The construction industry needs a steady supply of materials to function. Most sites aren't large enough, weatherproof enough or secure enough to store all the materials needed for one job, and obviously uncluttered sites are important for safety. Combine the resulting daily necessity for supplies, with early starts to make the most of the daylight, and you can imagine the scene at most hardware stores' trade yards first thing in the morning.
PlaceMakers is not the largest hardware retailer in New Zealand, but their trade division is very popular with that market. They have an honest and committed relationship with their customers which provided rich opportunities for discourse, insights and inspiration.
The management team at PlaceMakers, and the business analysts at parent company Fletcher Building, were already considering these solutions:
A mobile app capable of ordering and quoting, with order status and delivery tracking notifications. This would mean more tradespeople placing orders before they turned up.
A drive-thru lane for order collection with signage and order QR code scanning. Espresso coffee and free wifi would be available to take the edge off any queues.
When resources are tight it's possible that the problems themselves can be misdiagnosed, with obvious implications for the solutions, but this capable and thorough team were on the right track with both the problems and the solutions under consideration.
Nevertheless, to avoid these early assessments proving inadequate and leading to a suboptimal conclusion, Jaz urged us to embark on an extensive program of research, consisting of:
Consultation with business stakeholders, trade reps, trade yard personnel, tradespeople and construction company owners, often in their corresponding environment, including construction sites. This revealed the extent to which the target audience rely on their mobile phones, and their support for the app approach.
Tradespeople wear gloves most of the day, and taking them off to use touchscreens is a chore. We asked about touchscreen friendly gloves and no-one seemed to use the ones available at that time. In response, we resolved to remove friction elsewhere and avoid PIN-protecting the app itself, while recommending that its users should protect their phone from unauthorised access, if they weren't doing so already.
Tradespeople tend not to use oversized handsets, because they believe these are more prone to accidental breakage due to the physical nature of their work. Additionally, construction company owners are usually of an age requiring reading glasses. In response, I resolved to keep the UI text and tappable targets as large as possible.
Tradespeople and construction company owners disclosed the frequent need to delegate ordering, collections or receiving of deliveries on-site to their apprentices and subcontractors. Given the responsibility of these tasks and the fleeting nature of some working arrangements, these permissions would need to be granted and revoked easily.
Monitoring interactions in the trade yard, at the counter, and on the counter's calls was incredibly valuable. We learned that the quoting system was still predominantly paper-based, and that unlike standard retail deliveries, the yard had to frequently reschedule deliveries according to the readiness of the teams on the construction sites.
Quotes had to be manually entered into the system by trade counter personnel, navigating the customers' idiosyncratic handwriting and product descriptions. Resolving the inevitable discrepancies was difficult, especially if any progress occurred verbally. We resolved to digitise and centralise this archaic system.
If it wasn't already obvious, most e-commerce is a walk in the park compared to this operation. Conducting their own deliveries and regularly rescheduling them at short notice is a huge undertaking. On top of that, many products are priced by the length and often need to be cut to specific lengths.
Data analysis opportunities on an unreleased product are needless to say non-existent, but we were satisfied with the business analysts' work supporting the business case, and conducted the online polls instead.
Online polls were conducted with the target audience to gauge their interest in the app and drive-thru features by assigning a score to each one. The results revealed a distinct preference for the app features, notably order tracking, but there was a tendency to score drive-thru features highly as well.
I suspected poll participants were scoring the drive-thru features highly because such features would come at no cost to them. Support or curiosity doesn't necessarily translate to success, and features like fresh coffee might lead to longer queues. For this reason I would now ask respondents to drag and drop only the features they liked into their order of preference.
Assessing the business capabilities, we found that the ordering and delivery systems were already sophisticated and robust, in keeping with the existing demands upon them. This allowed us to continue without worrying unduly about system constraints. Additionally, an express delivery service was in development which aimed to reduce the numbers of tradespeople swinging by for essentials like screws, nails and adhesives.
Benchmarking other products was challenging in this instance. There was no local equivalent, and these apps require a trade account in order to access their features. Instead we identified the flows required and researched those. We also consulted a recent prototype mobile ordering app Placemakers had developed, plus the Mico Plumbing trade portal, also part of the Fletcher Building group.
We wanted to identify and solve the one problem that would generate the most benefits across multiple fronts, and become the design process's North star. That problem was, how do we answer the customer's abiding question:
“Where’s my stuff?”
With that in mind we returned to the original solutions and made the necessary changes:
The mobile app felt even more appropriate now than before. Phones were even more integral to the industry than expected, and the customers were so receptive to the app that we were convinced it could solve the central problem, and more.
The drive thru scope was reduced in the belief that app usage would reduce the queues more effectively. Limited signage and digitisation of the collection process would suffice, and therefore coffee and free wifi would not be necessary.
To drive adoption with the target audience, the app would need a comparatively rich feature-set for a minimum viable product:
- Secure, low-friction registration for existing trade account holders
- Online ordering including custom favourite products
- Quoting possibly requiring message threads with the local branch or trade rep before approval
- Quoting notifications such as when pricing was revised or when the quote was submitted or resubmitted for customer review
- Scheduled collection or delivery options including some atypical elements such as truck size and people required to unload, which may require message threads and confirmation
- Order confirmation and other notifications for various ensuing stages
- Delegating tasks such as orders, collections or receiving deliveries
- Inviting subcontractors or apprentices as delegees
- Delegation notifications such as task or invite accepted
- Order ready for collection or on its way notifications including delivery truck tracking map
- Delivery rescheduling message threads if the customer does not have enough staff on site to take delivery, or driver cannot access the site for any reason
- Store and trade rep finder
Jaz defined the primary user flows, while I focused on the UI. There were crossovers in common with our broad skill sets, so she provided valuable UI suggestions, and I designed a few of the shorter flows.
Secure, low-friction registration
Jaz negotiated with Fletcher Building's security analysts to allow the introduction of Cloudcheck online ID verification, to keep the registration for app users as fluid as possible.
Once the app was installed, it prompted the user to enter their details so it could find their trade account or an invite from an account holder.
Third party ID verification service Cloudcheck removed the need for the user to supply other evidence such as trade account statements, and wait for manual approval.
Once the user's ID was verified, their mobile number was used to look up their trade account, and registration was done. Account holders could then invite their team.
Orders, status and sorting
Very early in this part of the process I realised we would need an order summary element, and proposed these tappable order summary cards. I also suggested we prototyped and tested the Orders & Deliveries flow as proof of concept, which we did and which was well-received by the test participants.
It took time to decide the final order of the details in the summary, but our research had revealed that these were the essential pieces of information to include.
The sorting options depended on the chosen tab and mostly they appeared in order of ETA, but there was a job name option to assist larger construction companies.
The prototype UI was kept as minimal as possible, with stock icons and fonts, but the traditional traffic light status colours were included to communicate order status.
Express deliveries was a pilot service intended to help with a common scenario where tradespeople unexpectedly ran out of essentials like screws, nails and adhesives. Such items generally don't get quoted, so they can be overlooked. Using this service, these items could be on-site in under one hour. Because the pilot would require a courier company partner in smaller centres until a signwritten fleet could be established, items were limited in size and weight.
This service was accessible directly from the app's main nav, and filtered out bulky items that third party couriers would not accept.
While lengths of wood required a different delivery option, I still resolved how to add such items if the service grew.
The order could be easily assigned to new or existing job numbers and delivery addresses before finally being placed with a tap.
Orders could be delegated to team members at any stage. Additionally, a separate team member could be assigned to take delivery on-site or collect in-store.
Assigning team members was easy. Our research confirmed that the ability to delegate to multiple team members would probably cause more problems.
Team members could be easily stood down or deleted, and their permissions managed in line with the fleeting working arrangements of the industry.
The dashboard was deliberately designed last, in order to avoid constant revisions as other features and flows were finalised.
We avoided putting account balances etc on the dashboard because this was sensitive information that might be viewed when using the app in the presence of other team members.
Depending on whether the app was being used by the trade account holder or a team member, relevant content such as apprentice and LBP (Licensed Building Practitioner) content would be displayed.
The main nav only appeared here and immediately inside each section. Any deeper and the user might be engaged in an information-dense task such as ordering, and prefer extra space for that.
6. User testing
There were two rounds of testing, one with an early prototype of the order and delivery status, and the final testing. Both rounds comprised seven or eight subjects, and all sessions were moderated one-to-one, using Lookback. The subjects were spread across the target audience, from apprentices, to tradespeople, to admin staff and construction company owners, and we also selected subjects that represented more gender and racial diversity.
The first round of testing validated the intention to pursue additional app features at the expense of the drive-thru. The success of the second round of testing led to the final UI design and development of the app being signed-off.
The final UI design and development of the app was outsourced to a third party as per Fletcher Building's policy, and Jaz and I moved on to other projects. The app was released in April 2020, when the nationwide lockdown had ended, but contactless deliveries and collections were still being enforced. This no doubt boosted its early adoption rate. The outcomes were:
Rapid uptake with over 10,000 downloads in the first 60 days
$1m+ revenue from over 2,000 orders in the first 60 days
Booming deliveries due to improved tracking and communications, and the express option's popularity
Reduced queues due to delivery uptake, and also order queries being resolved via the app, not in person
Overwhelmingly positive feedback from the target audience, often singling out the order and delivery features
Award wins at NZ's Best Awards with three User Experience category wins and one in Digital Products
Thanks for reading, and to Jaz Wilkinson for bringing me onboard for this amazing project. Be sure to check out her site.