High Winds, Glare, and No Electricity: Designing for Users in Extreme Conditions
According to legendary designer Charles Eames in a 1972 interview, “Design depends largely on constraints.” He went on to say:
“Here is one of the few effective keys to the Design problem: the ability of the Designer to recognize as many of the constraints as possible; his willingness and enthusiasm for working within these constraints. Constraints of price, of size, of strength, of balance, of surface, of time, and so forth. Each problem has its own peculiar list.”
It’s no different for user experience (UX) designers, who need to fully understand and consider the constraints at play when designing a product. Our users’ context often introduces a set of environmental constraints, for example, whether they are outdoors or indoors, in a noisy environment or a peaceful one, and so on.
Chantal Jandard currently works as a product designer at PlanGrid, a company making technology for the construction sector. We asked her to share her experiences designing for users in extreme conditions, like construction workers on skyscrapers or people in low-income rural India, and how she deals with these environmental constraints.
UX designer Chantal Jandard on designing for constraints
How did you get into UX and product design?
I was really into Neopets as a kid, and that’s how I learned HTML and CSS. I didn’t even realize you could copy and paste, so I used to write code out on paper then type it into Notepad. I thought the only job you could have in technology was as a webmaster, which I wasn’t into, so I went to school for psychology instead. Through a web redesign co-op job, I got to do focus groups and information architecture, and I learned design was a career path. I was hooked.
Tell us about the EyeCheck project.
EyeCheck was one of my first Android projects. Google Material Design had just come out as well. The EyeCheck team had developed an algorithm that could use a photo of the eye to detect any abnormalities (like cataracts) and create a prescription. The initial proof-of-concept app was going to be tested in rural India. The goal was to allow optometrists to triage patients more effectively at free pop-up eye clinics that are often overrun with demand.
There were a lot of constraints for the design — the app needed to be super minimal, as energy efficient as possible, and ready to go for an upcoming trip the team was making.
How did you design for those constraints?
One key consideration was energy consumption, as the app was going to be used in a context with limited access to electricity. I had many conversations with the developers on the energy cost of certain hardware features, like vibrations or sound. The idea of user delight or fancy animations were out of the question. I also spent time researching questions like, “If I show a black pixel, does that take as much power as a white pixel?”
I also needed to consider the global audience for the app, in terms of color, text, and layout. The algorithm was picky, and eyes had to be placed in a particular location for the app to work properly. In the end the UI used a pair of glasses to get the photographer to line up the subject’s face, and then the camera icon becomes active. This solution tested well with users, and reduced the need for help text.
The app worked best when the pupils were fully dilated, and so was used in a fully dark room. The color palette took this into account, avoiding bright colors to limit pupil contraction.
What are some of the overlaps with EyeCheck and your work at PlanGrid?
Both EyeCheck and PlanGrid enable people to do great work in constrained, challenging circumstances — and a solid user experience is key.
PlanGrid builds technology for construction. In the past, construction plans were on big, heavy sheets of paper, which get wet and damaged easily. PlanGrid changes that by making plans digital and easily accessible on mobile devices. The PlanGrid platform also serves as a collaboration tool to help track tasks on job sites, and manage the submittal process across entire construction projects. We’re reducing paperwork and inefficiencies in the construction sector.
How does UX design help people to do hard work?
In construction, there are lots of constraints to consider, and very high stakes environments. You hear stories about how stressful job sites are, how fast you have to work, and how many tasks must be completed. There is so much going on constantly, and people are grappling with really hard problems.
For example, PlanGrid gets used on lots of hospital projects. Hospitals are really complicated, since there are so many specifications and regulations to be considered for the needs of hospital employees and patients. With so many details that have to be accounted for, tackling complicated projects on paper is extremely error prone. Ultimately, the rework required to fix those errors costs the projects and their workers considerably large amounts of valuable time, money, and materials.
A big part of our job at PlanGrid is to give people their time back and help them go home sooner. In construction, schedules are so important that people end up working a lot of overtime. Our customers report being able to save six-and-a-half hours per week using PlanGrid. It’s amazing being able to design something that not only helps reduce rework, but also gives people more peace of mind and time to enjoy their lives. It’s a really rewarding space to work in.
What were the design considerations that went into creating an app for use on construction sites?
As with the EyeCheck project, doing research in context with our users is extremely important. There are lots of opportunity to spend time on job sites and to shadow our users. Actually experiencing the work environments makes a big difference because it helps us refine our product to the given contexts.
For example, we learned on a job site that we have to account for a lot of “being outside” factors such as the sun and how strong glare can be. On construction sites, a lot of phones and tablets have very beefy cases and anti-glare screen protectors. We realized once we saw them that the shade of yellow we were using was not visible under the anti-glare screen.
Something else to consider is that a lot of job sites may not have Wi-Fi or even electricity, so we have to build features and functionality that can work in offline mode. When I worked on search, we had to think about how to deliver useful and accurate search results without any of the server side features that can help adjust queries, like “Did you mean…” The developers did a lot of work to figure out what was possible for an offline mode search, and that added technical research helped us build a solution that works seamlessly offline, and helps deliver on our mission to make construction projects more productive.
What’s something that has surprised you in your UX career?
When I was first starting out I thought I needed to have all the answers. Over time, I was more successful when I changed my mindset and saw my role as more of a facilitator that helps the team get to the right place. That reframing has helped me a lot. I feel less like I’m carrying the responsibility of getting everything right. It’s better for the team too.
What’s your advice for people just starting out in design?
Seek out tricky projects. With EyeCheck I had no idea how I was going to do the project, but I learned so much. Give yourself checks and balances in your process, like getting feedback from developers or your clients, to make sure that you can deliver a good solution for people. It’s also important to get to know your users and their context before you go forth and design, like we spend time doing at PlanGrid.