3 things we consider when designing digital experiences for physical products at homefully

As physical as a product can be — a shared Community Space in one of homefully’s shared flats in Munich, Germany.

When we talk about digital products, we mostly think of video games, mobile apps, and tools which give us access to content — namely Spotify, Youtube, or Medium. We seldom consider that digital products can also serve as a support function for everyday life processes. Working can be digital. Training can be digital. Schooling can be digital. Can even housing become digital?

Since computers took over the workplace, tech companies have made significant progress in digitizing everyday items and services. It takes customers some time to accept these digital products, but the more digital products they use, the more they get used to them.

One of the most impactful cultural shifts around digitization is found in the so-called desktop metaphor. By displaying the top of a user’s desk and designing the product to feel more natural, software companies made their products more accessible. They started a cultural shift that replaced previous working methods with paper and pens… on a desktop.

The concept of work is being supported digitally, and most of you reading this probably appreciate that a lot. How do we find out if the same revolution can occur at home? Here are 3 things I consider when designing digital experiences for our physical products at homefully:

1) Everything can be digital — not everything should be.

Nowadays, it has become the new standard for physical products to come with a digital experience. There are many everyday items for which we are slowly accepting a digital experience to come along.

As of 2019, about 1 in 5 US-Americans uses a digital smartwatch or wristband to track their health and workouts digitally. While we all agree that a smartwatch is a digitally supported product, it is interesting to see that our physical workouts have become something we execute and keep track of digitally. After my Apple Watch broke, I tried to get into working out without digital support and soon lost my overview and interest. What got me back into building a healthy habit of sticking to my workout routine was Streaks, a mobile app that helps its users form habits and keep track of their success streaks. It’s in this supportive function that digital products can revolutionize physical everyday processes. Sometimes they’re pushing a little too hard, though. But while I’m not yet convinced that my life is enriched by a programmable coffee or tea maker, handing in an insurance claim through my iPhone was a fantastic experience.

Name them as you wish, Millennials, Young Professionals, or Digital Nomads. Today’s generations of consumers have become generations of users. They are customers who appreciate access over ownership and who bring their business to those companies that deliver their products with sufficient transparency. Since joining homefully in the role of a Product Developer, I followed this premise designing new ways of shared urban housing.

Free space for self-development with all essentials taken care of. This is how homefully designs its interior and its digital processes. Fun fact: I lived in this flat for 13 months 🏡

At homefully, where we provide co-living spaces in Europe, we are developing ways to revolutionize shared urban housing with supportive digital products. Our physical product — a portfolio of more than 230 furnished shared flats — provides living space for like-minded young people to come together and find quick access to the most desired neighborhoods in eight beautiful cities. When designing the physical product, our initial goal is for our Community Members to kickstart their life in a new city without having to keep track of additional bills or navigating the real estate jungle. We want them to have a living space that allows them to develop their own idea of home while also having a foundation of all essential equipment and digital services provided by homefully.

We learned that it is in a support function that we can provide the most value with digital products. Hence, we decide to build our digital landscape around hard-to-navigate tasks our Community Members would encounter at home. By understanding how members of the homefully Community want to live their lives, we can create digital processes to support their needs. What the result of that? Convenience.

Do not develop an app to change your customer’s behavior. Instead, find ways to digitally support everyday processes your customers have to go through to use your product.

2) Where there’s no transparency in processes, frustration will grow.

Let’s face it: Our product is a furnished shared flat. We do not want to fall into the trap of digitizing a product that already works great without an app or a fancy user interface. At our product’s core, most of our Community Members value that living with us is a hassle-free experience. That’s the case because there are a few annoying processes that we identified and improved upon early during their development.

  • Receiving and providing documents: We went completely paperless and built a process around submitting documents, signing, and receiving a rental agreement entirely digitally. From the point of finding your future home to signing the lease and receiving all information.
  • Submitting support requests: One of our essential support functions lies in quick on-site tech support in a shared flat whenever a Community Member needs us. While there’s no digital way to unclog a bathtub (yet), we found a way to schedule appointments and keep track of the process through our digital Support Center. This is also where our Community Members can keep in touch with Community Managers and access information on residential rules and advice to navigate Germany’s bureaucratic landscape successfully.
  • Canceling contracts: We built a straightforward and transparent way for our Community Members to cancel their rental agreement. You only stayed for a 6-month assignment or an internship? No problem, click on a link, and our digital process leads you through all necessary steps, at the end of which you have canceled your rental contract.

This is our approach to developing digital products:

We identify points of lack of transparency in our processes and develop straightforward ways to digitally navigate them.

3) Trust should be at the center of all design decisions.

At Airbnb, trust is put at the center of the digital product design. There are two personal spaces for which security and trust need to be at the core: our phones and our homes. We wouldn’t easily let any stranger access our phone, and, similarly, we wouldn’t want any stranger to enter our home.

New Community Members see this UI after scheduling a move-in date with homefully.

So how do we solve this with shared housing? After all, homefully is creating communities of flatmates who are strangers at first.

We decided to emphasize Community. Whenever we see a chance for flatmates to get in touch, we design our processes around it. People newly moving in are required to introduce themselves to their future flatmates while scheduling their move-in date. New flatmates are encouraged to exchange contact information and help each other move in. Even although this is only about planning a time to open the shared flat’s door, it is a fantastic way for the Community to build trust and get to know each other.

We have long learned that those Communities that communicate within and try to build a family nucleus are most self-sufficient and find solutions to their problems much quicker. Hence, we design our digital processes to nurture communication and exchange within the homefully Community.

We do not spend our time upgrading our shared flats to become smart homes — homes with which users could quantify the time they spend home or at work. We do not build processes to track or surveil the usage of our product. Besides, we do not add digital features to force our Community Members to use our product in ways that wouldn’t feel natural.

We allow our Community Members to use the physical product in a way that feels natural while supporting all surrounding processes digitally and making housing and living as convenient as possible.

Their trust is our capital, and that’s why the following pillars are at the core of our Home product:

  • transparency in processes
  • convenience in solving problems easily and quickly
  • quick access to information and support
  • trust in our respect for their privacy at home

In most scenarios, customers shouldn’t be told how to use a product, and adding a digital experience just for the sake of it might result in low usage. At homefully, we learned this with the help of our researchers and Community Managers. Our Community Members know how they want to live their life, and we design our processes around their needs and everyday problems, adding digital solutions only whenever they are required. They know best what they need — it is their home after all.

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Engineering Manager & Product Engineer with a background in Social Anthropology

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Sami Hamed

Sami Hamed

Engineering Manager & Product Engineer with a background in Social Anthropology

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