Purpose: Until now, the usage and usability factors associated with AEC–FM standards have remained largely overlooked. This oversight could be a potentially significant factor in the adoption rates as well as effective utilization of such advanced solutions in the AEC–FM industry. Therefore, from a conceptual and theoretical viewpoint, the purpose of this paper is to address this gap in understanding and enhancing the usability aspects of standards such as construction operations building information exchange (COBie) over its spreadsheet representation. Besides, findings from this study and the proposed theoretical fundamentals to enhance the usability and functionality of COBie spreadsheet representation could potentially lay the foundation for a VisualCOBie approach. Design/methodology/approach: The iterative steps of design thinking and agile development are harmonized to form the main research methodology. Design thinking is useful in problem (re)formulation, and agile development is useful in iterative software development. The approach aims to identify and understand the needs and requirements of the AEC–FM users from the standardized approaches and associated IT solutions; and formulate the main features and functionalities of the proposed solution. The methodology supports the aim of generating a broad range of possible solutions instead of coming up with the “right” solution. Findings: Despite the standards and associated IT developments, the AEC–FM industry still suffers from inefficient information management. To date, most initiatives have focused on utilization of the outputs from different IT solutions in terms of accuracy and completeness of the data defined in the standards. This research found that well-established standards such as COBie and corresponding IT solutions are not merely technical issues, but it is equally important to understand how the end-users cognitively perceive and process them. The developed solutions need to address user point of view to facilitate wider utilization of these standards in practice. Research limitations/implications: In this research, Gestalt’s visual perception principles have been used to evaluate the usability issues of COBie spreadsheet. Although Gestalt principles provide a valid and proven viewpoint, there can be other cognitive principles that could also be taken into consideration. Originality/value: The usage and usability factors associated with AEC–FM standards have remained largely overlooked, indicating a gap in the literature. This gap was considered as a potentially significant factor in the adoption as well as effective utilization of such standards and advanced solutions in the AEC–FM industry. By grounding the research in cognitive and usability perspectives of information exchange standards, the authors demonstrate how such theoretical underpinning can lead to innovative solutions. © 2019, Emerald Publishing Limited.