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August 27, 2020

The Art and Science of Simplifying the Complexity of Global Trade

The Art and Science of Simplifying the Complexity of Global Trade


Flexport’s mission is to make global trade easy for everyone. And sometimes that happens in unexpected places: not diplomacy or macro-economics, but design.

User research has proven what Flexport founder Ryan Petersen discovered when he and his brother started an import business 15 years ago: The systems of global trade are not easy to use. The entire global economy—an economy that today is largely digital—runs on a $2T freight forwarding industry that hasn’t fundamentally changed in decades.

A simple question, like “Where is my stuff?” is hard to answer because there is no one source of truth. It can take more than 15 companies to move a single shipment from origin to destination. Today, few of those companies operate on the same platform or even the same medium: email, phone, fax and paper documents are all viable in the world of global shipping.

And as the last generation of employees who were comfortable using a fax machine ages out of the logistics workforce (nearly 20%, according to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics) there’s a pressing need to evolve how those on the forefront of global trade interact with its systems. The future generation of logistics workers won’t accept anything less than a consumer-grade experience.

Resetting the Bar for ‘Easy’

The Flexport Design and Research team defines easy not only to mean user-friendly, but productive and efficient. Easy must mean that users are empowered and can scale their output. And everyone includes consignees, shippers, partners, carriers, and other partners involved in global trade.

Making logistics easy for everyone means developing the common language for trade:

  • Standardizing workflows
  • Digitizing structured data
  • Providing a single source of truth
  • Integrating workspaces

Ultimately, it’s about building a modern logistics platform that shows exactly where your shipment is at all times.

Flexport’s design process starts by establishing a deep understanding of the user's needs across different personas. From there, solutions are arrived at by balancing research insights with business goals, following these principles:

  1. Everyday value through built-in fluency: The product should become easier to use the more you interact with it. How? By enabling learned shortcuts, removing redundant work based on user preferences and behaviors, and applying consistent design patterns.

  2. Trust and confidence through transparency: As we move towards a world filled with automation, the human touch will increasingly become a value-add. By sharing successes and mistakes with users, the design team aims to inspire confidence with consistency, reliability, and quality.

  3. Infinite data, finite presentation: Too much information can clog progress. We believe in only providing data that is relevant to the user’s current task.

  4. Design for control: Inspire a perception of control through customization and choice. When something goes wrong, clearly explain the reason and suggest a remedy.

  5. Just enough, just In time: Guide users through experiences, allowing them to learn as they go. Instead of overwhelming the user with everything they may want to see, we show just what they need to get their current job done.

These principles continually guide the way we approach tackling customer challenges:

Information Transparency

Problem: Consumers today can easily track packages, food deliveries, and rideshare services directly on their phones. And yet with millions of dollars of cargo on the line, supply chain managers can’t easily do the same for freight.

Solution: Flexport redesigned the client experience with a focus on tracking and surfacing the most up-to-date cargo information—available with the click of a mouse. We started by setting clear expectations and performance metrics, so businesses know when to expect their shipments. Then, we organized the movement of freight in logical milestones so users can find the information when they need it—just like a well organized closet. When things go wrong, they see only the information needed to make a decision. And it’s all integrated in one workspace, eliminating the need to hunt for different tools to get work done.

Unlocking Trustworthy Data

Problem: Data can come from a multitude of forms, PDFs, emails, and spreadsheets used throughout a shipment’s lifecycle. Without proper validation, there’s no telling how accurate it is.

Solution: A foundation of clean and structured data is necessary to unlock automation and prediction in global trade. Flexport builds tools to digitize, structure, and validate data to create the most accurate digital representation of a shipment. Digitization products automatically detect and pull information from documents that are sent to us. That data is checked against multiple sources before being saved and propagated throughout our system. When we need to share information with other required partners in the shipping process, our document-filing products facilitate real-time validation and guidance. This helps ensure information can be handed from one party to the next with minimal errors and maximum reliability.

Standardized Workflows

Problem: Logistics is often compared to a relay race, where different operators perform different tasks to move the shipment forward. Today when logistics operators get into work in the morning, there is no way of knowing what needs their attention first. They spend time hunting around for what work remains to be done, which results in a highly inefficient workflow due to context switching.

Solution: Flexport has designed a work queue that groups together all shipments with similar tasks into a single workspace. This standardization not only focuses attention to one task at a time, it allows for batch action and automation that helps scale operations.

Bookings Made Easy

Problem: Relying on emails and phone calls doesn't lead to collaboration, just more back and forth. Traditionally, bookings are handled the same way and can take days. Meanwhile, buyers and sellers constantly need to collaborate to submit a booking because they have a unique set of information they need to provide to complete a booking.

Solution: For seamless and instant collaboration between two parties, Flexport provides control and transparency to the users just like collaboration on Google Docs. Users can communicate on our platform, which helps us deliver actionable data like the production readiness and shipment schedules, just in time, so users can instantly book—much like how you reserve an Airbnb. This can lead to better rates and on time performance. Flexport believes consumer- grade simplicity in the complex logistics space can make global trade easier for everyone.

Organized and Secure Customs Data

Problem: Products are changing and getting reinvented everyday, with different and new materials from multiple suppliers in different countries. This makes the data complex. Worse, it’s sometimes hidden, statically stored in boring spreadsheets.

Solution: A new product library helps products ship safely and compliantly around the world. The library offers an easy way to store product information so it can be there when needed—and out of the way when not. Trusting data and being transparent about its source is critical. That’s why any addition or change to a product is tracked; in the event of an audit, there is clear documentation of when it happened, where it happened, and who made the change.

Designing the Future

Looking ahead, the Flexport Design Team continues to study how customer challenges evolve and develop. And with that, design solutions to ensure simple and effective workflows. Next on our punch list:

  • Standardize and automate more complex workflows to help customers, vendors, and partners operate effectively at scale.
  • Digitize and structure more data points to establish the common language for global trade.
  • Unify the user experience across the Flexport platform so customers and vendors can work collaboratively, making global trade easy for everyone.

Learn more about the Flexport Design Team and check out our career opportunities.

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