Wednesday, 18 January 2012

Best Practice Guest Post from Northwards Housing: What is a Phone App anyway?

KH: Using technology to give tenants greater access to services will be on the agenda of every housing organisation in the country. Here in a great guest post, Steve Finegan, Head of Business Effectiveness & Communications at Northwards Housing, explains the app-roach (boom, boom) that they've taken:

What is a Phone App anyway?

A question recently posed by a member of our senior management team reminded me that six months earlier I’d have probably, and with an element of cynicism, asked the same question.  Even now I’m surprised at the speed at which the world of communications is moving.  The thirst for information, the growth in real time consumer journalism and the need for responsive quick and easy customer engagement is upon us.  It’s both exciting and challenging, although I’ll admit to being less clear where we’ll end up.

At Northwards Housing in Manchester, we’ve always prided ourselves on being innovative and pushing the boundaries, so the idea of developing a phone app for tenants to access our services from their smartphones was definitely something we felt needed to be taken seriously.  We already have a strong access to services strategy based on one overriding element – choice.  Like many housing organisations out there, we provide a whole range of different and convenient ways to access our services, so the prospect of offering another one, with the added potential to engage with a different audience, possibly a younger demographic, had immediate appeal.  So what is the business case?

Despite our best efforts, our customer profiling information does not extend to smartphone usage, at least not yet, but we’re working on it.  We know, however, that according to Ofcom almost a third of adults in the UK now use a smartphone. Those who download and use smartphone apps are not necessarily the same as those who use websites of course, as the user experience is entirely different.  Those visiting the App Store or Android Market are looking for something that enhances their smartphone capabilities and the beauty of phone apps is quite often in their simplicity.

In direct contrast, our website - currently attracting over 20,000 visits a month - is crammed with information. If they choose to, people can spend hours reading the content, watching film clips and interacting with us online.  The fact that they often don’t, of course, and the average visit is around 4m 5s, is perhaps a clue about what it is people really want from our online services.  It also raises some interesting questions for the future development of micro sites and the benefits, or not, of doing so given that tenants accessing our website are not necessarily the ones using smartphones and downloading apps.

We know that digital exclusion in social housing is significant, with estimates of around 50% of tenants having no access to the internet with the subsequent impact on things like their ability to find work, to take simple advantage of discount shopping and even their children’s educational attainment.  We also know that around 77% of job seekers are now using mobile apps, with Android being the most popular platform.

Our decision to develop the universal iHome app with Panda Media was based in part on our belief that, to address some of these inequalities, we need to offer access to the digital world in the easiest and most practical way possible.  We also know that our future tenants will possibly be some of the first to show their parents the benefits of using the Northwards Phone App (free to download from 18th January 2012).  Impressed by its simplicity as well as its future potential to interface with our housing management system, the unique ‘Get Involved’ section of the app is what gives it the edge.  We were very enthusiastic about the ability to engage with our tenants quickly and easily and having complete control over this section of the app to update it as often as we need to.

We’ve built in a competition to launch the app to maximise interest and hopefully downloads too, so this is likely to be a regular feature, although we might not be able to stretch to an iPad every time!  We’re also careful not to exclude anyone, so the same prizes are available to all tenants through our regular Northwards Xtra tenant reward scheme.

During the development of the app we also sought legal advice to help us understand and mitigate the risks.  After all, the safety of our customers is important and we didn’t want people leaning over balconies to take pictures of their naturist neighbours catching a few rays, or inadvertently storing personal data on their phones without considering security.  As a result, we’ve built alerts into the app to advise people on how to get the best out of it.

So where does this leave us? I’d like to say that in a few months from now, and as a result of the app, a number of people who never visited us online before will be choosing to engage with us in a way that suits them.  If in the process we help some of our younger tenants to find a job, win an iPad or get involved in helping us to shape and scrutinise our services, then we will have gone some way to tackling the issue of digital exclusion and if not, then who can blame us for trying? After all it’s only a phone app anyway.  

To keep up with the how their app launch is going, follow Northwards Housing on Twitter.


  1. I'm so impressed with this idea that I'll be inviting Panda Media down to Southend to present to my Exec Mgmt Team on this one!

  2. Great to see - just download the iPhone app and it works really well! Hope to see more housing assocs roll out similar apps!

  3. Good stuff Phil - good luck with it! James - I quite agree. We're working on getting our website to talk to our housing management system and then we'll be on the case! Thanks for comments both.

  4. A great article Kate, the smartphone app route is a great way to have residents engage with the one device they always seem to have on their person.


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