different mindset. As we considered what this shift in perspective means for our customers, I realized we needed to rethink how we build software. Taking a resident-centric perspective for our customers’ customer means we needed to build tools and services from the resident, outwards.

What Today’s Renters Want

In our 2018 Renters’ Report, offering personal, empathy-driven customer services and tools as part of the living experience were identified as being key to attracting and retaining renters. This makes sense and fits with who our property managers are. They are small businesses that run on the relationships they foster with their customers. And these relationships are a real opportunity for the property manager. In the same Renters’ Report, half all renters who decided to move out were based on reasons that the property manager has within their control.

Another input that we need to take into account is societal changes. We know millennials are more inclined to rent than to own. Millennials are also digital natives and far prefer self-service options to solve their problems. In that same study on renters, we found that 87% of Millennials said they’d rather take care of the rental process online. So that’s one resident audience for us to consider.

On the other side of the demographic spectrum are the baby boomers, defined as people aged 54 to 72. While this demographic is less tech-savvy, they aren’t averse to embracing technology. 4 in 10 now own a smartphone, and 65% own a desktop computer. While these figures are lower than what we see in millennials we still live in a connected world. In 2018, the United States alone had 290 million internet users, which represent over 75% of the US population. And, perhaps most importantly, more than two-thirds of them told us that they preferred online transactions and communications in their living experience.

The question became, how do we help our customers serve a resident population with such a broad, diverse set of expectations and needs?

Reimagining the Resident Experience with Consumer-Grade Pillars

It actually caused us to view some pieces of our product with a much different lens. At the end of 2018, we embarked on an effort to evaluate our resident-facing experiences through this new point of view. We started with the most common tasks the resident needs to perform: paying rents or associations dues online and submitting a maintenance request. From a property manager view, we had provided these key capabilities through our existing resident site, but when we looked through the resident’s eyes it was a different story. Residents found it difficult to use and even told us it was lacking some capabilities.

Long story short, we decided to rebuild the site. And this time, we declared from the outset that this build would be founded on the notion of a consumer-grade experience. Why? Because this is what the residents experience on a regular basis in all other facets of their day to day with banking, retail, and communications. “Consumer-grade” is centered on an idea that Jason Fried put forth in his Basecamp’s Signal vs. Noise Blog. In it, when talking about the customer experience, he noted that the customer should achieve maximum value with minimal effort with minimal learning and hassle.

This became our mantra. To get us there, the team established five pillars to serve as guideposts. The new resident site needed to be:

  1. Focused and Streamlined: Whether you’re tackling a sprawling workflow or a small UI enhancement, your work should save users time. By remaining concise and reducing their cognitive load, we bring clarity to their hectic days.
  2. Intuitive and Familiar: Our users should be able to open up any Buildium page and feel like it’s part of a cohesive whole. Our application should be consistent—never disjointed. Each interaction should feel natural, seamless, and easy-to-understand.
  3. Tailored yet Flexible: Our workflows should feel like a natural extension of users’ businesses. We need to be pliable enough to accommodate unique processes, but keep customizability to a manageable level.
  4. Directive and Supportive: We help our users feel in control of their businesses, lives, and daily schedules by providing timely guidance. They can rest easy knowing that we’ve helped them make solid, well-informed decisions and can recover from errors with ease.  
  5. Universal and Accessible: No two of our users are exactly alike with an array of interests, skills, and abilities—and our application needs to feel inclusive and welcoming to all of them.

From Theory to Reality

We launched Buildium’s new resident site this past February. The experience embodies our goals of building consumer-grade experiences. We realized that the way to reach the maximum audience was through the web, but since we understand the millennial user we knew it had to be mobile responsive.

The starting point was designing mobile first (Universal and Accessible). Designing for the mobile device also forced us to think about simplicity.  The form factor demands it. Mobile-first required us to hone in on the critical use cases that satisfy a simple, loveable, and complete solution. The use cases also need to be completed in the fewest steps possible (Focused and Streamlined). As we built out the experience, we also leveraged as many standard consumer design patterns as possible (Intuitive and Familiar). While we tried to simplify the experience as much as possible and leveraged known patterns, we knew the new users still needed an orientation to the experience (Directive and Supportive). We leveraged Walkme to help us with a short overview of the site’s navigation and capabilities.  

With the new resident site now live, we are in feedback mode. User and pressure testing our pillars were fine in building the solution, but customer usage and seeing value are the true test. Have we achieved our goal of a consumer-grade experience? Beyond the aesthetics, have we built a site that lives into the empathy-driven experience residents crave? I don’t have any illusion that we nailed it on day one, but I do believe building from the resident out is the right way to make software that fits our customers’ lives.

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Piyum Samaraweera

Piyum is the Vice President of Product Management at Buildium, representing the voice of the customer and bringing hands-on experience in implementing agile and product frameworks to help product organizations drive execution. Prior to Buildium, Piyum led the product management team at Constant Contact, and his career includes extensive experience at companies including Sophos and Carbonite, building software-as-a-service (SaaS) solutions at scale for small and medium-sized businesses. When not at work, Piyum enjoys spending time with his wife, daughter, and adopted children: Daisy and Napoleon (both dogs) and Oscar the cat.

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