A beginner’s guide to designing for transportation and logistics

As a newbie to the industry, in the past year I’ve learnt a lot about the importance but also the complexity of logistics and transportation. And as a product person and designer, I’ve learnt some valuable lessons that I hope others can learn from too.

In this post I’ll cover; why you should care about logistics and transportation, why it’s a hard but rewarding industry and user group to design for, and key pointers I’ve learnt from the design process.

My colleague Elliot (PM) and I on a site visit, understanding process

Why should I care about logistics?

More of us are shopping by clicking online than ever before. E-commerce will likely account for 20.4% of global retail sales by the end of 2022, up from only 10% five years ago (Statista)

The rise of e-commerce and consumer expectations, has driven the demand for omni-channel distribution and rapid delivery.

“10 years equivalent of Online delivery penetration due to Covid-19” (Mckinsey Metadata report)

Yet the secret sauce behind these ecommerce experiences isn’t always clear to the naked eye.

Source: Cazoo Analyst Presentation — May 2021

This is where logistics comes in, and just as importantly, the people, processes and technology responsible for successful logistics operations. To meet changing customer needs, supply chains simply need to move faster than they used to.

Source: Cazoo Analyst Presentation — May 2021

The real innovation behind our new era of one-click delivery convenience, isn’t just the front door of the website. It’s the people, processes and tooling used behind the scenes to get that late night snack, fried chicken burger, nappies, you name it… into your hands within minutes. Or in our case, that car to your door in 48 hours.

And designing for logistics users is hard. As my colleague Divyen writes, ‘colleagues are the lifeblood of our business’ and the challenge of designing for them is one that can ultimately drive amazing customer experiences, like at Cazoo.

So, what is logistics?

Logistics refers to the overall process of managing how resources are acquired, stored, and transported to their final destination.

The goal of logistics or distribution management, is to have the right amount of a resource or input at the right time, getting it to the appropriate location in proper condition, and delivering it to the correct internal or external customer. (Investopedia)

This model applies to pretty much any business that sells products to customers; the differentiation tends to come from the ownership of those different steps in the supply chain, or use of third parties.

Within logistics, specific areas such as warehousing, transportation, yard and terminal activities all play a crucial role. Storing and preparing items for movement in the warehouse, planning and transporting those items between sites, and preparing for the intake or delivery of those items from sites.

This post focusses more specifically on transportation, the area I’ve worked most closely in.

One of our multi-car transporters (MCTs)

Who are the main characters involved, in transportation?

In distribution and transport, there are 3 main stages of the product journey. Each has a crucial role to play in getting products from source to customer, and sometimes back again (returns, cancellations, part exchanges).

Miles, the first mile

Getting the product into the company.

E.g. purchasing items from vendors, auction, customers or manufacturers.

Malcom, the middle mile

Getting cars from distribution centres, storage or prep, to the delivery hub, where last mile begins. Often the least prioritised, but where some of the biggest efficiencies can be made.

Nicknames: Trunking, Tramping, The Invisible Mile.

Millie, the last mile

Getting the product to customers. Often the most recognisable, customer facing step of the journey.

E.g. delivering to customer homes, on a moped, bicycle, delivery van or even an HGV.

Each of these steps has a crucial role to play in getting that juicy burger, that new jumper or that snazzy new car, into your hands.

Where have I seen these characters before?

Now, you may well recognise some of the different stages and characters involved already. Heavy investment in digital transformation, and recent high profile news stories, have brought to light some of the innovation, but also some of the challenges faced by the industry.

Innovation you may have seen

Amazon. Not much new to be said, but one of the biggest companies in the world, prioritises speed and convenience above pretty much anything else. The website provides the personalised front-door, but their world-class logistics operation powers the convenience we’ve all become so accustomed to. Their transport fleet now includes planes, trains, trucks and drones.

Prime Air

Last-mile delivery start-ups. If you live in a large, urban metropolitan area like London, you’ve probably seen heavily branded cyclist and moped riders with deliveries on their backs.

Companies like Gopuff, Zapp, Getir, Gorillas, Delivery Hero. These are the more customer facing, brand heavy, logistics innovators. They’ve brought awareness to the last-mile and the benefits of nimble delivery and strategically placed distribution centres (or dark stores).

Getir, one of the many urban delivery start-ups

Innovation in this space has focussed on improving the speed of the final delivery, particularly in urban areas that were previously harder to reach.

Innovation you may not have seen

What you likely won’t be as visibly aware of, is the innovation happening further upstream in supply chains; the digital transformation of very physical operations. Warehouse automations, optimised route-planning and load building, AI-powered damage checks, predictive analytics, resource (driver) allocation and improving the driver user-experience too.

Automated warehouse packing by robots, as seen at Ocado.
Uber Freight, showing world-class digital products aren’t just for consumers

Challenges you may have seen

The crucial role of well functioning supply chains and the power of logistics in the modern consumer world, has been brought to light even more so by a few recent events.

As a consumer of goods, you’ve likely read about, and without realising, felt the impact of a couple of incidents or trends.

The Suez canal incident showed, in meme-worthy fashion, the downstream impact of just one major shipping lane becoming blocked up, on the supply of everyday consumer products. About 12% of global trade passes through the canal each day (see ‘the cost of the Suez Canal Blockage’ for more).

And more recently, you’ve probably seen in the news the impact the shortage of HGV drivers has had on transportation; not enough skilled drivers, meaning fewer trucks and deliveries on the road.

The UK has an ‘estimated shortfall of 100,00 drivers’ (iNews)

Challenges you may not have seen, that make it hard to design for

As a consumer though, you’re probably less aware of some of the industry wide trends that make logistics, and designing transformative experiences, challenging.

Common pain points emerge, often from traditionally very physical, manual and traditionally run businesses:

  • The lack of end-to-end visibility of goods
  • Highly manual processes
  • Inefficient communication channels
  • Lack of insights, analysis or forecasting from data
  • Inefficient and costly use of transportation, drivers, third parties
  • Multiple internal and third party tools, not integrated or working together

People often save the process from falling over on its knees. They paper the cracks, develop work-arounds, and become super-knowledgable about their part of the chain, ultimately saving that final delivery of burger / clothing / car, to the consumer.

The challenge, as a designer, is unpicking these complex mental models, and helping to design processes, internal tooling and the right mix of 3rd party products, to alleviate the human strain.

What makes logistics and transportation so hard, is not just the pressure to get the process right, but to do it as efficiently as possible. With the fewest drivers, in the shortest time, in the fewest miles.

And this is where the limits of people can often be maxed out.

What does that mean for product and design?

Now, hopefully you have a glimpse of the complexity behind supply chains and the importance of logistics itself within. From a product and design perspective, it’s a tough nut to crack.

Enterprise design, focused on logistics, requires a broad range of product discovery, service design, user research and interaction design skills to get right. This is why working with a multi-disciplined design and research team, dual track discovery & delivery with engineers and regular co-creation with users, is so crucial.

Key pointers in the design process

Here are 6 key pointers to bear in mind, when designing products and services in logistics and transportation.

  1. Sweat the basics, don’t over complicate, get the foundations in place.

Understand key processes and make sure the basics are in place before jumping to shiny new solutions. It can be easy to get distracted and excited by some of the consumer facing innovations, but getting the fundamentals in place can have a bigger impact in the long run.

2. Prototype fast. Use Google Sheets, use no-code solutions.

Challenge assumptions early, and if possible, build things that work operationally and learn as you go. Utilise lower risk solutions to prototype before committing to code. Tools like Bubble, Glide and Airtable can help you build and test solutions, without the need for engineering effort.

3. Build bespoke, only when necessary. Understand what are unique challenges, and what are common and already solved.

Tools like Wardley mapping can help you understand what problems are already commoditised and solved, versus problems you need to design for yourself. A good example might be maps and routing, already solved for thousands of companies.

4. Consider the user’s physical environment.

Covid and remote working prevented in-person research for a while, but don’t forget not everyone is working from their spare bedroom office. Particularly those users involved in logistics. Get out into the field and get a feel for how people truly operate in their working environment.

5. Balance the relationship between user and stakeholder.

In enterprise design, the lines can blur between users and stakeholders. Try to keep an element of distinction and prioritise needs effectively . Not every feature request should be taken literally, it’s worth unpicking the real need behind the pain.

6. Be willing to accept there is a limit to product discovery.

Service design, user research, product discovery, understand phases. Whatever you call it, there can be a limit to its value if you don’t have the right people involved (you may even need someone with a PHD in optimisation).

7. And remember, even Amazon haven’t cracked logistics yet.

Amazon’s trucking network alone presents them with ‘over ten octovigintillion possible routing solutions’ (Amazon), hence why they have a team of specialists working on solving these problems continually. It’s a continuously evolving problem space, that changes as customer orders, delivery locations, drivers and many other variables continue to grow and evolve.

To summarise

Hopefully now you have a slightly better understanding of why you should care about logistics, even just as a consumer and not as a product manager or designer.

As a person involved in product development, although it’s a hard area to design for, it’s also incredibly rewarding. By taking a few key principles into consideration, it can make life a lot easier. With these in mind, it can support your design process as you help transform this vital industry; key to so many of the products we purchase and use everyday.

Think you can come and work in the Operations Design or Product teams? Cazoo yeah you can! Check out our openings.

Credit: Chris Harding, Andrew Garner, Divyen Sanganee and Elliott Perks for helping to wordsmith.

--

--

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store
Rupert Wood

Rupert Wood

Doing, learning, occasionally writing. Currently Principle Designer / Consultant at Lighthouse.