At Mestamaster we had a problem. As with many early stage startups, a lot of our product features were built as an MVP to test ideas. Our constraints as a young bootstrapped company meant we did not have the luxury of carefully designing things before they were released. However, we were still painfully aware of how things could be better, if we just had the time and resources to iterate things.
As Mestamaster grows, we are now able to start correcting some of those problems, and one of them is accessibility and usability of our app at worksites. And while accessibility is usually associated with born or acquired physiological impairments (such as disabilities), the truth is that we're surrounded by acquired and situational impairments that impact how we use technology.
Accessibility & Usability for Construction Apps
Imagine the following situations:
You have a small accident, and you jam your thumb on your car door while closing it. Nothing too serious, but you are probably going to be sore for a few days. That might make using your phone difficult.
In a really cold day, when you are using gloves, you'd need to write a text message. You either have to take off your gloves, making your hands hurt and slow to move in the cold, or you stumble missing all the keys.
It's super bright outside and you have glares on your screen. You're trying to read what's on your phone, but the low contrast of the text makes it really hard to read.
You have some really loud noises around you. Someone is calling you but you almost miss the call because you did not hear the phone. When you pick up the call you almost can't hear what the other person is saying.
These are examples of temporary factors that impact our ability to interact with technology, simulating visual, motor, auditory and other impairments. While many people are born or acquire physical disabilities that are barriers to technology use, certain situations like these ones will also temporarily do so.
Accessibility (sometimes named a11y for its numeronym) is the discipline that tries to deal with barriers and maximise accessibility to people with disabilities. However, by applying good accessibility practices, we are also increasing the usability for everyone, especially in situations where the circumstances create barriers to the use of technology.
A worksite is full of situations that create barriers, simulate various impairments that make it harder to use technology. I would even argue that usability and accessibility factors, or the lack of consideration for them, have been the number 1 factor for delaying technology adoption by the construction industry.
Apps and digital solution are generally designed by young people in clean, well lit indoors environments, by people who have not been using power tools all day, without any protective gear like gloves and glasses.
So while designing the next version of the Mestamaster App we wanted to have a very high consideration for usability and accessibility, and do what we can to mitigate the impact and barriers created by the construction environment.
Our initial problems
Ok, so as I mentioned we had our problems, that go way beyond accessibility. So let’s break down some of our own issues:
Visual accessibility - Font sizes
That is perhaps the most striking issue from our early prototypes. The confirmation came from one of our test users - they had to help an older colleague updating the status of their tasks because they were not able to read the information on the Screen.
Presbyopia is the natural difficulty to read text up close with the progression of age, and our app cannot only be designed for young people. It was crucial to ship some fixes as soon as possible, even before the release of the new app, given the severity of this problem. This was heavily compounded by the low contrast that we’ll address bellow.
Cognition - Information hierarchy
Another issue we have identified was that the information in our task lists did not follow a good hierarchy according to what is most relevant to the worker. We were also also displaying redundant and repeated information. We have asked from various users what do they consider to be the most important information they need when skimming through the work lists, and tried to remove as much redundant or irrelevant information as possible, and creating emphasis on the most important parts.
Visual accessibility - Colour blindness
Another visual accessibility issue we identified was related to colour blindness. Our early product relied on colour coding to indicate different statuses of tasks. This is especially bad because deuteranomaly, the inability to distinguish between red and green is the most common of colour blindness, affecting up to 8% of males (a demographic that still greatly dominates the construction sector).
Small details that pass undetected are sometimes sufficient to mitigate this issue (ever notice that the red lights in the semaphores of some countries are larger than the other lights). So, to address this issue we also started to incorporate elements in addition to colour, such as icons cues, to ensure that users can easily identify the status of tasks regardless of their colour perception.
Visual accessibility - Contrast issues
Yet another issue that had a high priority was the low contrast in many areas of the app. Again, this was especially bad coupled with the small font sizes. We started to cut down on the use of colour, sticking to neutral backgrounds, and only using colours selectively. This also came naturally once we started considering colour blindness.
The new colour palette was also made with a lot of effort to keep contrasts to WACAG guidelines as much as possible (AA or AAA), and the use of neutral backgrounds improves readability in bright environments.
Validating prototypes at the Worksite
After we acknowledged the obvious things, it was time to take the next step and interview users and identify additional problems. Yet again, a lot of the things we found reinforced that accessibility considerations would be critically important.
Worksites are dusty, noisy and variously lit
This might sound obvious, but the consequences for designing things, not so much. For example, it impacts how we should deliver push notifications - will the person hear/feel them? Will they take their gloves off to see them? Will we be interrupting the workflow? Will we distract the person potentially causing a safety incident? Or for example the relevance of a dark theme - is it effective if there’s dust and smudges in the screen, or would a bright theme still make more sense in a dark environment to ensure readability? These are some of the many questions we’re still trying to answer.
Workers are still a diverse demographic within their uniformity
When we talk about diversity, the construction industry might not be the first thing that comes to mind. However, although still dominated by men, a construction site can be a very diverse environment:
Wide range of ages, from young apprentices to experienced senior workers.
Many language and and cultural backgrounds
Different technology literacy levels and attitudes toward technology
All these factors have a major impact on usability accessibility and inclusion.
Connectivity even in one of the most connected countries on earth
All our interviews and research were made in Finland, one of the most connected countries on earth with an excellent coverage of 3G/4G/5G networks. However, it became clear that even here the internet connectivity is not reliable in construction sites. We need to consider handling temporary network disruptions as a first class use case, not as an edge case.
Fixing issues - unintentionally creating a new visual language.
After the initial prototypes we started to make some wireframes to test them in more realistic scenarios. When it came time to build the high fidelity prototype we thought - why should we change the look and feel of the app? After all this is an app built by technical people for technical people. We don’t like BS, we like to keep things simple.
A new visual language started to emerge. One that is simple, clean, brutal, and yet accessible. Information dense, but easy to read, with a carefully thought information hierarchy, large buttons with plenty of visual and haptic feedback.
Our new app does feels a bit like a prototype, and we think that’s ok. Actually, more than ok, we want to embrace it and put functionality, practicality, utility and usability above anything. We are (digital) builders, building an app for (real world) builders, and we want to focus on that.
Want to help?
We have a LOT of ideas, but we need your help. Reach out to us if you want to join our team, or if you would like to provide feedback. Reach out to us if you want to be a Beta tester for new features and versions of the app before everyone else.
In the meantime, here's some preview of what we're working on: