Many construction companies are looking to improve their operations by taking advantage of mobile technologies. Some of the industry’s biggest productivity gains are coming from mobile innovations, but there are a lot of options to pick through.
First, what does "Mobile" really mean? "Mobile" comes in two forms, web based or app based (Android or iOS). Web-based systems need an Internet connection and rely on external software. App-based tools work with locally installed software, and some only work on specific devices. Also, most mobile systems are designed to work one way on your desktop and another, more specific—and sometimes more limited way—on your tablet or smartphone. Often, features for robust programs on desktop devices are not accessible on field devices.
Our team found direct benefits, and unexpectedly, indirect benefits as well when designing a web-based mobile system from the ground up to work on a smartphone-sized screen. The interface is designed to fit the screen size constraint, yet it was allowed to scale up to whatever other device might be used. This is termed a responsive, or fluid grid design.
The obvious direct benefits of mobility are that project teams can gather better data from the site and be much more efficient. You can have access to your entire project’s files by reaching into your pocket.
This helps the team in the field with:
- Storing project communication and all other project information in the same place.
- Full collaboration with other project team members.
- Reporting with daily logs, RFIs, submittals, meeting minutes and other important project records.
- Accessing plans and specs, jobsite photos and any other project files.
- Knowing where your project costs are at, from contracts, to change orders, to billings
Those benefits are what most mobile systems are meant to achieve. What came as a bit of a surprise to us, when designing our own construction management system, were the indirect benefits we gained from designing software specifically for mobile devices.
By designing for the “small screen” first, additional benefits emerged:
- Simplified Interfaces. Designing for the small screen requires that everything be as simple as possible. With limited screen real estate to work with, user interfaces must be broken down into simple elements. Typical spreadsheet-type views for logs, for example, need to be rethought so users are not left drowning in hard-to-read columns of data.
- Workflows become easier. We had to develop simple and consistent, step-by-step processes for drafting up documents, reviewing, submitting and responding.
- Training became simpler. A simplified system means simplified training, help, and maintenance; all which contribute to lower costs and allow for a better end user experience.
- One system to learn. Users are not required to learn different ways the system works on a laptop or a tablet or a smartphone. The information is always in the same spot on the screen, no matter what device you are using.
- Smartphone accessories tie into the software. Users can take advantage of their smartphone camera and microphone features, dumping voice-to-text notes and site photos right into the project management software, simplifying the site documentation process.
So why does mobility matter when it comes to your project information? So you have your entire project information available wherever you are. And by designing your system for the small screen first can bring additional workflow benefits by forcing you to re-think and simplify the interface between the field worker and your business systems. These direct and indirect benefits can free you and your team up so critical project information can flow.
Don Speedie is a construction manager for The East Los Angeles Community Union and president of Fluid Contract Manager, a simple, user-friendly, mobile system that helps teams of 2 to 10 people manage complex projects in the cloud.