The Case For Simple

Shelley Armato, President, MySmartPlans
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Shelley Armato, President, MySmartPlans

As a provider of technology solutions for the construction industry, we face an ever changing landscape. Technology seems to change so rapidly, huge advances can happen during the course of a single construction project. We also serve a very diverse set of users, some very computer literate, but many are not. We provide solutions that allow all stakeholders, including owners, architects, contractors, subcontractors, engineers, consultants, bankers, insurance brokers, surety companies and others access to project information. There is one common theme we focus on to deliver value to our customers and that is making the experience simpler for the user. Leonardo da Vinci once espoused, “Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.” This notion so resonated with Steve Jobs it was used in early Apple marketing campaigns.

Of all the areas that we focus on during software development, we find simplicity is the hardest to accomplish. Think about this. When was the last time you upgraded your operating system to the latest and greatest version only to spend the next 30 minutes trying to find the applications that used to be there? When was the last time you got an email asking you to attend 40 hours of training for the new system your company is implementing? How much time have you spent trying to figure out how to use software just to do your daily job?

We, as technologists, tend to focus on innovations in technology. We look at all the things that technology can deliver, but shouldn’t the focus really be on value delivered to the user of the system. One of the companies I have most admired is Google. For most users, they type in a few words and Google returns results. One box to enter my criteria and one button to push. I think they have figured out the recipe for success when it comes to search engines.

As an industry, we should focus on making things intuitive to use so training is minimal or not required at all. If systems are difficult to use, they take longer to adopt and generate more support efforts. On some construction projects that use our software, there may be over 1,000 users. The cost of time and money can quickly escalate when companies embrace poorly designed software.

To help combat complexity, we approach the problem in two ways. The first way is to focus on the user experience. In our design meetings, we document things like mouse clicks. Three mouse clicks to get to a report is too many. We always design with the philosophy of minimization. When a contractor needs to review a set of plans, they click on a button called plans. When they need to see an RFI, they click on the RFI button. These buttons are always accessible from their dashboard. And when a facilities person needs to see an operations manual for a piece of equipment, they simply click on the equipment and the operations manual displays. These intuitive ideas should resonate within our industry, but the reality is that they are often times lost as technology companies try to “show off.”

In addition to creating a simplified user experience, our company also gives equal importance on how data is organized and presented. The old computer acronym GIGO (Garbage In, Garbage Out) brings this point to light. No matter how successfully an application is designed and implemented, it is only as successful as the information that resides in it. We think this concept is so important, our firm provides Project Information Mangers to ensure information is standardized, optimized, organized and enhanced to ensure all users can quickly and easily find the information they need and it will be delivered in an organized fashion.

On every project, we ensure information is delivered in its highest quality state. All documents are named according to project standards. All plan sheets are assembled into sets with bookmarks, allowing users to quickly navigate to the plan sheet they need. All cuts in the plans are linked to their corresponding detail. A color sheet is created as new plan sheets are released. This allows users to quickly identify in color additions or deletions from the previous sheet in seconds. Independent studies have shown that users analyzing color sheets were able to identify changes 80% faster and 80% more accurately than trying to compare two black and white sheets.

During construction, we link construction documents to the As-Built sets to ensure users can find information quickly and easily. We also provide linked closeouts to ensure facilities personnel can find the information they need. Custom search indexes are created so that any user can find information in any document quickly and easily.

All of this upfront overhead is exponential in benefit as it affects all users accessing a solution. We approach projects with cost savings in mind for all project team members. If we have a typical 18 month project with 100 users and we can save each user an hour a month based on our focus of simplicity, 1,800 hours of productivity savings will be achieved.

Finally, our focus is on ensuring that we do our best to put data in the “lowest common denominator.” As an example, we encourage putting documents into the PDF standard on projects. Although we support all file formats, ensuring plans, specs and even 3D BIM models are ultimately available to the user in PDF format, we can ensure all users will be able to view or collaborate on documents. Since 99% of all computers have a PDF viewer already installed, end users won’t need to purchase or install additional software to access project information.

As mobile devices and touch screens become more prevalent, the trend is certainly heading toward simplification as developers are forced to develop towards new user interfaces. We see this as a great sign that will pay dividends down the road for technology companies and their customers alike. As a wise man once told me, “Complicated is just a bunch of simple things, all at once.” So as you approach your next endeavor, keep it simple.

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