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How Credit Karma Created Insight-Rich Journey Maps During Quarantine

When the global pandemic hit, Credit Karma relied on remote research, experimentation, and distributed analysis to build an insightful and impactful journey map. 

Words by Tony Ho Tran, Visuals by Thumy Phan

Buying a house is difficult under the best of circumstances. Doing so in the midst of a global pandemic is a herculean task.

Since March 2020, the home-buying process has transformed. From the way we view potential homes, how we communicate with real-estate agents, to the way we close on the property, each step in the home-buying journey needed to adapt in the wake of COVID-19.

As a credit and personal finance management platform, Credit Karma has helped aspiring homeowners improve their credit score, get a mortgage, refinance mortgages, decide on home insurance, and even find real-estate agents. So it’s no surprise that the processes needed to transform as a result of the pandemic.

At the beginning of 2020, Emma Quinn, Senior UX Researcher at Credit Karma, began to lay down the foundation of a project to investigate the home-buying journey—specifically, the highs and lows of the mortgage process.

“It's such a long process, and it's one of the biggest financial decisions that someone will make in their lifetime,” Emma says. “The stakes are very high. It can be something that it takes years and years to improve your credit and save up in order to buy a home. So it's a really big decision.”

As such, the process is rife with complex decisions and paths to navigate—an area where Credit Karma is perfectly situated to help out.

“If someone's getting a mortgage, what are the key things that happened leading up to that?” Emma asks. “It could be a whole year long process or maybe even longer. So we really wanted to understand what happens before and what happens after.”

But then, the pandemic hit. Once that happened, Emma and her team realized they had to shift gears—and quickly. To help them do so without sacrificing the quality of their insights and data, they turned to dscout.

Emma Quinn is...

...a Senior UX Researcher at Credit Karma. Drawing on her background in neuroscience and psychology, she’s helped orgs such as Fitbit and Sofi unearth crucial user insights. Now she works at Credit Karma to help the home product team build experiences and solutions to meet needs of homeowners and aspiring homebuyers.

User research at Credit Karma is...

...highly collaborative and impact-oriented. The dept began as a service model but has since scaled to operate as a semi-embedded model. This allows for a cross-functional relationship driven approach to cultivate and integrate insights into the product development process.

The problem:

Emma’s team at Credit Karma wanted to really dig into the way their users approached attaining a mortgage and buying a home. To do so, they intended to use a “mixed-audience approach.”

From Emma: “Going into this, I planned to recruit people who were both in the process of getting their home or in the process of buying so we could get that real, in-context experience going to open houses and getting in the weeds of it. We also sought out people who could reflect on the home process afterwards and talk about the whole duration.”

But then COVID hit, and Credit Karma was faced with a stark new reality: the home-buying process has changed, and so must its research approach. Specifically, Emma opted to broaden the recruitment strategy to include a larger proportion of folks who had already purchased a home, offering her team a glimpse into the pre- and during COVID buying process. This comparison could inform a host of product, design, and strategy decisions—might the adaptations and evolutions of the home buying process stick? If so, Credit Karma wanted to be ready.

“I imagined doing analysis and synthesis with the team in a big room,” Emma recalls. “My research plan was to run some workshops and stuff like that. So I had to completely rethink how I was going to do that as we were going into COVID.”

That meant attaining in-situ and reflective data remotely.

The solution:

For Emma and her team, the situation presented more of a creative challenge than a handicap.

“It ended up being a creative constraint because I had to think outside of my norm,” she says. “I went into COVID thinking, ‘Okay, this is completely different from normal times. I’m going to have to be a bit more experimental.”

Those experiments included the aforementioned recruitment shifts and remote collaboration. It was important for Emma to inject empathy into product, design, and strategy—keeping stakeholders and collaborators abreast of participant moments, themes, and insights was key.

For a deliverable that not only engaged the scout and stakeholders, but also effectively told the story of the customer’s experience, they turned journey mapping.

From Emma: “We had a piece that asked, ‘What were the homebuying moments? And what were some of the highs and lows of homebuying?’ We set these up to be things that someone could capture in the moment.

We also had people record the emoji that would go with each moment. That was really cool, because we pulled all the emojis into Excel. We were able to analyze the highs and lows, and it really added a lot of color. We even, in our final deliverable, ended up including some of those high/low quotes and the corresponding emojis, which really drove that empathy factor home.”

The team also had scouts put into their own words what their home-buying journey was via video and audio recording.

“We had them record the different steps first,” she says. “There was a minimum of six, but they could share as many as they wanted. Then they reflected on the individual steps and what happened.”

The journey map:

Click here to enlarge. This journey map was created by Emma in collaboration with designer Fritz Riha. Learn more about Fritz' work here.

Case study #1: Treasure hunt

After they'd reflected on the individual steps and what happened, we had them create this treasure map, which is in itself, their own journey map.

I'm a really big fan of including creative activities in my dscout studies, or in my research, because if you're going to be asking a lot about the nuances of the whole process, you really need to build in time for self-reflection, and time to think about the process into the study design. The treasure map activity and step combination really allowed us to do that.

The treasure maps that the scouts submitted were amazing too. Some might just be an arrow diagram, but there were others that depicted their COVID experience with the shark-infested waters, or they did a shoots and ladders-type approach with the highs and lows.

They were so creative and rich that one of our designers made a Google Slides gallery of the different journeys so that the team could reference them as we were building our journey map, and we still have that as a deliverable today.

Case study #2: Pod save America

One of my goals for this project was to really get the team involved and have them be part of the process. But, I also didn't want to add to people's Zoom fatigue by participating in a bunch of sessions.

So, I structured it where we had a viewing party as the kickoff and I shared some of the videos and got the team familiar with dscout—most of them hadn’t used it before—and showed them some of the videos.

Then I divided the team up into research pods and each pod reviewed a different part of the mission (there were six in total).

I assigned each person in those pods a set of scouts to review and take notes on. Then we came back together as a team and held a co-synthesis session where I asked them what trends, patterns and surprises they saw. The sessions that followed the scout analysis and review were extremely helpful in terms of both my own analysis and also having the team share their experience as well.

It was a six-part study so there was a lot of detail. Breaking it down into pods helped us achieve a really rich experience, while not being overloaded with information. I got a lot of feedback that just watching the videos and hearing things first hand was really helpful. Those kinds of stories stick with you, especially being able to reflect on peoples’ experiences during our discussions, and being able to reference the treasure map.

The impact:

In the end, dscout helped Credit Karma attain rich insights on their users’ home-buying experience, pain points, and goals—all while meeting the challenges of COVID constraints.

By actively involving stakeholders in the analysis and map creation process, Emma and her team also imbued the process with ownership. Coupling that with the audio and video recordings of the scouts recounting their own stories resulted in a very persuasive and illuminating process. Emma turned to Credit Karma product designer Fritz Riha to visualize the rich data collected in the missions. A journey map is a living, breathing, and actionable asset, and Fritz helped compile the open-ended, quant, and media data into a digestible artifact.

“Having [the users’] experience firsthand builds empathy,” Emma says. “I always find that stories from research stick with me. It might be years from now I’ll think, ‘Oh, I remember so and so's treasure map.’ It also helps create ownership. The journey map is something that we build together as opposed to a deliverable that research made or something that was given to us. It became a visual tool for the team to use the insights again and again”

dscout’s remote research platform turned out to be a nearly perfect way to attain the type of insights they needed with the constraints they had.

“For me, dscout made so much sense to use, because a journey map is something that unravels over time,” Emma explains. “You can use dscout to capture things over time, but also capture these real-life moments of when things go right, when they go wrong, and then also use it as a tool for reflection.”

She continues, “It's so amazing what you can get in a two-minute video. It doesn't sound like a lot, but if you ask the right questions, you can glean so much rich data. It makes so much sense for this project because we're looking at this complicated thing that rolls out over time.”

Tony Ho Tran is a freelance journalist based in Chicago. His articles have appeared in Huff Post, Business Insider, Growthlab, and wherever else fine writing is published.

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