Designing The New Operating System for Global Trade at Flexport

Bridging the gap between technology and human relationships

The design “war room” is where the team comes together to brainstorm product considerations.

Global trade is a relationship business. Humans come together — regardless of their differences — to exchange goods and capital, and technology increases the productivity of this arrangement.

Design bridges the gap between technology and human relationships, and has never been more needed. As the web progresses exponentially, and user experience becomes a major part of business success, traditional and highly regulated industries like freight forwarding remain stagnant. This has produced many unnecessary barriers that — given the right foundation — design is uniquely qualified to address.

Global logistics is a multi-trillion dollar market that has the power to lift millions from poverty and increase global prosperity — as well as spark conflict, increase inequality, and pollute the world. A reconstitution of the mode of coordination is coming and it is important that we get it right.

A peek at the Dashboard

Flexport’s Mission

Flexport’s mission is to fix the user experience in global trade. We are doing this by leveraging software and industry expertise to provide more visibility and control, along with lower transaction cost and cheaper prices. We have developed a global network that is culminating in what we hope will be the new operating system for global trade.

An example of a form that has multiple role outcomes
“Flexport is one of those rare startups that will not merely satisfy its market, but grow it. There will be more international trade because of Flexport, and international trade is a very big thing for there to be more of.”
– Paul Graham, Y Combinator

Working at a “Full-Stack Startup”

Flexport is made up of two equal halves: technology and logistics professionals.

The Flexport team hard at work.

By combining the best of these two worlds, Flexport is redefining organizational workflows and technological abilities that software or industry expertise alone couldn’t address.

Flexport has laid a foundation for great design to happen. The company has knocked down many of the obstacles that a regulated business has to go through. Flexport is a fully-licensed freight forwarder and customs brokerage with the right people to deal with the enormous complexity and relationship maintenance that the industry entails.

Employee 3 year anniversary badge

It was often painful getting to this point, but we now have product-market fit, an amazing team, and an impressive growth rate. Flexport is also well-funded by investors that include Founders Fund, Google Ventures, Bloomberg BETA, First Round Capital, Susa Ventures, and Y Combinator.


Design process: Narrow to broad and back again

The complexity of global trade seems endless. Specific product features open up bigger problems that the design/product team hadn’t considered. The team is constantly moving from the details to the overall concept. Opportunities also seem endless, but focus must be mastered to succeed in an industry that comprises 12% of global GDP.

Flexport works from a 90 day roadmap that is distilled into projects. At the beginning of every project a designer and product manager come together to understand the problem and establish user and business goals. They work independently to generate ideas and sketches, and come back together to share and critique.

Interaction flow example

The design team employs design methods including user interviews, contextual analysis, user testing, and journey mapping to discover and refine insights at the beginning of the project. They then spend most of their time between pen and paper, Sketch, Invision, and in collaboration with PMs, Engineers, and users. This process is repeated until a high-fidelity prototype is developed to test.

A snapshot of the artifacts involved in creating our onboarding flow

After user testing, the prototype is implemented in small batches, which helps further refine and challenge the initial design. This allows the team to benefit from accelerated feedback-loops. These feedback-loops are crucial in the success of the product because of the complex technological and human considerations involved.

User interface that communicates how a shipment has progressed along its intended route

The design team has the luxury of being within a 12 foot radius of customs brokers, salespeople, data scientists, operational leaders, senior management, and engineers of all kinds. Their feedback is crucial to successful design.


Standardization happens after invention

We believe that quality is born out of problem ideation. Breakthroughs on one piece of the design often spur possibilities in other areas. New treatments, patterns and components emerge as we iterate. Our design decisions are then standardized in our library for repeated use and ease of implementation.

A peek at our style guide

Our industry hasn’t yet established the new design patterns for the complex workflow, regulatory, and cross-cultural considerations that we deal with everyday. Taking influence from other apps only gets us so far. We have found that many design cliches promoted in Silicon Valley don’t apply to us, and many of our design solutions are counter-intuitive. And that’s okay.

Wireframe example

Flexport is where design meets the real world. And the real world is often messy, full of exceptions and unexpected results. Embracing that imperfection and breaking out of our comfort zones to untangle complexity has been key to our success.

Shipment route animated transition Idea

We’re hiring

We are looking for amazing people to join our growing team. If you enjoy working on complex problems that have the potential for a major world impact, you might be the right fit for one of our open position.

If you found this article of value please click the ♡ below so others can find this post and follow Flexport Design.

Find me on Twitter, and Dribbble.