Blu Homes is a high-end prefab homebuilder that manufactures homes in a factory and ships them to customer building sites. It sells its home designs as products that can be configured based on a menu of options, analogous to how one might customize a car. However instead of choosing between the 2-door or the 4-door, the regular or the sport, customers choose between the 3-bedroom and the 4-bedroom, the regular kitchen or the one with upgraded appliances.
When a customer purchases a Blu Home, there are 50 or so categories of options where decisions must be made (e.g. cabinet layouts, plumbing fixtures, tile, countertops), and they all have an impact on either the cost or appearance of the home. When I first started with the company, our salespeople were using PDFs to convey what options were available to customers. Problem was, there was no real-time feedback with pricing or the visualization of customer choices. As one might imagine, this was a huge time and cost burden for our sales, finance and design teams. They had to explain what was available to customers, create custom estimates and tediously generate personalized renderings from several perspectives. To address this problem, I was tasked with spearheading an initiative to develop a 3D web-based application that would allow customers to simultaneously experience our homes spatially, to discover our products’ numerous permutations and to receive real-time pricing for their selections. At the time, nothing like it existed in our industry.
The project went through a several iterations before it launched, including as a 2D configuration tool and a 3D one that lacked pricing and some graphical features. Throughout the process, feedback was solicited from salespeople, our design team and customers. They influenced how options were selected, the 3D navigation system and how home configurations were saved to access later.
The customization tool we ended up with has three types of navigation: exterior orbital, interior walk-through and 3D birds-eye pan/zoom. We conducted user testing with customers, internal employees, friends and family to make the system intuitive. Several rotation and walking speeds were evaluated so customers could move around efficiently without feeling nauseous. Users can explore the homes by clicking and dragging on the environment, tapping on screen buttons or pressing keyboard arrows. We also enable USB Xbox gamepads. Customers can even change their viewing height to personalize the home exploration experience.
One of the most innovative features in the Blu Homes Configurator gives users the ability to select and customize palettes. In an earlier build, the Configurator had over 50 categories in which to choose specifications. This gave customers a high level of control but it was time consuming, designs often came out unattractive and it often overwhelmed users. Palettes solve this by grouping together several categories of specifications in a given room, such as cabinets, flooring, countertop, backsplash and wall paint color. Blu's product designers make sure materials in the different palette categories look cohesive together. Customers can now make one selection instead of five. If they still want to tweak an individual category however, the configurator still allows for it.
In 2011 the customization tool launched publicly with a press release.
Blu Homes was a startup so I wore many hats while the customization tool was being developed. My role was part project manager and part software architect. I designed the initial UI mockups and storyboards, developed early configurator 3D models, defining their standards, and built the content management system from scratch. Feedback was overwhelmingly positive, especially from our salespeople, who suddenly could offload the specification selection process to their customers. Home buyers were also happy to leisurely customize their home on their own schedule without feeling rushed. By the time I left Blu Homes, three years after the tool’s launch, customers had saved over 30,000 home configurations.