Digital Product Management at MTVH
At MTVH we believe everyone should have a home and the chance to live well. Developing user friendly digital products are one of the ways in which we strive to achieve this vision.
I joined MTVH’s Digital Team in February 2019 after working for market leading e-commerce companies, and since then I have been the Product Manager for MTVH Online, our online self-service product for residents.
I would like to tell you more about our Digital Team, the challenges we face and how we approach them. If you work in a related field or face comparable obstacles, maybe my reflections can inspire you. Maybe we can connect and discuss our experience to support each other and to evolve our disciplines of digital product and (housing) service development.
Within the Digital Team we are a couple of product teams. We manage a portfolio of few but impactful digital products:
SoResi is the UK’s leading brand for shared home ownership. The SoResi website helps customers understand the home ownership offering and view properties for sale (virtually or in person). We develop the website in close collaboration with our sales and marketing colleagues to drive SoResi’s commercial goals.
Whilst this directly helps prospective customers getting onto the property ladder, and helps existing customers climbing the ladder, it also helps building more homes in the UK. That’s because the profits generated from property sales are invested in developing more affordable homes.
Our online self-service product, MTVH Online, empowers our residents to complete simple, common transactions and find up to date information about their accounts. All relate to our core landlord services, such as
- Repairs and maintenance of residents’ homes and communal spaces
- Rent and service charge payments (including visibility of Universal Credit and Housing Benefit payments)
- Housing services enquiries
By increasing the percentage of transactions and information requests that can be completed online, we free up our customer service teams to spend more time on complex enquiries and provide additional support where needed.
Metropolitan Thames Valley (MTVH) was formed in October 2018 in a merger between two housing associations, Metropolitan Housing Trust (MHT) and Thames Valley Housing (TVH).
- The MHT website and TVH website provided service information for the respective residents.
- The MTVH website has been created to provide corporate information about the MTVH organisation for service partners, regulators and job seekers. Recently we have been identifying user personas and their needs and analysing how to migrate content from the legacy websites.
- The Hub is an internal site helping MTVH colleagues finding relevant information and documents to do their jobs more efficiently.
- MTVH Alpha is our latest addition and has been created to facilitate numerous new ways of engaging our residents. Traffic is mainly generated through email and social media campaigns.
As the Product Manager for MTVH Online I am biased, and I will use my own examples for the rest of this post.
A Façade with a Window
Since the merger our strategic priority has been to provide a consistent online service for all our residents, and to make this service scalable and sustainable for the entire MTVH. We have called this service MTVH Online, and we have used MyTVH as its foundation. As the name suggests, MyTVH was Thames Valley Housing’s popular self-service product, which had been developed for TVH in close partnership with a digital agency.
MTVH Online is purely a self-service product, but for the self-service to be valuable it needs to be integrated with MTVH’s wider service delivery. For example:
- If a resident submits a repair request online, then the details of the request including any pictures they upload will need to come through to the repairs team.
- Similarly, when the repairs planning team occasionally need to re-schedule an appointment, then the resident must see the new appointment time in their online account.
- The online view of a resident’s rent account must be up to date and in sync with the view seen by our rent collection team, also when a payment is made.
I like to think of MTVH Online as a pretty façade with a window. Our residents can see things, and they can throw stuff through it, but it’s not the entire building.
Technical Debt and Limitations
When I joined MTVH, the features I have described all seemed basic to me, because I was used to solving much more complex scenarios with custom-built software in the e-commerce world, but then I learned that there is a real difference:
Unlike at the market leading e-commerce companies I was working with, in Housing it is common to use large third-party monolith applications with limited customisation. MTVH Online is the only custom-built part of its ecosystem, and to provide a consistent service experience to our residents, MTVH Online needs to be integrated with such third-party monolith applications that often offer limited functionality and are not easily (if at all) changeable.
As if this is not enough complexity, the former TVH and MHT use different third-party applications and have different processes. A decision was made to unify the self-service offering as well as other services, before unifying the underlying systems. Therefore, we are supporting two sets of integrations that are similar but unavoidably have some differences.
As you can imagine if you are a fellow product or software development person – yes, this is a constant source of constraints, and it has also led to some technical debt within the MTVH Online codebase. We daily find ourselves having to be pragmatic and make the most of what we have got, but luckily, our engineers and designers are all brilliant. As we focus on the outcomes we create for the customers and the business (as opposed to specific functionality), we usually end up realising that, actually, we can still get pretty far.
Ways of Working
In the Digital Team we are a group of UX/UI designers, full stack developers and product managers. We pay close attention to what our colleagues in the wider communities are doing and learning, whether it’s about product, design, engineering or collaboration. We get inspired and we try to apply the best practices to our own work. For example:
- We are driven by outcomes rather than features.
- We practice continuous delivery.
- We are getting better at continuous discovery:
- We always talk to our customer facing colleagues and service area experts.
- We regularly do usability testing and other types of research with the end users of our products.
- We capture as much data as possible (in GDPR compliant ways, of course!) and analyse it.
- We continuously iterate on our flavour of Agile.
- We are as autonomous as possible, and we have now got full ownership of MTVH Online (I mentioned that the original MyTVH was built in close partnership with a digital agency).
The Wider MTVH
We all focus on supporting our residents and keeping them safe, but we do so in different ways. The reliance of third-party applications has naturally instated a waterfall project management working style in the wider organisation.
The IT department is separate from the business areas (repairs, rent collection, general customer service, care & support, HR etc.), a Business Systems Team supports the portfolio of third-party applications, and Business Partners facilitate the collaboration between them. The culture can at times be hieratical, siloed and focused on specific solutions rather than the intended outcomes.
As part of the development of MTVH Online, we have brought the Digital Team and the Business Systems team much closer together, and we have essentially formed a sub-team to take care of changes that have been necessary to enable MTVH use of some third-party applications. We have also been working closely together with service experts, especially in the repairs area.
The outcomes achieved by our digital products, our open communication style and our collaborative ways of working with other teams has helped the Digital Team gain support from all areas of MTVH, all the way to the board level.
Our strategy remains to empower residents to complete transactions and find information themselves, and thereby help more people live well in their homes. We believe that we can achieve more ambitious outcomes if we use our products and the ways of working we have instituted so far, as a foundation upon which we can further improve MTVH’s services.
We need to look at the end-to-end service experience, not only the digital part. Let us again consider repairs: It is helpful that a resident can request a repair for their home online. That makes the request easier for our repairs team to process, but it does not complete the service, even if the request is integrated with the third-party management system.
For the resident to be safe and live well in their home (to quote our vision):
- A job needs to be raised to the correct type of contractor – does the work require a plumber, an electrician, a carpenter etc? Maybe a combination?
- The contractor’s operative need to arrive at the agreed time.
- The operator needs sufficient information, tools, spare parts and time to complete the work.
- And the resident should feel confident in the work and, ultimately, safe.
To facilitate the end-to-end thinking and empower our teams to create impactful change we are forming two service focused teams. The teams will be embedded in the service areas:
- One team to focus on repairs
- Another team to focus on general customer services, especially high-volume transactions
Each service team
- may need to work on the MTVH Online codebase, some of the webpages, and develop new products or integrations.
- will contain subject matter experts from the service area.
- will have service designers and UX/UI designers working closely together.
- will have a service owner, who will be responsible for the end-to-end service, some of which will most likely not be digital.