Apartment Rental Sites are Missing the Most Important Feature - A Product Feature Review
Sometimes I go through life as a Product Manager and see some really cool things other Product teams are doing around the internet. Maybe it is a really crafty way of launching a minimally viable product. Maybe it is a unique way of getting early and frequent customer feedback.
Other times however, as I go off and interact with different websites I sometimes can’t believe how bad experiences can be. Would they really let this product launch without that feature? Is it really that difficult to implement from a tech standpoint?
Normally I’ll see one or two of these instances. But I recently uncovered a terribly met need across an entire industry! Apartment rentals.
There are some big, well established companies focused on online apartment rentals with massive technology teams and all around great products. I used to use them often a real estate agent back when I was licensed and living in Boston. Zillow, Zumper, Redfin, Apartments.com, and more.
The one feature that isn’t anywhere on any of these apartment rental sites is a search or a filter function by date available (I.E. if we are in June today, I should be able to filter to see apartments available in October if I want)
WHY IS THAT NOT A THING?!
As of February of this year, 36% of households in the US rent. That is a tremendous amount of people with significant numbers of apartments changing hands each year. While some of those renters are on month to month leases and some don’t have leases at all, the majority of those leases are 12 month leases. And these leases start and end at different, basically random points of the year. Yes there are many that start on September first, but many lease cycles fall outside of the September turnover time frame. Mine for example starts on October 7th.
I’ve recently been impacted by this. There I was back in June, and I wanted to find an apartment for October 1st. Easy task right?! WRONG.
Not. A. Single. Major. Apartment. Search. Site.
Gave me the option to filter by move in date. I could only see apartments on the market currently available. How crazy is that?
Yes, I could filter by price. I could filter by bedrooms, bathrooms, square footage, laundry, whether or not they allowed pets, and so many other things but I could not filter by date available.
Is every Product Manager at one of these companies responsible for filtering options not realizing this is a customer segment?
Are these companies so focused on the home sales market that they are totally blind to the needs of customers who rent?
If they were focusing on apartment rentals, they have a few segments of users in terms of timelines for their move:
1. People that have waited until the last minute and need to move asap
The current view of search results works for them optimally. They can see literally every apartment available. Of course some apartment results will be mixed in that are not available asap but these non planners won’t be bothered; apartments available immediately will pretty much always outnumber those posted in the future
2. The people that don’t really care when they move, they have flexible arrangements, are not tied to a move date and can focus on finding the right place to live
Again, this customer segment won’t really be impacted. They’ll happily search along through all of the listings leveraging other search and filtering capabilities to find just the right apartment.
3. The people like me, who have a specific date they’d like to move on in the future
These people are stuck using workarounds that are just plain silly
Sure, on the spectrum of - fly by the seat of your pants, to - prepare for the impending doomsday all of the time, I am definitely someone who tries to plan ahead. But I can’t be the only one looking for apartments that are available on a specific date.
One workaround I’ve tried with limited success is using the search bar that seems to be available across all apartment rental sites and searching for the name of the month I’m looking to move in on. While it won’t be 100% accurate, the assumption is that most people will include the name of that month in the description of the apartment.
The one company that I’ve used and does this well is Craigslist. Isn't it ironic that the one website with probably the most lagging user experience from a design / ascetic point of view is farthest ahead in terms of the rental apartment feature set?
Key takeaways from a Product Management prospective
1. Segment your customers and really think about the different ways they might use your product
For me, I know that new Nordstrom customers will use our website differently than repeat customers. How should I be thinking about adjusting our product page experiences for these types of customers? Are there subset of customers that I am just missing?
Dogfooding is the idea that not only Product Managers, but anyone building something for the customer should try it out themselves. This doesn’t just include walking through the steps that a customer might take to confirm base functionality, but great dogfooders will take on the mindset of a previously identified persona, and truly look to see if this iteration of the product meets their needs.
I wonder how many people building out these rental search websites themselves rent with odd lease turnover dates?
I also wonder in my own role at Nordstrom, what user segments, jobs to be done, or customer goals am I missing from my own dogfooding efforts?
3. Feedback loops
I’ve been thinking a lot about the question of surfacing a great way to get end customer feedback quickly, that is actionable and in a way that customers will want to take the time to provide. During my apartment shopping journey, none of the many sites I visited had any visible ways for me to provide feedback about my experience. With that said, they probably do exist and I just missed them. This is definitely something that we can continue to iterate on at Nordstrom.
What has this miss in the online apartment search market made you realize about your own role?
About the author:
Ben Staples has over 7 years of product management and product marketing eCommerce experience. He is currently employed at Nordstrom as a Senior Product Manager responsible for their product pages on Nordstrom.com. Previously, Ben was a Senior Product Manager for Trunk Club responsible for their iOS and Android apps. Ben started his Product career as a Product Manager for Vistaprint where he was responsible for their cart and Checkout experiences. Before leaving Vistaprint, Ben founded the Vistaprint Product Management guild with over 40 members. Learn more at www.Ben-Staples.com
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