When Product Manager Jesse Laier joined the team at Core Digital Media in May of 2022, he happened to be considering buying a home. Laier, like many people entering the first-time home buying market, was encountering more questions than answers.
“I had already seen some of what was most confusing about the home purchase market. And one of the things that enticed me most about coming to work for Core Digital was the fact that they were welcoming these questions,” Laier said. “They were saying, ‘we want you to help come up with the solutions for people in your shoes.’”
It was — and continues to be — an uncertain time for homebuyers. By May of 2022, federal interest rates, which had held steady at historical lows throughout the pandemic, had begun slowly ratcheting upward. The National Association of Realtors’ housing affordability index suggested that a mix of increased demand, undersupply, rising interest rates, and other factors was making first-time home buying less and less approachable.
What’s more, the enduring mysteries of first-time home buying made it additionally complex.
At Core Digital Media, Laier had the opportunity to work toward giving homebuyers answers via a product called ItsHome.com. The software and marketing company, a part of the Rocket Companies, had identified an opportunity in the plight of house hunters like Laier. Core Digital Media was preparing to roll out a website designed to give homebuyers tools and resources with which to approach one of life’s most important purchases. ItsHome.com would become a singular tool helping homebuyers answer questions, gain clarity with regards to their goals and secure financing for their new home.
Putting in the Research
“Resources to make the home-buying experience understandable were really hard to find in the marketplace,” Lizz Metcalf, UX Designer, said. “And even with a lot of research and understanding of the market, home-buying can be confusing. Making that process less confusing from start to end was a major goal for designing and creating ItsHome.com — as was catering to first-time homebuyers who dominate the current home buying market.”
In the effort to launch ItsHome.com, Metcalf interfaced with copious amounts of research. She worked toward translating the needs of homebuyers into a seamless, easy-to-use experience. The process involved its own set of questions — as Metcalf and her colleagues interrogated the many pain points in the home buying process.
“We approached the entire experience through questions like: What is going to put users at ease? What is going to better explain the home buying process to users as they go? What is going to set us apart from a process that just blindly takes users’ financial information and spits out loan options?” Metcalf said. “We really wanted to understand how we could nurture home buyers from start to finish instead of just matching them with a lender.”
Metcalf and the Core Digital Media team are working toward a vision set in place by Vice President of Product and Strategy Rhodel Swaniker. As the product leader for ItsHome.com, Swaniker had identified this opportunity in servicing home buyers who were confounded by the process. She had also zeroed in on an ambitious goal: to develop a product that would eventually become the “go-to resource for consumers trying to buy a home.”
“I saw that there was a gap in the marketplace where people wanting to buy a home were really just daunted by the experience,” Swaniker said. “There’s a lot of information; you don’t know what applies to you and it’s continuously changing. The first stop is having the financing you need to get the home. That’s also the most stressful point. So we thought, ‘what if we could give consumers a way to easily get the lay of the land, and compare options and offer them a personalized understanding of those options?’”
To this end, ItsHome.com began with a focus on helping secure financing by offering buyers a curated list of lenders that fit their timing and other criteria.
The first step in building out a product that accomplished this goal? A mix of qualitative and quantitative research.
“Our research included end user interviews, surveys — we really wanted to talk to consumers,” Swaniker said. “We said: ‘yes, the process is daunting, but what parts and why and how and what parts are the most sticky? Where do you feel stuck?’ We had interviews where users weighed in emotionally and said, ‘this is where I feel the most stress.’ Our research made it very obvious that finances were definitely a sticking point.”
The ItsHome.com team’s research was not just limited to identifying prospective homebuyers’ most serious complaints. It also involved understanding the vicissitudes of the home buying market and being prepared to help users negotiate the challenges associated with market conditions.
Opportunities to Make an Impact
“Before I start a design, I want to understand not just who we think our users are going to be; I want to know what the market looks like,” Metcalf said. “That involves looking at things like NAR yearly surveys and documents to find out who our homebuyers are and what struggles they are working with. It involves learning new things, for example, about how making room for aging parents is a big motivator for Millennial homebuyers. After understanding the market and the user research, we can start iterating.”
Trusting the Process
Research, however, didn’t end once the initial conception and research on ItsHome.com was complete. The company continued to leverage research to make sure the product had maximum value to users and ameliorated UX pain points. Color schemes, logo designs and other elements of the website were all tested with audiences to ensure ItsHome.com resonated with potential homebuyers.
It was in the process of taking ItsHome.com from conception to concrete product that the Core Digital Media team was able to flex its cross-functional muscles. Pairing an Agile methodology and human-centered design approach, the ItsHome.com team built prototypes, wireframes and mocks. They researched product requirements, and eventually moved from research and planning into the realm of the concrete — delivering a product that could improve the lives of homebuyers.
Laier’s product team shepherded Swaniker and Metcalf’s vision through the iteration and development processes — selecting the right development teams for the appropriate portions of the project, distributing workload evenly and managing these teams’ combined efforts as they made their way through each phase.
“Once we’ve identified a problem in the market, we have a brainstorming session,” Laier said. “From there, we strip it down. We figure out what the bare essentials are and what we want to actually then create.”
After UX develops mocks that are reviewed and refined, the team creates product requirements, which are translated into user functionalities. From there, quality assurance, analytics and marketing teams begin their parts of the process. An email team follows up with users to solicit feedback.
“It’s all very collaborative. There are a lot of touch points that we have throughout the whole process,” Laier said. “Everyone’s voice is given a chance to be heard.”
A Means to an End
Ultimately, the ItsHome.com team’s well-honed focus is in the service of a singular goal.
“The vision and mission behind the Rocket Companies is singular, it’s to improve people’s financial lives,” Swaniker said. “The means vary because we are all different people working with different segments and users’ needs, but that is the Northstar we’re all striving toward.”
A Part of the Family
“I always ask myself if I can feel proud of telling my grandma about a product that I’m working on,” Swaniker said. “That’s my own internal gut check. That is one of the things I respect and appreciate about working for a company like Rocket. Whether we’re talking about Rocket Homes, which helps people contact a realtor and find their next home, or Rocket Mortgage, which gives people great rates and lets them self-service on their phone, the mission is all about helping people make smart financial decisions and be better off this year than the last.”
While ItsHome.com may tackle a new vertical for Core Digital Media, it’s part of a more expansive project — giving people the tools and the opportunities to improve their financial wellbeing.
“We are empowering people to take control of their financial future,” Metcalf said. “That has always been the motto, the creed for what we’re doing in lending.”