Contextual Inquiry in the Grandmont Rosedale Vacant Property Task Force

University of Michigan

School of Information

SI 501 007 | Contextual Inquiry & Consulting Foundations

GRDC contact:

Amanda Brewington – Deputy Director

Kenyetta (Kitty) Yarbrough – Community Engagement

Team Interwalla:

Joanne Kim

Tianyue Yang (Maggie)

Marcus Thomas

Matthew Garvin


Grandmont Rosedale Development Corporation

Vacant Property Task Force


Kentaro Toyama

GSI: Killian Carucci

Executive Summary 3

Introduction 4

Grandmont Rosedale Development Corporation 5

The Vacant Property Task Force 5

Project Goal: Process Documentation and Implementation 5

Methodological Overview 5

Contextual Inquiry 6

Background Research 6

Artifact Survey 7

Affinity Wall 7

Findings and Recommendations 8

Overview 9

The VPTF Needs an Elevated Digital Presence 9

Evidence: 10

Recommendation: VPTF website and redesign the GRDC website menu to accommodate and elevate the VPTF and other programs online. 10

The VPTF Can Improve Fundraising Efforts 11

Evidence: 11

Recommendation: Crowdfunding 12

The VPTF Can Improve Teamwork and Collaboration 13

Recommendation: Co-design 14

Recommendation: How Might We? 15

Recommendation: Brainstorming, Brainwriting, Braindumping 16

Conclusion 19

References 20

Appendix 22

A – Nonprofit Crowdfunding Resources 22

B – (Affinity Wall) Methods of Researching and Reporting 22

C – (Affinity Wall) Sense of Community 23

D – (Affinity Wall) Issues and Concerns 23

E – Websites and Apps 24

F – Investment and Management Firms 25

G – VPTF Business Card Mockup 25

Executive Summary

(Note: I have this document in Word with a nicer cover page and overall better format, but with all the images it’s like 75mb, so I’m working through this doc and when the text gets finalized I’ll transfer it over to the Word doc)


Grandmont Rosedale Development Corporation

The Grandmont Rosedale Development Corporation (GRDC) is a non-profit, community-based organization working to preserve and improve the Grandmont Rosedale Neighborhoods of northwest Detroit. For the past 30 years, the GRDC has taken a comprehensive approach to community revitalization, with programs designed to renovate vacant homes, assist local homeowners and businesses, beautify the community and keep their neighborhoods safe and vibrant.

The Vacant Property Task Force

The Vacant Property Task Force (VPTF) is a volunteer driven program that meets regularly to strategize ways to combat property vacancy and blight. Members of the VPTF monitor vacant homes in Grandmont Rosedale to ensure that every property is being maintained.

Project Goal: Process Documentation and Implementation

While the VPTF works with community members to make sure that vacant properties are being maintained, the process by which they complete this work is unstructured, lacking formal practice and procedures. Information is maintained mostly through word of mouth. Some of the steps require submission of information through city websites and apps. And while some of the members are tech savvy, others struggle with these technologies. To this end, Interwalla conducted research and analysis through contextual inquiry to analyze the current process, suggest improvements, and make recommendations for optimizing documenting procedures that the GRDC can share with task force members and the general public.

Methodological Overview

Contextual Inquiry

Interwalla followed the user-centered design processes primarily utilizing contextual inquiry (Holtzblatt, Wendell, & Wood, 2005). Contextual inquiry is a semi-structured interviewing methodology used to obtain information about the context of use. Users are first typically asked a set of questions, followed by observations and further questioning as they work in their own environments (Herzon, DeBoard, Wilson, & Bevan, 2010).

Because of the nature of the VPTF work, or more specifically a lack thereof, Interwalla adapted the process and conducted a more expansive standardized interview in which we had users walk us through specific recent experiences to make up for our inability to directly observe the work process. Our aim was to gather rich detail about work practices as well as the social, technical, and physical environments, and user tools. Contextual inquiry is based on a set of principles that make it adaptable for a range of different situations. This technique is generally used at the beginning of the design process and is a reliable method for gathering the kind of information we sought.

The four principles of contextual inquiry are:

  • Focus – Plan for the inquiry, based on a clear understanding of overall purpose.
  • Context – Go to the user’s environment and observe them do their work.
  • Partnership – Engage with the users to reveal unarticulated aspects of work.
  • Interpretation – Arrive at a shared understanding with the users about the aspects of work that matter.

Contextual inquiry is most useful in defining requirements, process improvement, learning what’s most important to those involved, and informing future projects.

Background Research

In order to achieve focus and plan for the inquiry, each member of Interwalla conducted distinct background research to establish a generalized profile regarding the problem, the client, the sector, and organizational issues as they pertain to the implementation of information systems. This background research was crucial in informing our team before heading into interviews and observations to gather context.

 Participant Observation

Matt conducted a participant observation session as a representative of Interwalla at the VPTF monthly meeting held on October 15th. Participant observation is a qualitative method with roots in traditional ethnographic research. Participant observation is precisely what it sounds like, the researcher not only observes the activity, they also participate right alongside the group they are observing. This method builds trust and adds depth to the researcher’s insights, while clarifying observer bias through self-reflection.

 Contextual Interviews

Our interview participants were selected with assistance from our client. We were provided with six individual stakeholders and sat down with the Community Engagement Manager for a total of seven individual interviews. Although the VPTF as a volunteer organization officially has a flat hierarchy, meaning each member has no authority over another, we were presented with a range of subjects from founding members to newer members, the VPTF “Chair”, two members of the GRDC board of directors, and the Community Engagement manager. This range of stakeholders provided Interwalla with a significant cross-section of roles within the program, and their relationship to the greater organization, yielding representational insights and adding depth to our inquiry.

The interviews themselves focused on three primary topics. We endeavored to learn, from each stakeholder’s perspective, about the task force, the tasks, and the environment in which these occur. Being that the Grandmont Rosedale community of neighborhoods is comprised of five distinct neighborhoods, we sought to learn more about these neighborhoods and the community directly from the residents who have made a commitment to their preservation.

Artifact Survey

Pertinent to our research was a survey of used artifacts, both physical and digital. In the client brief we learned that while some of the task force members are tech savvy, others struggle with digital technologies. We were also made aware that there were communication and organizational gaps, as well as tensions between some of the long-standing members and newer members with new ideas. Any viable recommendation on our part had to consider what kind of tools and technologies each individual user was familiar with, and the extent to which they could benefit from the digital solutions we had to offer. Moreover, we collected a trove of documents which served as previous, less formal incarnations of the type of guide the GRDC is seeking help with creating.

Affinity Wall

The contextual interviews yielded rich data. Interpretations sessions occurred within 48 hours of the interview. Interwalla sat down as a team and interviewed each other in turn about the interviews we had each conducted. This is an important step akin to self-reflection conducted after participant observation which brings clarity to the interviewer and depth to the quality of the interview. Throughout these interpretation sessions, we created affinity notes, typically a sentence or two that captured a single fact emerging from the interviews and observations. This broke all the interviews and notes we had taken during the interviews down into almost 275 individual pieces of information that we used to assemble the affinity wall.

The affinity wall was our primary source for data analysis. It was derived from the KJ Method developed by Japanese ethnologist, Jiro Kawakita. This method was developed in response to difficulties assembling complex ethnographic data into a coherent story yielding insights into the people the research was being conducted on (Scupin, 1997).

 As a team, we poured over the yellow affinity notes looking for meaningful clusters. As we put these together, we came up with a sentence to describe the common thread that made these clusters meaningful and put these on blue sticky notes. Then we studied the blue notes closely and where we found meaningful clusters, we labeled an orange note with a description of the common thread. We found some of these orange notes also had and common thread and we thus labeled a green note with the overarching similarity between them. In this manner we assembled something of an information pyramid which tells the tale of the GRDC, the VPTF, and the community in which they reside and serve.

The completed Affinity Wall

Findings and Recommendations


We derived several important findings through our background research, artifact survey and affinity wall analysis. The VPTF has been so effective that it is on the verge of dissolution. And yet the members of the VPTF and their experience have become integral to the past, present, and future work of the GRDC, that a transformation of volunteer roles may be in order as the VPTF revises their mission.

Our goal was to analyze documenting procedures and provide recommendations for optimizing these procedures to carry the processes and experience the early members had developed, into the future.

Our research suggests that the VPTF should:

  • Focus on the deployment of a website as a living document and guide which preserves the processes of the VPTF, and can be modified as needed as a continued resource and model for new volunteers, the general public, and other communities.
  • In the short term, we found that we could offer recommendations for replacing the GRDC donation page with an ongoing crowdfunding campaign.
  • We delivered a mockup of a 3.5 x 2 VPTF vertical business card with links to key tools and resources. A card with this kind of information and design could cheaply and easily be ordered through a local business or online service like vistaprint and distributed to the general public through displays in local businesses, passed out at events, or carried on hand by volunteers and delivered to new residents.

The VPTF Needs an Elevated Digital Presence

While the GRDC operates a website, programs like the VPTF get little exposure as they cannot be seen on the header menu, and info related to these programs cannot be found until scrolling halfway down the homepage. However, contact us not only appears in the header menu, but also center stage of the initial loading screen. Our primary finding is that the VPTF Program needs a website. From the initial client brief, first meeting, through the stakeholder interviews and affinity wall analysis, what we learned is that the VPTF appears ready to create a home for itself on the internet.


  • At the first meeting with the client, Interwalla was presented with a number of pamphlets and flyers from over the years that were used to distribute to neighbors and new residents. Several stakeholders referencing these artifacts suggested that they see an updated version of these documents as a website.
  • According to our interviews along with recent events in the news, we were made aware of the interest in using VPTF processes as a model to roll out in other Detroit communities.
  • With less need for work to be done reporting vacant property, the work of the VPTF has become documenting the processes and optimizing the format so that it can be utilized by newcomers. 

Recommendation: VPTF webpage and redesign the GRDC website menu to accommodate and elevate the VPTF and other programs online.

The GRDC already has a responsive, great looking website. The VPTF just needs its own page on it.

The VPTF Can Improve Fundraising Efforts

VPTF Fundraising is central to strategic planning at the GRDC, but many of the past fundraising projects have been high effort for little to no return.


  • The VPTF meeting on October 15th focused primarily on soliciting ideas from members regarding fundraising. We learned that while the VPTF is central to strategic plans at the GRDC, many of the fundraising efforts in the past have been high effort for little return. 
  • One member mentioned that often residents would prefer to just give money to the organization rather than buy something like a holiday wreath, which was still the most successful fundraiser to date.
  • Another member suggested a holiday movie screening. Another idea was a mobile display that could be set up at various community events, staffed by volunteers and used to simply ask for donations.
  • Some of the stakeholders confirmed in their interviews that much of the VPTF work lately is fundraising in order to buy supplies like boards and equipment. Additional commentary reiterated that the VPTF fundraisers have typically been a lot of work for little return, and that every year goes by, everyone gets older. The VPTF is looking for more efficient, less physical ways to raise money.
  • In addition, in recent years there has been less need for boarding up houses, and more of the work is just researching and reporting vacant property or code violations either to the owner or management firm, and then following up with the city if necessary to issue a ticket to spur action.

Recommendation: Crowdfunding

This recommendation was mentioned in the VPTF meeting on 10.15, and Interwalla agrees that this would be the best move going forward in order to optimize fundraising efforts utilizing information technology.

Crowdfunding leverages the power of social networking by engaging connections made not only by the organization, but also the connections of the organization’s members.

What sets crowdfunding apart from more traditional donation pages is the more personalized touch. Crowdfunding often comes with pictures or short videos that highlight the impact of the organization or in some instances, illustrate the problem that needs solving.

Crowdfunding is the best way to expand a nonprofit’s donor base. Similarly, peer to-peer may also be utilized. This is essentially the same as crowdfunding, but it puts the volunteers in control of producing and promoting the campaign, which can either be ongoing or have a set deadline/amount. Please see Appendix A for links to crowdfunding platforms, tips and resources for nonprofits. 

(Image caption should say: Figure 2 Stats courtesy of

(Note: This is their current online donation page, so we could explain in more depth how crowdfunding would be an improvement over this.)

The VPTF Can Improve Collaboration

The affinity wall analysis alone yielded rich data and several key findings.


  • First, Matt observed communication and collaboration issues at the VPTF meeting despite concerted efforts to manage and facilitate discussion and solicit ideas.
  • Some members talk over others and don’t respect other people’s ideas.

From the stakeholder interviews and affinity wall analysis we learned:

  • Most of the traditional VPTF work can be conducted alone or with a partner. 
  • Overwhelmingly, the most consistent sentiment among stakeholders was a sense of pride in the impact the VPTF has had on the community, and the strong sense of identity that came with being a part of that.
  • While everyone agreed that the overarching mission of the VPTF was to not be necessary anymore, there was a consistently expressed desire to perhaps reevaluate the mission of the group.
  • Divergent ideas about where that might lead followed. (See Appendix B-C-D for a more detailed analysis of the affinity wall.)

Recommendation: Co-design

You don’t have to be a designer to benefit from design thinking. Design thinking strategies are increasingly being employed with great success in a range of industries both in the public and private sectors, in particular for nonprofits. (

Co-design is very similar to participatory design, which advocates for changing not merely the systems, but the practices of system-design and building, to support democratic values at all stages of the process. “From participatory design, we draw several core principles, the reflexive recognition of the politics of design practice and a desire to speak to the needs of multiple constituencies in the process.” (Sengers et al., 2005)

Co-design differs from participatory design in that it asserts users can design the solution for themselves. There are two potential pitfalls in this approach that any organization adopting a co-design process needs to be aware of.

  1. When the designer falls back into more of a support role, the result is often a design by committee. To counter this, clear leadership is required in order to keep focus and make tough, holistic design decisions.
  2. If co-design is used as research, while quite effective, it’s research and not co-design.

Users can however participate in and employ the iterative strategies designers use to come up with and build on ideas, and co-design is a strategy that is proven to work at scale, from international campaigns, to open source projects, and even agency work, and small teams (Casali, 2013).

In fact, the GRDC building has a fantastic space with which to facilitate neighborhood workshops (something GRDC already does) or design jams to ideate innovative solutions to neighborhood problems. In this respect the GRDC would be utilizing community involvement through resident and volunteer participation that strengthens the social fabric of the neighborhoods and reinforces the GRDC as the premier conglomeration of the Grandmont Rosedale community at large. The neighborhood organization works best when residents and volunteers seek to maximize interdependence and participation within the community (Huggins, 2002). While a participatory design strategy was beyond the purview of our project, it is our recommendation that a GRDC facilitated co-design process is implemented in the long term as a means of community-based input in the ongoing design process, implementation, and management of data and information systems now and in the future.

Recommendation: How Might We?

You may be asking, “Great, but how might we get started?” (Get it?) The good news is, you’ve already begun. Design Thinking sounds new and different, but it’s simply a set of iterative techniques that you can employ in any team environment to achieve better results by putting the structure of the problem-solving methods used by innovative organizations around the world to work for you.

In the design process, we do research in order to understand user needs and define the problem. In co-design, because the users are the designers and the problems the organization wants to focus on are already defined, Interwalla recommends beginning with, “How might we…?” This is a simple, yet powerful rephrasing of the established problem that opens the floor to explore a range of possibilities uncovered in the ideation phase.

  •  How: We ask “how” because we don’t yet have the answers we seek. Beginning with “how” helps participants explore a variety of possibilities instead of diving straight into what we think the solution should be.
  • Might: The usage of “might” is important as it emphasizes that our ideas are only possible solutions, and that we shouldn’t be too attached to the initial ideas that spring to mind.
  • We: “We” is critical to the overall co-design strategy as it immediately implies and reinforces that this is a collaborative effort, and that the solution will be found through teamwork.

 According to the Interaction Design Foundation (IDF):

“How Might We” (HMW) questions are the best way to open brainstorm and other ideation sessions where you explore ideas that can help you solve your problem. By framing your problem as HMW questions, you’ll prepare yourself for an innovative solution.

Recommendation: Brainstorming

Brainstorming is a well known and commonly used activity employed by teams within organizations in an effort to generate a bunch of ideas to solve a problem. But a lot of brainstorming sessions are unstructured and ultimately fail to achieve the optimal results.

Brainstorming is a useful tool at any point of a design or work process and is often utilized throughout. As an example, for this project we brainstormed interview questions  and used the interview data to brainstorm problem statements in order to brainstorm ‘how might we’ questions that we then brainstormed answers to.

At any stage of the design thinking process above, when you need to generate ideas to solve a problem or challenge, the goal should be to generate many ideas that diverge from one another. You then take these ideas as Michelangelo takes a block of marble, and whittle away at the superfluous pieces until you reveal the masterpiece hidden inside.

We recommend the co-design strategy as a means of optimizing website and guidebook content while reinforcing group cohesion and community interdependence. Soliciting ideas from VPTF volunteers are a major part of team meetings. Taking a closer look at how to develop HMW questions and brainstorming sessions can make these meetings more productive and fruitful.

Over the years, some of the most innovative design thinking experts from the world famous IDEO and Stanfords have developed best practices that GRDC can implement to provide structure to ideation sessions and meetings including but not limited to the VPTF.

  1. Set a time limit
    1. It’s important to set aside a specific period of time in which everyone in the group operates in brainstorm mode.
    2. The facilitator needs to stress and enforce the importance of prohibiting judgement and keep group focus on generating as many ideas as possible.
    3. Worst possible ideas are encouraged!
  2. Stay focused on the topic
    1. Brainstorming should always address a specific question.
    2. Attempting to address multiple questions in a single session doesn’t work.
    3. How Might We…? tend to be the best questions
  3. Defer judgement or criticism, including non-verbal
    1. Brainstorming sessions are not the time to judge or criticize.
    2. It’s crucial that participants feel confident and safe to put forward wild ideas.
    3. The best ideas come from those who dare to be different.
  4. Encourage weird, wacky, and wild ideas
    1. At best, you get an incredibly innovative solution.
    2. At worst, you get an idea you don’t use.
    3. Wild ideas often give rise to creative leaps.
  5. Aim for quantity
    1. The more ideas the better chance you have to innovate.
  6. Build on each other’s ideas
    1. Brainstorming works well when participants build on each other’s ideas.
    2. Our minds are highly associative, and one thought can trigger another.
    3. Building on each other’s ideas helps participants get out of their own thinking structures when they can’t come up with anything else.
  7. Be visual
    1. At UMSI, we are particularly fond of Post-its
    2. Sketching
    3. Acting out a scenario (bodystorming)
  8. One conversation at a time
    1. You’re here to ideate together.
    2. Don’t obsess over your own idea.
    3. After time expires or all ideas are presented, select the best ideas through various methods like “Post-it Voting”, or “Bingo Selection”.
    4. You can take the best ideas and build on them in further brainstorming sessions.



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Goddeeris, A. (2014). Securing Neighborhoods. Agora Journal of Urban Planning and Design, 110-118.

Herzon, C., DeBoard, D., Wilson, C., & Bevan, N. (2010, 01). Contextual Inquiry. Retrieved from Usability Body of Knowledge:

Heugens, P., & Drees, J. (2013). Synthesizing and Extending Resource Dependence Theory: A Meta-Analysis. Journal of Management, 1666-1698.

Holtzblatt, K., Wendell, J. B., & Wood, S. (2005). Rapid contextual design a how-to guide to key techniques for user-centered design. San Francisco, CA: Elsevier/Morgan Kaufmann.

Huggins, M. (2002). Volunteer Participation in Urban Neighborhood Organizaitons: An Exploration of Individual and Contextual Characteristics. East Lansing: Michigan State University Dept. of Resource Development.

Massey, P. A. (2019, 06 04). City hires new director to help close Detroit’s digital divide. Michigan Chronicle, 82(38), B6. Retrieved from

Nonprofit Finance Fund. (2019, 11 11). Grandmont Rosedale Development Corporation. Retrieved from GuideStar:

Scupin, R. (1997). The KJ Method: A Technique for Analyzing Data Derived from Japanese Ethnology. Human Organization, 233-237.

Sengers, P. (2005). Reflective Design. Proc. 4th Decennial Conference on Critical Computing, (pp. 49-58).

Taylor, M. (2001). Soft Issues in Small-Scale Network Development and Implementation: A Case Study in an SME. Systemic Practice and Action Research, 14(3), 239-249. Retrieved from

Wastell, D. G. (1999). Learning Dysfunctions in Information Systems Development: Overcoming the Social Defences with Transitional Objects. MIS Quarterly, 23(4), 581-600. Retrieved from

Wells, M. A. (2009). Perceptions of Knowledge Gatekeepers: Social Aspects of Information Exchange in an Organization Undergoing Change. Sydney: University of Western Sydney School of Management. Retrieved from


A – Nonprofit Crowdfunding Resources

Crowdfunding Resources:Links:

Network for Good
GoFundMe Charity
Mobile Cause
National Council of Nonprofits
Bonfire (design and sell t-shirts and other merch)
Mr. Benchmarks

B – (Affinity Wall) Methods of Researching and Reporting

  • Members do a lot of their work individually
    • Members use a lot of the same sources
    • Some sources are kept close to the vest
  • Digital tools such as smartphones and cameras are commonly used
    • Spreadsheets are not (too much work)
  • The most used websites and apps (See: Appendix B)
    • Members look for certain clues to find who to contact
    • They may search through resources in the private sector (See: Appendix C)
    • They may contact city government
  • It’s common to maintain records using physical artifacts such as notebooks, steno pads, etc.
    • Members pass along information to their block captain

C – (Affinity Wall) Sense of Community

  • Members see a mutual benefit in working with the GRDC
    • Staff changes have had a positive impact on the organizational structure of the VPTF
    • A strength of the task force is the amount of diversity of knowledge each member brings.
  • The GRDC works as a connected community
    • Members value the VPTF’s community influence/impact
    • They view themselves as a tightly interconnected community

D – (Affinity Wall) Issues and Concerns

  • Members care deeply about the issues they are tackling
    • The state of the surrounding businesses
    • They are motivated and involved
    • They joined because they want to serve the community
  • There are housing concerns
    • People don’t see Detroit as a safe or more reliable city
    • Members are concerned property values are getting too high
  • There are a lot of inconveniences beyond their control
    • Some members have expressed concern that staff changes have negatively impacted the GRDC’s organizational structure
    • Untrustworthy investors get in the way of fixing vacant property issues
    • Members often have to deal with unreliable information
    • Rentals get in the way of fixing some issues
  • The VPTF welcomes new members to their team and community
    • There is a want for new members in the VPTF
    • Some members expressed a desire to be more welcoming to new residents and volunteers
  • Members see many ways in which the VPTF can change in the future
    • Most members see the VPTF as a group that can eventually disappear
    • Some are seeking to shift focus and work to improve fundraising
    • A guidebook is wanted
    • There is an opportunity to change the mission of the VPTF
  • The VPTF has a smaller workload than when it was first created
    • There is not as much blight as there used to be and the situation is getting better
    • Through experience, members have gotten better at their jobs

E – Websites and Apps


Improve Detroit
Tax Payment Options
Landgrid (formerly Loveland)
Detroit Land Bank Authority
Pay taxes online
Invest Detroit
LARA entities search
36th District Court
City of Detroit Dept. of Appeals and Hearings
See Click Fix
City of Detroit Blight violation Case History
Registrar of Deeds
Mortgage & Deed Fraud Unit
Outlier Media (txt “DETROIT” to 73224 )

F – Investment and Management Firms

Investment FirmsLinks:

Interstate Equities
Pentagon Properties

G – VPTF Business Card Mockup

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