Designing for BIM in the Field
For decades, the construction industry has been ruled by B2B software, where the user experience (UX) was an afterthought. It wasn’t until I joined Procore that I realized how detrimental that pattern was to adopting Building Information Modeling (BIM) in the field.
BIM is essentially the 3D prototype of the project. It can be extremely valuable for understanding how a project is to be built. You can see examples of BIM in everyday home renovation shows where the host will walk clients through their ideas in BIM software before the renovation. However, these 3D models go way beyond small kitchen and bathroom renovations. In fact, this technology is used on the most sophisticated buildings and infrastructure globally: hospitals, stadiums, skyscrapers, bridges, tunnels, highways. My team was tasked with figuring out how to put these complex projects into a superintendent’s pocket.
When someone unfamiliar with BIM sees it for the first time, they are likely to categorize it with viral 3D video games. But unlike video games, BIM adoption on mobile devices has been a huge struggle.
When designing a product, you often research similar products. This approach may lead to a false sense of certainty that people will actually use your product. However, unless you consider the specific needs of the target user, your design is a shot in the dark. As mentioned, B2B companies often take that shot because they’re not focused on the end-user. They’re just focused on the buyer. It became clear that almost all of the mobile BIM products out there had taken this approach, finding inspiration from 3D gaming, with features like 3D overview maps in the top left and single joystick navigation in the bottom left.
Fortnite - Epic Games, Inc.
However, the adoption of these gaming-inspired tools was low. One of our prospects at the time, Trevor Johnston, Construction Technology Manager at XL Construction, said, “getting BIM in the field is next to impossible and almost non-existent, causing a lot of rework. We’ve tried a lot of tools, but field teams just don’t understand 3D spatial awareness. It’s just not intuitive for them or easy to navigate.”
We heard over and over again that navigation was a major pain point, and it became clear to us that taking inspiration from gaming products wasn’t the right approach for construction. It simply wasn’t working for BIM, and we needed to take a completely different and novel approach to our product.
Deciding to start from scratch brought significant challenges. It put a lot of pressure on us to find a method to user test with realistic, interactive prototypes, so we could quickly iterate and adapt to usability data instead of using expensive and time-consuming production code. At the time, there wasn’t a great way to do that with our prototyping tools. We needed to immerse the user in 3D instead of showing them 2D prototypes to get feedback. We wanted to put prototypes in users’ hands and have them actually use it.
Our designer Chris Bindloss started to look around for other products with more advanced prototyping and eventually landed on Framer. Unlike other prototyping tools, Framer allowed us to use real code to add interactive functionality to our ordinary visual mockups. With the extended capabilities of Framer Form, a third-party module built by Emil Widlund, we were able to rapidly test different interfaces for navigating a real 3D model viewer. After a few weeks of playing around with Framer and different 3D file types, we had a working mobile prototype that could be used for discovery.
Early prototype of Procore's BIM viewer
Armed with our prototype, we sought feedback from testers. Instead of relying on BIM experts, we reached out to what we called “non-BIM personas” to replicate the kinds of users in the field. It didn’t take many sessions before we uncovered a couple of the key nuances that separated BIM from gaming.
For starters, we found that real-world physics shouldn’t be applied to BIM in the field. Models are often floating in virtual space, and users need to be able to fly through objects unobstructed. Enabling gravity in BIM causes users to plummet to their virtual death. Applying collision detection to enable users to walk upstairs doesn’t really work on a 100-story skyscraper with doors that can’t be opened. Understandably, users would get quite frustrated.
We also found that 3D orthographic maps weren’t as intuitive for understanding locations in the model as the 2D construction drawings. In BIM applications, a user isn’t typically running around aimlessly exploring a new world or trying to find their teammates. Rather, users have a specific spot in the project to which they want to navigate as quickly as possible. When we sliced the 3D model and said “find the lobby,” it took them a while to orient themselves, especially if the model wasn’t rotated in the exact same direction as what they were used to seeing in the drawings. However, when we showed that same user the 2D drawings and asked them to find the lobby, it was almost instantaneous. Even though we had built the capability to slice a 3D model to create an area map, similar to gaming, we discovered that it would never be as familiar and intuitive as the 2D drawings for field teams.
We opted to use the 2D drawings method for navigation instead of a 3D orthographic map. Users could simply place their finger on the drawing to locate themselves in the exact area and then slide their finger in the direction they wanted to see. Although this method required more effort from a single BIM expert to ensure the 2D drawing was aligned (x, y, z) with the model, it provided non-BIM personas with an intuitive way to navigate to the exact place they were standing in the project.
One of the most interesting discoveries we made between BIM and gaming was actually inspired by gaming: the joysticks. We wanted the navigation methods to be as similar to the real world as possible. After all, three generations of workers out in the field needed to quickly understand how to use our product. We didn’t want anything to be left to interpretation. Our original design had two joysticks as opposed to one and was somewhat inspired by console controllers. I loved Halo and Call of Duty growing up and was absolutely thrilled with our original design. In my mind, as a product manager, the look and feel were perfect.
That was until our designer Chris told me, “They can’t go up.” When he gave users the simple task of navigating up to the next floor, they struggled to figure it out.
Early prototype of Procore's BIM viewer
At that time, in addition to navigating with the drawings and joysticks, we had adopted gesture controls with our viewer. If you used two fingers, you could pinch to zoom, pan side to side, or pan up and down. I remember challenging Chris and saying that the user would definitely discover the two-finger pan. He not only said they wouldn’t, but then told me he wanted to add a third joystick for vertical navigation.
This led to one of our biggest disagreements to date. I was pretty bullish about the idea. I remember telling him, “Nobody has three joysticks! You can’t have three joysticks!” He wouldn’t back down. Chris and I would get into these stalemates from time to time. However, there was a very simple solution to resolving the conflict: the customer. At the end of the day, we could always agree on one thing; it wasn’t about us or our opinions. It was about the customer!
First, we pulled over one of our VPs who was pretty tech-savvy but still a non-BIM persona. We gave him the challenge of navigating to the second floor. He thought about it for a bit, played with the gesture controls, then used one finger to look up and started to pinch to zoom through the ceiling. I was shocked! He didn’t pick up on the two-finger pan!
Being the stubborn and competitive person that I am, I wanted to test it again on a real persona. Fortunately for us, we were doing construction at our headquarters, which made it very easy to find a non-BIM superintendent. After taking him through the basic testing, we eventually got to the challenge and Chris asked, “Can you navigate to the second floor for me?”
The superintendent stared at the screen for a minute, played with the joysticks, started to mess around with the gesture controls, and then used one finger to look up and started to pinch to zoom through the ceiling. That’s when I looked at Chris and said, “you win,” which was something I got very used to saying to him.
And so, although the joysticks were originally inspired by gaming, they never would have been as effective for BIM in the field without that unique third joystick for moving vertically.
Early prototype of Procore's BIM viewer
We spent months testing and doing discovery with our Framer prototype, so by the time we acquired BIManywhere (a visual BIM collaboration platform for construction and facilities management that helped enable our product), we had a high level of confidence in the direction we wanted to take the product. This allowed us to move fast.
Only two months after the acquisition, I was standing on stage, announcing the integration and beginning of the beta program (Groundbreak Keynote). During the beta program of the actual product, we received further validation and reinforcement that we had started to solve the adoption challenge of BIM in the field. Trevor Johnston, who was involved in the beta program, posted a video of one of his veteran non-BIM superintendents, Brian Kitchen, using the viewer for the first time, who noted that the viewer was “the best tool I've seen in 30 years since putting on my occidentals." It was when I watched that video that I knew we had created something truly unique and had solved one of the biggest challenges and differences between gaming and BIM—the navigation.
Brian Kitchen from XL Construction using Procore BIM for the first time.
Trevor later told me, “I feel like Procore BIM is completely different than anything else in the market. It’s like y’all reinvented what BIM is and what a model viewer is, and I love it! It’s really the combination of the 2D drawing navigation with the joysticks. I now have owners and designers able to navigate the model.”
Trevor now guarantees that he can teach someone Procore BIM in less than a minute. "In under one minute, I can take a new user, show them how to use Procore BIM, walk away, and they've got it,” he said.
This week I was fortunate enough to catch up with an old colleague, Chad Demick, Lead Detailer at Control Air. He told me about Glen, one of his sheet metal superintendents, who he said is “very old school, dislikes computers, and prefers his clipboard that he’s tethered a thumb drive to with a rubber band.” He said that Glen likes to joke that his clipboard never has to be recharged and finds any opportunity to show you why computers are the death of communication in the construction industry. However, Glen happened to come into Chad’s office during a demo of our mobile viewer. Chad told me he was floored by Glen’s reaction. When Glen saw the 2D drawing navigation could locate him in the exact place where he needed to be, he turned to Chad with all seriousness and said, “Wow, that will really help the field!”
At Procore, our vision is to improve the lives of everyone in construction and in order to achieve that, we put the end-user first and take a modern approach to product development by eliminating the silos of UX, Engineering, and Product. I sometimes get confused when people ask if we’re a B2B company because we focus so much on the end-user experience. If it wasn’t for this belief and the user-centric culture that our CEO, Tooey Courtemanche, created, our product might have looked a lot like the other mobile BIM applications out there. It would never have achieved over 90% adoption by non-BIM personas and the ultimate outcome that Brian Kitchen said better than anyone.
“Let’s walk some more. I’ve never gotten to navigate this before.”
If this kind of challenge excites you, then maybe you should come work for us!