Before Drawboard's Founder and CEO, Alistair Michener worked in software, he was a full-time engineer. His colleagues would conduct design reviews with paper copies, marked up and passed around by hand. Michener found these paper workflows terribly inefficient and was looking to create a better way, one that combined the advantages of digital technologies with pen and paper familiarity. He started work on 'Drawboard PDF’ to bring a better solution to the market.

Drawboard came to PDFTron over seven years ago after a bad experience with another PDF SDK vendor, and the decision paid off. Soon after licensing PDFTron’s Core SDK for Windows Mobile in 2013, Drawboard PDF started gaining success with users. Today, Drawboard PDF is the best-selling Architecture, Engineering, and Construction (AEC) productivity app on the Microsoft Store available across stylus-equipped Windows Surface Devices.

In 2015, the company also launched its AEC project management and communication platform, ‘Drawboard Projects’ (formerly Bullclip) and again turned to PDFTron for key document processing functionality, thus extending its Drawboard PDF experience so teams worldwide could communicate on all their design project documents in real-time, across their browsers, desktop, and various mobile devices.

As Drawboard continues to rack up wins, growing from a startup of just a few people to a fast-growing company raising US $4M in March of 2020, Drawboard's founder is enthusiastic about partnering with PDFTron.

Michener stated: "PDFTron was the best choice for our needs and the needs of our customers. It gives us stability, knowing they will be around, and our customers know that we provide a reliable and long-term solution. When you work with the AEC industry, this is important for the tier one customers."

Business Challenges

  • Drawboard aspired to design web and mobile apps that would let AEC users collaborate on PDF files as intuitively as with pen and paper
  • However, new powerful CAD and BIM solutions were leading users to generate progressively more massive and intricate drawings
  • Users demanded simplicity and an enjoyable user experience, something that made their work better, not more complicated

Results with PDFTron

  • Access to a comprehensive PDF SDK and ‘out-of-the-box’ document processing functionality, including broad support for PDF markup
  • Fast, reliable, and high-fidelity rendering for all types and sizes of documents, even large CAD drawings -- critical to products aimed at the AEC market
  • Differentiation from competitors via greater control over the UX with PDFTron’s flexible, open-source UI
  • Peace of mind knowing Drawboard is fully backed for future roadmap requirements and by PDFTron’s rapid maintenance and support
  • Drawboard dev resources can focus on competitive advantage
  • Long-term vendor partnership, including regular collaboration on new feature ideation and development

Background

Construction and engineering projects are fast-paced and demanding, driven by contracts and deadlines. A single mistake in a necessary process could lead to ‘ripple effects’ across a business, creating rework, cost overruns, conflicts, and missed deadlines, stated Michener. Thus, when it comes to the technology powering their document experiences, Drawboard demanded the best.

“Customers will invest a lot of time into finding out where an error occurred, especially if a mistake goes to construction and is built. As soon as your tool is seen as not 100% reliable, even if it’s still 99% reliable, the customer is going to switch off and default to the next lowest common denominator -- the legacy programs or pen and paper,” Michener said.

As such, Drawboard was looking for powerful rendering to handle even its most massive AEC drawings. Intricate, vector-rich PDFs would have to display for users quickly, with details free of blurriness disrupting their ability to read small text or measure. Later, Drawboard would also require fast, high-fidelity rendering in users’ browsers, a challenge for many web-based PDF libraries.

Additionally, a core part of Drawboard’s strategy was to differentiate from other collaboration and AEC markup software with complex interfaces and steep learning curves.

Drawboard COO Scott Cooper explained: “Having someone fully active with the software and being able to use every feature without any training is a huge advantage. But you don’t want to change their process; the process stays the same. It is the digitization of it. If you can make that simple and delightful enough, they will adopt it.”

A flexible viewer UI supporting the complete range of AEC markups so users could fully express their situation was vital. This included free-hand ink, shape, stamps, and comment tools plus support for custom annotations and any other custom UI elements that Drawboard desired to drop in.

Evaluation Journey

After its initial bad experience with another PDF vendor, Drawboard prototyped and experimented with many different PDF technologies to identify the top quality SDK. Several other commercially licensed products were evaluated and tried.

Michener said, “right at the start, we were a very small team, and we put a lot of truth in word of mouth in helping us to make sure we had the best technology. PDFTron came highly recommended. And through our evaluation, we found it was able to differentiate itself in just a few quick steps.”

“PDFTron demonstrated superior speed and functionality out-of-the-box,” he said, adding: “In contrast, the competition took a lot of shortcuts, and it was obvious in the user experience. Often what they would show wasn’t even vector content; it was raster. You would zoom in and it was all pixels.”

“We still often evaluate what’s on the market with PDF SDKs, and when we make visual comparisons of the quality, sometimes there would be missing objects in the PDF from one vendor to another. Stamps or other graphics might be rendered incorrectly. If we were to swap another SDK in for our current one, I would expect customers would definitely notice a difference, which in turn could affect our customer retention.”

Drawboard’s PDF SDK Criteria

  • Rendering performance.
  • Ability to handle opening complex and large engineering drawings
  • Support for annotation custom appearances
  • Support for other file formats
  • Access to lower level SDF layer for future extensibility
  • Support for all platforms, including mobile and web
  • Proven stability and market reputation
  • Rapid support and regular maintenance releases

The Solution

Using PDFTron’s Core SDK, Drawboard built a Windows UWP app quickly and could dive deeper as time went on, adding document collaboration features across other mobile platforms and the web.

Throughout Drawboard’s experience, PDFTron engineers quickly answered any questions, including in the initial design process. “The PDFTron support and development team were incredibly useful and responsive,” stated Michener.

Drawboard also found it easy to drop in and tailor the full range of markup tools to control their look and feel, by building custom annotations and UI elements on top, with an open-source PDFTron UI and annotations offering complete visibility into what could be achieved early on.

Additionally, Drawboard could quickly implement various document processing features and file optimization on its servers using PDFTron. These were designed to work seamlessly with the viewer UI, PDF drawing packages, and other project documents to be broken up and optimized at the source for the best possible viewing experience downstream.

One of the world's 100 biggest architecture practices, Hassell, uses Drawboard Projects to sync its global design collaboration.

Outcome - Phenomenal Growth

Michener stated that with the PDFTron SDK in place, they’ve freed up team resources to focus on the bits of their solution closest to the customer, empowering Drawboard to deliver its apps to market faster and differentiate on the quality of its UX.

Now with a single PDF SDK technology partner, Drawboard feels it is in an excellent position to support further innovation in document collaboration and AEC project management.

The collaboration between the two companies has been very close over the years to the point that Michener admits, "Sometimes we say we use the best-in-class PDF technology, and sometimes we even say we're a PDF technology company, because we know PDF through our partnership with PDFTron."

Michener adds: “We are confident that we will continue to be successful together well into the future due to the wins that both companies experience by leveraging each other's strengths.”

About Drawboard

Easier PDF markup and collaboration. Let's make the paperless office a reality.

Drawboard's design communication platform is Drawboard Projects, trusted by design teams worldwide to eliminate coordination issues. Drawboard's single-user Windows 10 PDF markup application Drawboard PDF has amassed the status of the #1 productivity app on the Microsoft Store. Learn more at drawboard.com.

If you have any questions about how PDFTron SDK can help enable growth for your organization, please feel free to get in touch!