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Eddie Wang
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July 25, 2018

Definitive Guide to Building and Managing Construction Apps - Top Tools for IT Managers and Construction Leaders

For construction firms, owners, general contractors, and IT managers seeking to make the most of mobile technology to streamline construction processes and save money, developing a successful app strategy from the beginning has never been more important.

Technological innovations in smartphone technology, cloud connectivity, and cost-effective software solutions have allowed leading construction firms to find new ways to innovate, save money, and get ahead of their competition. 

Over the course of this guide, we’ll walk through a couple key steps every construction manager charged with IT responsibility should take. In the process, we'll also share about how innovators like KLB Construction's Richard Glass are spearheading digital transformation through AppSheet apps. 

Get the KLB Construction Case Study

Quick Reference Guide

Step 1 - Identify your construction app stakeholders and determine each party’s needs.

constructionview

Look how productive they look! As they say, "Behind every great construction field team, is a... proactive construction IT team?"

Let’s start with figuring out who’s going to be actually using the construction app(s). Each type of user will have unique needs that a robust app platform should be able to accommodate. Four common stakeholders include:

  1. End User - Generally speaking, the end user is the most important stakeholder. Decisions should be made with a design-oriented perspective concerning how a given app might help or hinder an end user from accomplishing their tasks.
  2. Contractors - Contractors may need to be able to access parts of the construction project management system. These users may have separate needs including specific security filters to limit access to sensitive data.
  3. Management - Management may not need to work on the day-to-day affairs, but they will need consistent, high-level reports on project status, expense reports, and more.
  4. IT Team - The IT Team may be a standalone corporate division or simply an entrepreneurial frontline worker. In either case, any apps or app platforms must be easy to design and implement in the hands of an IT Team charged with ensuring security, stability, and performance.

Two other stakeholders that may be relevant depending on the nature of the engagement include:

  1. Client - A client may or may not have interest in the everyday activities surrounding a construction project. Typically, a client might only be interested in some form of consistent reporting on project status or budget control.
  2. Government/Municipal Authorities - For projects in heavily regulated environments, active government oversight and intervention may necessitate tools that can be adapted for external participation.

While it’s all too tempting to jump ahead and begin looking for solutions, taking time to identify key stakeholders and their unique needs is a time-saving, utility-maximizing process that should never be skipped.

Be sure to speak with at least one person in each category of stakeholders before making any assumptions. Through this process, you can also learn what the current processes are for the given task you’re trying to digitize.

If the solution you ultimately create can’t significantly beat the status quo, it probably isn’t worth doing. A well designed suite of tools can help you increase onsite productivity and efficiency.

Ronald Reagan

"Status quo, you know, is Latin for 'the mess we're in'." -Ronald Reagan

Step 2 - Identify any constraints.

Constraints of all kinds, while sometimes limiting, also serve as useful guideposts that can help inform product development decisions. A few constraints you might consider include:

  1. Scope Constraints
    1. What is the overall end-goal of your construction app(s)?
    2. Is the feature set you're exploring best suited for a mobile app form factor?
  2. Cost Constraints
    1. What is your team’s IT budget? Does your team have enough budget to hire developers or external consultants to build apps?
    2. What are you currently spending on app-related needs?
    3. What are you currently spending on the work function you're seeking to fix?
  3. Time Constraints
    1. When do the app(s) need to be ready?
    2. Are there any bottlenecks that may affect the app development process?
  4. Safety Constraints
    1. What safety precautions are worth considering?
    2. How are accidents typically handled through the present system?
    3. Safety first! Even when we’re talking about building out mobile-first workplace productivity apps.
  5. Legal Constraints
    1. What processes must be documented? And in what form?
    2. Will signatures, photos, or any other forms of documentation be needed?
  6. People/Technology Constraints
    1. Is your team utilizing standardized hardware or primarily personal devices?
    2. Are you looking for iOS, Android, iPhone, iPad specific solutions?
    3. Do you have someone who can build apps quickly and on time?
    4. How many app requests do you have? 
  7. Data Constraints
    1. What kind of data is your team collecting?
    2. Does the data need to be captured in real time?
    3. How will the data need to be processed and displayed?
  8. Connectivity Constraints
    1. Will your construction teams likely be working in any cellular deadzones?
    2. How important is offline work capacity?
triangle-3125882_1280

If only balancing time, cost, and quality were as easy as drawing nice triangles...

Step 3 - Choose an app platform.

With hundreds if not thousands of construction app solutions out there, navigating a technology procurement decision can be tedious if not downright exhausting! The first decision you and your team may need to make is the classic buy vs. build decision.

“Apps that are built for a smartphone and tablet, that have a complex user interface, or that require a significant backend can cost anywhere from $250,000 to $1,500,000.” Even the simplest of apps can cost at least $25,000 (source).

Breaking the Bank.png

This is what paying for proprietary mobile app development feels like...

For all but the largest constructions firms in the world, coding your own apps from scratch is not a realistic possibility. Even if you could, in most cases, 3rd party solutions provide better bang-for-the-buck and greater functionality with proven solutions.

Presuming you’ve decided to buy a license to an existing solution, your next decision would be choosing between an out-of-the-box construction solution and using a low code or no code platform to build a suite of custom, feature rich apps.

Out-of-the-box solutions may appear to be quicker to set-up, but they may also be more limiting in terms of the feature set (i.e. how you can and can’t use the app) and cost more in the long-run. Additionally, IT managers and internal builders typically understand the needs of their unique users differently than the way most off-the-shelf solutions are set up.

Platform app solutions are customizable by nature, and these apps may lend themselves to more functional product use-cases in the long-run. With even a limited IT team, no-code platform apps are often quicker, cheaper, easier to customize and iterate.

A well-integrated platform solution can also help IT managers avoid the classic challenge of utilizing too many disparate systems that can’t “communicate” effectively with each other.

Apps

Whatever you're thinking of, there's probably an app for that... the question is do you actually want to install another app?

As an example, consider Richard’s experience from KLB Construction: “Mobile apps are lagging in the construction industry, and it’s under-served by technology. Off-the-shelf software typically does not represent how we do things. Being able to customize the app for our purposes makes it more user-friendly and more likely to be adopted by the field.”

Dive Deeper with the KLB Case Study

Whatever route you ultimately end up choosing, be sure to explore software reviews and find out what real users have to say about the product:
  1. Best Mobile Application Development Software
  2. Best Construction App Software

Step 4 - Build your construction apps.

Depending on the app product or platform you choose and your team's initial competency, building and integrating a full suite of construction management apps is likely to take anywhere from a few hours to a few months to get started.

In this time, it’s best to focus on establishing the core functionality of what you need. Bells and whistles can wait while wheels and brakes are being installed.

You may even consider building out a product roadmap that includes what you’ll include at the start of your initial construction app launch and what features and functionalities you’ll build in over time. This product roadmap should synthesize insights you’ve already gathered in your stakeholder, constraint, and app platform research.

Bucketing Similar Functions into Apps

No single tool can fulfill every function you need. Because of this, you might consider bucketing similar functions into a suite of connected apps. A few ideas include:

  1. Estimator - For contractors on the go, utilizing a mobile estimator tool can increase productivity and help save time.
  2. Punch List - Wrapping up any construction project involves closing the loop on work items. If your organization currently uses a paper or email-based system for punch lists, you might consider switching to an app-based version that works seamlessly with your teams. 
  3. Blueprint Management - Having cloud-based shared and current blueprints is an important function for most construction projects. Utilizing a single tool with a clean user interface can help engineers, architects, and contractors work collaboratively, quickly, and accurately.

If you’re building apps through the AppSheet platform, you can get started quickly by integrating your data from Google Docs, Box, DropBox, SQL, and more.

 

3 step process

 

Or, you can copy these generic versions of construction apps to get you started:

Construction Daily Reports

Daily Reports

Daily reporting is essential for foreman and project managers who are tasked with staying on top of resources and personnel. A functional app can replace the stream of paperwork and emails that can clutter daily reporting. Learn more about this Sample App.

Site Inspections

Site Inspections

Safety inspections are an essential piece of any well-run construction project. This app allows users to capture key information for inspection reports while leveraging cloud-synced photos and GPS/map technology. Learn more about this sample app.

Package Delivery Management

Package Delivery

Getting the right packages or deliveries delivered to the right building or job site can be a challenging undertaking. An effective internal logistics app can simplify this process for suppliers, drivers, and site managers. Learn more about this sample app.

Field Survey

Field Survey

Project management was never meant to be contained in the four walls of a cubicle. Putting the tools for real-time, on-site project management into those on the frontlines can help any organization retain data integrity and manage resources effectively. Learn more about this sample app.

For AppSheet users, here are a few more things to keep in mind:

  1. Consider leveraging any sample app materials that may be relevant for your use case.
  2. Great apps and app platforms will always come with rich resource libraries and support to help you make the most of their product. As an individual charged with IT management responsibility, be sure to do your research and build a strong foundation of product-specific knowledge.
  3. Perfect is the enemy of good enough. Remember, you’re building a functional business application. It may not look as slick as the latest social media app, but it also does not need to. Whew!

Step 5 - Test your apps.

In theory, practice makes perfect. With software, testing makes… “better.” :) No amount of tests can replicate all the realities of a live app, but it can certainly help!

Practice

Consider identifying a subset of the construction team to engage in field tests. A simple way to go about doing this would be to provide them with basic training and ask them to complete a battery of standard field tests (i.e. processes they would normally use the app for).

Have participants report back to you with data on functionality and usability. You can modify this simple Google Form to suit your needs if your solution doesn't have built in feedback functionality. For AppSheet users, users can always provide feedback to app creators through the "Feedback View" on the menu (see below). 

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Once your testing consistently returns satisfied end users, you’re ready to deploy your app to the team.

Step 6 - Deploy your apps.

You made it! You’ve successfully procured and created an app solution for your team. Before you celebrate too soon, expect the unexpected as you deploy your apps to live users.

accomplishment-achievement-adult-1153215Even stock photo models need time to celebrate!

In the process of releasing your app, consider hosting a universal team training event either in-person or through a webinar. Be sure to cast a compelling vision of why your team is making the change and how this change will ultimately benefit them. Change isn’t always appreciated and habits can be difficult to break.

Even after the app is fully deployed, bugs, user error, and unexpected challenges are par for the course when it comes to implementing new software. What’s important is keeping a level head and having a platform with strong help documentation and support options.

"If we make it easier than paper, we increase adoption.” -Richard Glass, IT Manager at KLB Construction.

Step 7 - Manage, maintain, and update your apps.

In today’s ever-changing world, no product is every truly “done.” Users change. Needs change. And great software must change as well.

As an IT manager or someone functioning an IT leadership capacity, it’s your job to stay ahead of the game and ensure that the apps you build and deploy meet the needs of your team.

Here’s a checklist of questions to keep your apps ready-to-go:

  1. Are there any known bugs? If so, what actions are currently being taken to address them?
  2. Is there a strong onboarding process/documentation in place to help new users learn the system?
  3. Are there any new upcoming projects that may require distinct needs?
  4. Do you need more or fewer software licenses?
  5. Are there any new technologies (e.g. augmented reality) that have the potential to shift our future business processes?
  6. For AppSheet users, are there any new data sources that should be integrated?

Dive Deeper with the KLB Case Study

And now, it's your turn!

So there you have it! 7 steps to transform your construction firm from technology laggard to industry trend-setter.

What have been your experiences implementing mobile apps across your construction firm? What lessons have you learned? We'd love to hear from you in the comments below!

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