Countfire is a self-funded SaaS startup based in London. Their industry-leading takeoff platform uses SVG image recognition and intelligent automation to allow electrical estimators to count symbols on multiple technical building plans in seconds (takeoff software).
I was the Product Designer at Countfire, for wire-framing and prototyping I used Figma. The platform was built in React and TailwindCSS.
Electrical estimators will receive projects to quote on from construction companies. Projects can range in size from a single school or hospital to multi-level office blocks. Electrical estimators will then need to count 1000s of electrical components across tens if not hundreds of building plans - this is known as takeoff. They will then ask suppliers for quotes on all the various components and materials they've counted, before collating it all with labour charges to fit them to send to the building contractor - this is known as estimating.
Before Countfire, calculating the number and type of components would typically be done by hand, printing the floor plans on A1/A0 plotters and highlighting each of the symbols.
Takeoff is only one part of the user journey for electrical estimators, to encourage more companies to adopt the platform, Countfire were looking to become the home of end-to-end estimating.
They also had a free tool for comparing specifications from suppliers, and were working on an estimating solution which processed and output the counted symbol data from the automated takeoffs. These tools though were disconnected from each other and were built using very different design systems, all of which were dated and confusing.
I was lucky to have a team of ex-estimators to help me get to grips with the world of electrical estimating. I spoke to them all regularly, throughout the entire design lifecycle. I spoke to Countfire customers, and to eliminate some bias I also spoke with electrical estimators that weren't Countfire customers - some were still using traditional methods, and some were using competitor's tools.
They helped me to understand how electrical estimators work and their frustrations, but also about the teams they typically belong to - who they report to, who the stakeholders are etc.
Additionally, Countfire had also been collecting user feedback and feature requests from the software using a third-party tool.
Reviewing and analysing the user feedback I found that:
Not only does takeoff software save the estimators a considerable amount of time, but it also increases the accuracy of counting symbols - which is a pain point for estimators as any mistakes can be extremely costly. An estimator once told me that winning a job was a horrible feeling, as you questioned why your quote was the cheapest, “...did I make a mistake or miss something out?”.
If estimating companies are not well-organised it can be difficult to keep on top of all of the documents they are sent from the construction companies. This was even more challenging when companies were forced to work remotely during the COVID pandemic.
Users considered Countfire an expensive option in the market, but conceded that it is the best takeoff software on the market and that it does pay for itself in the time it saves.
Whilst the main user persona would be the electrical estimator, if we take into account end-to-end estimating then we would also need to consider:
- Construction Companies. They produce and send the electrical estimating companies a mountain of paperwork and expect a concise quote in return. Often there will even be amendments midway through the quoting process. Construction companies will ask a number of electrical estimating companies to quote on each job.
- Building/Component Suppliers. Towards the end of the quoting process they will receive an itemised list of components to price from the electrical estimating company.
- Building Contractors. Although labour rates would generally be agreed in advance, rates and availability would need to be confirmed on each project.
- Internal Stakeholders (Directors, Managers and Quantity Surveyors). Although they wouldn't perform the takeoff or estimate themselves, they would be in direct contact with the construction companies and would be expected to be on top of the progress of each project. The stakeholder map below highlights how the electrical estimators are a bottleneck to accessing information and progress on the Countfire platform.
The People Problem
Using this feedback analysis, I defined the people problems I was looking to solve as:
As an electrical estimator, I would like everything relating to the project in one place, especially when working collaboratively with other estimators, and/or from outside of the office.
As an estimating manager/director, I would like an overview of all projects in one place, and to not have to use and pay for multiple tools.
Overcoming the Problem
Understanding the Status Quo
I mapped out the systems and processes needed to takeoff and estimate a project, which can help me better understand any part that can be streamlined, improved or even eliminated. The systems map highlights just how many processes are needed and how organised an electrical estimator needs to be to avoid any errors or delays.
I also interviewed electrical estimators to better understand them. I put together an empathy map of their thoughts, feelings, actions, and comments.
Abstracting the problem can help to overcome any cognitive biases, allowing us to focus on the real, root problem. This actually helped to show me that there were some alternatives which would involve very light development - notifications for example.
The idea I wanted to explore was to combine all takeoffs, estimates, and specifications (and potentially notes, amendments etc. in future) into a single ‘project’. This would turn Countfire from a tool which estimators use as part of the estimating journey, to the single source of truth for the project. This would also allow better visibility for others accessing the project, not having to look in various places for information relating to the project (emails, papers on desks, cloud storage etc.).
Additionally, adding metadata to the project such as due dates, project owners, client, and project type allows us to build a high-level dashboard for better visibility to stakeholders. Stakeholders would be able to search, sort, and filter projects, meaning they could provide the end client with project updates whilst on the phone - without needing to check-in with the estimator first.
Styling and Branding
To improve the user experience I also looked at how to update the interface to make it more aesthetically pleasing, uniform and intuitive. The key stakeholders wanted Countfire to be portrayed as a modern solution which focusses more on quality than it does on price. A brand not mixed in with the conservative crowd, and not as male focussed as a lot of the competition.
Design System and Component Library
I came up with a design system and component to use use across the entire suite of platforms. The design system is our knowledge base on how our platforms should look and behave. It is our single source of truth and makes sure that our platforms look unified and are intuitive to use.
The dark theme first approach, with a strong orange accent highlights Countfire’s innovative and modern offering, in an otherwise traditional and conservative market.
The components were loosely based on TailwindUI - a subsidiary of the CSS framework we were using in this rebuild, TailwindCSS.
I combined everything relating to a quote into a 'project'. The project contains everything needed to takeoff and estimate a project, plus additional materials such as specifications and notes which would otherwise get lost on emails. This means that Electrical Estimators can collaborate on projects without needing to look anywhere else, and Estimating Managers can see up-to-date progress on everything their team is working on.
I also looked at the workflow for working on and managing drawings, which now have progress indicators and notes, and are divided into disciplines.
Aside from very positive feedback on how good the new interface looked, users commented on the new structure and interface as being so much more intuitive to use. Even some underused features which had little change reported more than a 30% increase in usage, just from being moved into the project structure.
More importantly, being able to connect these estimating features into a single workflow meant that Countfire could compete with other end-to-end estimating packages and would no longer be known as just takeoff software.
This is just the beginning and we’ve really just scratched the surface with this update. This new structure allows us to include more collaborative features and add everything relating to a project, for example: dealing with revisions, notifications based on deadlines, estimated costings based on previous activity, and dealing with multiple floors with the same plan.
Simon's ability to think outside the box coupled with a keen eye on industry trends leads him to produce eye catching designs time after time. Simon is extremely approachable and always available to run past ideas. He is great fun to be around. I'd highly recommend Simon.
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