I have two questions that I always swing between. We always need to ask: knowing what to build and building what you know. If you spend time between those two questions all the time, you’re doing product design and product management. So if you’re like, “Oh, why should I build this? What is the value to the business? What is the value to customers? What is the value to everything?” That’s your “knowing what to build”. So, you know if this is the right thing to build.
Welcome to the Bricks and Bytes podcast. I’m Owen Jury, and together with my co-host Martin P. Karch, we’ll be interviewing the people involved in transforming the construction and property industries through the latest and most innovative technologies.
Today we talk to Jitesh Ramesh about product design in the construction industry. Gitesh is a Lead Product Designer at Mast. Mast is a cloud enterprise software solution that helps owners and PMOs deliver better capital works projects. Please join us for this exciting conversation with Gitesh Ramesh.
Let me tell you the background on that. When I moved to Australia, my partner and I first had a fixer-upper house, and then we started renovating it. Now we’ve sold that property, and we’re getting into another journey to buy a house, knock it down, and rebuild it. What I’ve found is that, in my observation from moving from India to Australia, there’s a lot of labour shortage in construction, and the craftsmanship is questionable in some cases – it’s a “you get what you pay for” kind of situation. There’s also a lot of emotional trauma that you go through when things don’t go right. So there are a lot of defects and things that don’t get managed well, and when you try to give drawings and plans to construction trades, they probably don’t care. We experienced this ourselves.
I was working for another construction tech company called Aconex, which is a reputed big brand that got acquired by Oracle. I thought, “Well, I’m building all this software for this big company, so why can’t I do something at a smaller level, like a B2C level, where people like you and me can use it and afford it?” That’s where that idea sprouted. Ever since last year, I’ve been just playing around on the side on Saturday mornings, exploring the possibility of building a defect management application for small builders.
ProCall is a mobile app that helps you document and capture photo-based defects, and then you can print out a PDF report that you can share with your builder to hold them accountable for getting things done. You don’t need to manage things in a spreadsheet or WhatsApp, where things can get lost. The app tries to document everything in one place. It’s a project that I’ve been working on with a friend of mine from India, so it’s just the two of us.
I do the design and the research on it. I talk to small builders and find out why they don’t use a defect management process. Most of the time, they don’t care; they can’t maintain quality because they’re constantly switching from one project to another. The homeowner is usually the one who cares a lot more about this, so it’s kind of a friction point. I’m trying to solve a problem, and I’m still trying to find the product-market fit or figure out whether this idea is worth pursuing. It doesn’t cost me much, it keeps my brain engaged, and I can experiment with different things – that’s what I do.
Apart from small builders, I don’t know about Australia, but in the UK, there is a big market for warranties like latent defect warranties for 10 years when you buy a new home. Surveyors and larger builders usually need apps like ProCall to manage the risk mitigation on site in terms of defects for the warranty. So, I wouldn’t limit yourself to just small builders; there’s a huge warranty market for every new build that needs to be warranted, at least in the UK. I’m not sure about Australia.
You actually brought up a good point. As a project, my skills are more around user experience and product design. I don’t have the domain expertise or the market mindset to understand which market I should target. I’m always open to finding someone interested in aligning with my vision, but it’s challenging to find people who are passionate about the project and believe in the problem space, especially in construction technology, which is not fashionable.
You tell a designer, “Hey, do you want to work on a fintech application?” They’ll be like, “Yeah, it’s about money and finance; I want to do that.” But if you ask, “Do you want to work on an app to document defects at a construction site?” they might not be as excited. It doesn’t sound too appealing, but finding someone is part of the journey. Everything is hard, but that is extremely hard. That’s why you network, meet people, and go to events – eventually, you will meet someone, as impossible as it sounds at the start.
Before ProCall, your current role is Lead Product Designer at Mast, and you have a strong background in product management.
So, how were you born in India and ended up in Australia? What does that journey look like? Just a small correction, I’ve only done a bit of product management. I have less than a year’s experience, not even a sabbatical, but rather a secondment in product management. My main experience is in product design.
To go back to my journey, I studied industrial design, focusing on manufacturing tangible, hard products. In the early part of my career, I was a motorcycle designer. You might be aware of Royal Enfield; I worked on one of their models called the Classic. This was in 2000 when we were transitioning from an old platform to a new one. I worked at Royal Enfield as a motorcycle designer for two and a half years.
Then I moved to software, as I found the challenges more engaging. I realised that shaping plastic, metal and glass to make people buy more products was depleting resources and burning non-renewable energy. I felt that software had a more significant purpose than encouraging people to buy motorcycles and be proud of them. So, I made a self-reflective decision to change my career direction.
Since then, I have worked in various software companies, designing interfaces and features for different platforms, including mobile apps, web apps, and client applications. I moved to Australia through a company called Atlassian, known for creating JIRA. Trello was acquired by Atlassian, and I worked with them on their Confluence Cloud platform. My role involved documenting patterns of the software, making it easier for third-party developers to create widgets or macros for the platform. That’s where I spent most of my time in Australia.
Later, I joined a construction technology software company called Aconex. I’ve always loved design, and working at Aconex opened my eyes to the fragmented and opportunistic nature of the construction digitisation space. I worked on a few mobile apps, such as Field, which is a field-based document capturing app. After that, I worked at a fintech company called Airwallex, which helps businesses make payments more efficiently and easily.
So, I worked on a global virtual card proposition, which helps businesses, particularly startups or small businesses, who might struggle to obtain a credit card from a bank due to the lengthy due diligence and application review process. We developed a virtual card proposition where businesses can be issued a web-based virtual card immediately, enabling them to make online purchases. This is particularly useful for software startups that primarily spend on digital products such as software like Atlassian and cloud services. We found an opportunity to bypass the physical product and lengthy timeline, allowing businesses to utilise their funds instantly.
I’m currently involved in another startup journey with Mast, a construction capital works project management software. Mast is actually named after a ship’s mast, and there’s a story behind it. The founders chose the name because their first customer was from the defence nautical industry, specifically the Navy. They wanted to pay homage to that industry by selecting a name closely related to ships. Additionally, a ship’s mast propels it forward and provides direction, much like the visibility Mast offers into projects, helping to drive them under budget, on schedule, and with minimal risk. It reflects the similarities between what a ship does and what Mast does for project management.
Project management is indeed a competitive and complex space. What makes Mast different? Well, without answering the question for you, I believe one factor might be that they have me on board as a lead product, which could make a significant difference. One of the things our product does is provide visibility and storytelling. This ties back to the ship’s mast concept. Our platform is unique because it offers real-time information accessible to anyone, covering all the major KPIs needed for different user bases.
In project management, there are three user segments: portfolio management, programme management, and project management. Our platform addresses all three by rolling up data for each. If you’re a project manager, programme manager, or portfolio manager, you get a comprehensive overview of how your projects, programmes, and portfolios are tracking. This sets us apart and is particularly valuable for owners and clients.
Another aspect that differentiates us is the real-time, single-platform nature of our software, where everyone can work together simultaneously. We aim to bring people together, moving away from isolated data in spreadsheets.
And then you’re trying to merge them together. But once you’ve done all that, you could probably do that in Google Sheets, where you can have real-time collaborative editing. That’s right; the pain points here are actually rolling up the data into meaningful insights, which is something that other spreadsheets or Google Sheets can’t do.
What size or type of projects is Mast designed for? Is it for small, medium, large projects or particular types of portfolios? Can you tell us a bit more about that? Great question. Currently, some of our main customers are involved in infrastructure and capital works, such as government projects. These projects are high value, for example, metro train tunnel projects and other infrastructure projects in Australia. We are also expanding into the US and the Middle East. We believe there is value in medium-sized projects too, and we just need to officially play around with it. But our primary focus is on high-value projects.
As for targeting markets, while we are based in Australia, we’ve been focusing on the Australian market since we started three years ago, during the pandemic. Our plans are to expand into the US, the Middle East, and eventually other markets as well.
As a product designer for both tangible goods and intangible software, how do you see products in construction in the digital space? What’s currently missing, and where are the areas to improve products or types of products? How do you view digital construction? That’s a great question, Martin. I want to reflect on a study, though I can’t recall which organisation conducted it, that said construction is the least digitised industry sector globally. Sometimes fishing overtakes us, and sometimes we overtake them. That’s the story I’ve been hearing.
When you look at construction digitisation, I do think that’s the case. If you consider software industries and the multitude of tools available for video conferencing and project management, there is an abundance. However, in the construction industry, digitisation has ample opportunity for streamlining and collaboration. There are many augmented solutions that do one thing well but are limited in scope, and they don’t communicate well with one another. When I worked at Oracle, the company was championing something called the Common Data Environment.
How do you create a platform where everything can talk to each other, and you have a unified experience? I believe that has huge potential and requires significant investment. It feels like we have the same problem with data as we do with adaptors when travelling between the UK and the US. We can’t agree on standards and circumstances for how data should be transferred from one place to another, just as we haven’t managed to standardise power units across countries. It’s a similar problem in my view.
On another note, you did mention the construction industry itself. I think there is a lot of innovation happening in the construction sector, like drone deployment and surveillance. I had some discussions with a company called Propeller, a Sydney-based scale-up that uses drones for surveillance and provides real-time, high-quality data on project progress. These are examples of innovation and progress in the construction tech sector. However, in the construction digitisation sector, with software for productivity, managing tasks or submitting claims, I don’t think the processes are streamlined.
In terms of construction productivity gains, like 3D printing, there is a lot of innovation happening. But when it comes to improving communication and collaboration processes, there are still massive opportunities for digitisation. Another aspect to consider is the health and safety of construction workers. How do we audit them? How do we provide them with the right information? We can monitor everything, but what about people on construction sites?
The construction labour force is also not in a position to afford something like an Apple Watch. This is not just a Western market issue; it’s a global one, with countries like India and Nepal facing health and safety challenges too. There is immense potential for digitisation in this sector, which is why I love this space.
Some Australian startups are doing great work in this area, like Safety Culture. They conduct research in developing economies and give back to those societies. I’ve seen videos of product designers from Safety Culture going to Nepal to understand their construction processes. It’s more of a product design technique. Facebook had something called 2G Tuesdays, where every Tuesday, the whole company would turn down their internet to 2G speed and experience how their app would work in countries like Brazil, Guatemala, or India.
So now you’re putting yourself in the user’s mindset and experiencing what it is like for them. You can’t rely on rich animations and such; you need to think differently. This is a technique product designers often use, where they try to experience what the actual end user experiences. We used to call it ethnographic studies, where you would go and live with the users and try to learn as quickly as possible. But now, things have changed, and you can do it in other ways. It’s not the same as experiencing all of the user’s life challenges, but it helps to try out what your end users are facing.
Regarding product management and product design, I genuinely believe there is a significant overlap between the two. Within Mast, we use frameworks like Opportunity Solution Trees by Teresa Torres, as mentioned in her book, Continuous Discovery. Our product managers and product designers conduct a minimum of two one-hour interviews every week with users and customers. We test out different things, show them design artefacts or ask questions, then observe, take notes, and make adjustments. This approach has been successful for us.
Going back to the relationship between product management and product design, I often consider two essential questions: knowing what to build and building what you know.
If you constantly oscillate between those two questions – knowing what to build and building what you know – you’re doing both product design and product management. When determining what to build, consider the value to the business, customers, and other aspects. At Mast, we apply various tactics to achieve this, such as interviews, surveys, and being customer-obsessed. Our customer support and customer success teams spend a lot of time helping customers set up and get started, which provides valuable feedback. We use frameworks like RICE (Reach, Impact, Confidence, and Effort) and JTBD (Jobs to be Done), focusing on the situation, motivation, and outcome.
In terms of building a product in the construction or construction tech industry, it’s essential to focus on understanding your users’ pain points and prioritising security, data sovereignty, and data handling. These aspects are more mature in other industries, but the construction tech industry often overlooks them in favour of solving immediate problems. Another crucial factor is accessibility. Many construction tech software products don’t meet minimum accessibility standards for web-based applications, such as colour contrast and keyboard navigation. As a big advocate for accessibility, I believe that it’s not only good for your startup but also for compliance.
If you want to sell your products in certain markets, you need to think about accessibility from the beginning. Nowadays, there are many excellent technology frameworks and tools that can help you achieve accessibility faster without investing a lot of money or resources. I would definitely recommend making accessibility a priority. If you take care of accessibility, a lot of good product design will happen automatically, as it has many best practices embedded within it.
A small example is the minimum font size. Many people don’t think about it, but you need to consider the construction workforce, including those who may have difficulty reading small text. There are proven guidelines for minimum font height and contrast ratios that can be followed to improve readability.
In my opinion, security and accessibility are two key recommendations that should be followed by default, even without a designer on your team. Additionally, consider the potential for your solution to be used on multiple platforms within the construction industry, as mobility is a significant factor. You might want to think about responsive, adaptive solutions that can be used in various contexts.
From a design perspective, my top recommendation would be accessibility, as it brings many other essential elements into the picture.
Let me share my view on design. A lot of designers think that design is important, but I don’t think design is important. I believe people are important. Design is actually a veneer that helps you understand why people are important. That’s why accessibility is important because it allows you to consider the needs of people who are not empowered, such as those with visual or physical impairments, and be inclusive in your design process. By focusing on accessibility, you might approach your design principles differently.
As for resources on product design, I would recommend “The Design of Everyday Things” by Don Norman. Although it is more of a psychology book, it offers valuable insights into design, as Don Norman has worked on Apple design frameworks and user experience. The book outlines three important aspects of product design: the visual layer, the behavioural layer, and the reflective layer.
These three layers can be applied to how we perceive people and products. We first judge based on appearance, and if that is acceptable, we move on to the behavioural layer, where we assess how well something functions. The reflective layer involves deeper understanding and analysis. By considering these layers, you can approach product design more effectively.
So now you’re inspecting, and that’s the behavioural part of it. Now you’re looking at this, like, how does this person or this thing work for me? Do they share the same values? Is it working the way I expect it to work? Can I go out again? Or can I use this product again? So that’s the second layer, which is the behavioural part. Then comes the most challenging one, which is the reflective layer. And this is where a lot of questions come in as well. You can ask a product-market fit question, or an NPS, or like, what would you do if that thing didn’t exist with you? What would you do if that person didn’t exist in your life? Or that thing didn’t exist in your life, right? And that’s the true reflective part of product design. Can you live without this product? Can you live without this person? And this is precisely why I recommend this book because it delves deep into human psychology and how we think about people, products, and everything around us.
As for my favourite books, I don’t have just one. I like reading product design books, and currently, I am going through “Inspired” by Marty Cagan, “High Growth Handbook” by Elad Gil, and “Continuous Discovery” by Teresa Torres. I highly recommend these for anyone working in product teams.
Aside from family and work, my hobbies include motorcycle riding and cycling. I used to have four motorcycles in India, but I had to sell them when I moved. I also enjoy learning to swim, which is my goal for this year.
To find out more about me, you can connect with me on LinkedIn and visit my personal website called lium.studio, where I experiment with various projects, including bonding projects with my daughter and side hustles.
Thanks so much for tuning into this episode of Bricks, and I look forward to the next episode.