At PlanGrid, we build products that are used in construction sites all over the world, in trucks and trailers, from high-rises to highways. But most of our designers come from fields other than construction. That means to understand our users, we need to visit construction sites to see how work gets done.
Site visits allow us to learn more about our users, understand their projects and pain paints, and build products uniquely suited to their needs. They motivate our work, encourage our empathy, and teach us more about the realities of construction than anything else.
But first things first. Grab your work boots, a safety vest and — of course — a hard hat, and we can head out.
Passion is contagious
Something that consistently delights us is the passion construction workers have for their jobs. They’re proud to be building places where we live, work, and play, knowing that what they’re building makes a real difference in people’s lives.
It’s not just the physical buildings that inspire the people we visit. One question we ask on every jobsite is “What’s your favorite part of your job?” Often the answer is simply “the people.” The workers we visit truly value their coworkers and enjoy the camaraderie of the job.
When we go on a job site, we learn just how passionate our users are about their work and their team members. It’s an incredible motivator for us to create tools that can make their jobs — and their lives — easier. That’s why it’s such a pleasure to hear how they think of PlanGrid not just as a tool they use, but as part of the team.
Empathy begins onsite
Empathy is a central part of good design practice, and it’s especially important when your user’s work environment is drastically different from your own. It’s hard to understand exactly how loud and hectic a construction site is until you actually get out there. By going onsite, we come to understand the exact challenges our users face in the contexts that they face them.
That means we see some things we expect to see, like the giant stacks of paper blueprints that we’re helping to get rid of. It also means we see some unexpected things, like jobsite yoga to help workers limber up and reduce injuries.
All of these instances give us a more complete picture of our users’ days, and they affect decisions large and small. We’ve witnessed just how hard it is to see colors on an iPad screen out in the sun when using a screen protector, so we’ve created alternative ways to callout areas of a blueprint that need attention. And when we assumed that our users would want our product to constantly sync to the latest updated version, we saw firsthand that so many changes all the time would make completing any work hard.
One of the biggest motivators to make our product simple and easy to use is gaining an understanding of just how stressful construction work can be. It’s one thing to hear that and another to see two subcontractors negotiate a problem with real implications for the jobsite. If one person’s work is going to impede another’s, big decisions have to be made, and someone is going to fall behind schedule. Seeing these negotiations happen live gives a sense of the intensity of a jobsite and the stresses people are under. And it inspires our work to alleviate that stress, not add to it.
Design for very different users
At construction sites and during user interviews, one thing we’ve seen consistently is a huge disparity in how comfortable people are with technology. Some of the engineers we meet are on the cutting edge, ready to dive in with drones and augmented reality. But others are less tech-savvy. They just want to be shown where to tap on the iPad. Most fall somewhere in the middle, but every one of them needs a product that works for them.
All of these users helped inform our personas, which allow us to think about real people as we’re designing products. These personas guide us as we make decisions by helping us keep in mind real people’s behaviors, preferences, and skill sets.
There is no ideal flow
We all make assumptions when designing and often optimize for an ideal flow that’s in our heads. For us, that means finding a clean way through complicated processes. But site visits teach us that our ideal flow usually doesn’t line up with reality.
By following a complicated process onsite, we can get a sense of how work really gets done. What we anticipate happening in an email can actually be done in person or over the phone. Or maybe multiple steps of a complicated process are completed at once by the same person when we’ve anticipated multiple people being involved.
In these cases, we’ve found that we’ve needed to create more flexible definitions of roles and steps in a workflow to account for quite varied scenarios. In other words, we can’t treat situations that don’t fit our ideal flow as edge cases. They’re central to the way work gets done for the field, and our goal of making the construction process more frictionless depends on handling the reality of the field rather than our image of it in the office.
Back in the office
Ultimately what we’ve learned from site visits is that building software has some important parallels with construction. In both, clear communication between teams, rapid responses to problems, and trust in teammates is critical to getting the job done. Work needs to be broken down into parts, distributed among people with different expertise, and scoped to ensure that delivery happens on time.
But the differences are vast as well, and the challenges of a loud, hectic, and constantly evolving jobsite are ones we don’t know well. The only way to design effectively for construction is to understand first-hand how workers get their jobs done in those environments. So as long as they’re building with PlanGrid, we’ll keep heading onsite to learn more.