Finding Simple Solutions to Complex Problems–with Emojis

Flexport bought a plane! Well, kind of. We’ve leased one, which means we’ve committed to packing an entire Boeing 747 400F, or about roughly 115 tonnes of cargo, multiple times a week.

The sky’s the limit.

I’m a Product Designer on Flexport’s Air Freight team. It’s my job to design the tools that make it possible to ship our clients’ air freight reliably and affordably. Flexport is a freight shipping company for businesses. Brands use Flexport to ship their products from the factories where they’re made, to the places where they’re sold. We’re building software to make global trade easy for everyone.

Efficiently packing square cargo into a circular vehicle is tricky. If you don’t do it right, you end up with a lot of wasted space. And wasted space is wasted money, as air capacity is both limited and expensive.

So, how do you get as much cargo as possible onto a single flight?


Consolidation is the blending of different shippers’ cargo into a single, irregularly-shaped airline “container” to maximize its utilization.

Airline containers (right) with cross section of loaded plane (left).

It’s kind of like Tetris, but as if you were trying to fit all of the tiles into a circle. And if the tiles had to balance when tipped 15 degrees and bounced around.

Combining various shippers’ cargo tends to provide a wider variety of box sizes and shapes, to better fill the available space.

It’s complicated

Consolidation happens at the origin port (Hong Kong, for us), in a warehouse. Truckers travel to shippers’ factories, rounding up shipments from various locations to deliver to our warehouse. Once a shipment passes into our hands, we measure and weigh it.

Next, our software automatically assigns each shipment a measurement group based on its dimensions and weight. These assignments are extremely valuable since it makes it easier for our air planners to recommend the ideal combination of heavy and light packages of varying dimensions.

Lots of yelling, clipboards, text messages, paper, and eventually, data entry traditionally make up consolidation work. We wanted to create a solution that would improve current processes and could be quickly understood by our origin and destination teams.

Enter emojis!

Cargo labels.

One of the biggest challenges is keeping track of how freight is represented in software. If we get 150 boxes in 3 very similar sizes, it’s difficult to create a cargo representation that can effortlessly transition from paper to page.

Representing cargo as visual images helps the warehouse staff communicate. Nobody confuses twenty hot dogs for twenty dancing men. Emojis offer quicker visual recognition than a series of numbers.

We used emojis as the basis for ‘onboarding’ cargo into our system, but we think they can be used for so much more.

How did we get here?

We couldn’t design anything until we knew who we were designing for, so we went to ground zero: the Hong Kong International Airport, where our partners currently perform consolidation.

We documented an entire team of consolidation experts’ workflows in an attempt to create better software, and ultimately an improved customer experience. These consolidation experts have a wealth of expertise and the collaborative nature of consolidation was especially inspiring. It takes a lot of people to build an air container successfully.

Meeting and observing our users in the place they work was critical to the formation of our design. Ethnographic research allowed us to see the process through the eyes of our users and break down the problem into digestible chunks.

To keep track of everyone’s roles, we developed a family of key personas. These personas helped us understand each individual’s goals, needs, and idiosyncrasies. We developed the following personas and using familiar processes built a new toolkit for receiving and loading cargo.

The warehouse personae.

Warehouse, meet cargo

Arthur, the intake coordinator, formally introduces the shipments to Flexport. This begins our physical relationship with the cargo.

We’re responsible for it now, which means we must make the tough decisions: which flight it should travel on, which warehouses it should pass through, which truck driver should handle it, and so on.

We’ll guide the shipment through its multi-vehicle travel itinerary from Asia to the United States.

Cargo arriving at the warehouse.

When cargo passes into our hands, we must weigh and measure it to plan its onward travel. This updates our digital profile of the cargo and assigns each box an emoji. The emojis retain that box’s attributes, including weight, dimensions, and shipment ID. This puts a face on the cargo and helps our team load the right boxes on every flight.

Cargo being labelled.

Brian, the planner, uses the digital profiles of cargo to reserve space on the plane in containers, like a block of seats. The emojis help him estimate how much space each shipment will need on the plane.

Peter, the labeler, prints out Brian’s plans for the cargo in the warehouse. This plan includes the emojis, which identify each piece of traveling cargo. He uses the emojis as a mechanism to find the right boxes per flight and label them with the correct travel documents.

Terry, the Cargo Conductor

Check out that clipboard.

Terry, the conductor, seats the cargo. He walks around the warehouse waiting area and sizes it up. He sketches out a rough placement of each box’s position on each container. He verbally directs the labor team on how to arrange the cargo in the containers.

The Muscle

The labor team brings the cargo from the waiting area to its seat within a container. They decide exactly how the cargo is arranged in the containers, and are responsible for reporting the specific configuration details back to Terry.

The laborers arrange the cargo by size, weave it together in a bundle, and tie it together with rope. They decide exactly how the cargo is arranged in the containers, and are responsible for reporting the specific configuration details back to Terry.

Once the build is completed, the bundle will be wrapped snugly in plastic and slotted into the belly of a plane.

Emojis help us communicate

Consolidation is a beautifully messy blend of computer and human expertise. There were many things we learned from our trip to Asia, but one thing stood out: the biggest gap in the current tool set was a single mechanism for communication. It must happen every time a shipment comes into the warehouse; every time a box doesn’t fit into a container; and every time a laborers’ experience trumps the computer’s output.

The product that was missing was a common language to communicate the output of everyone’s work.

Emojis enable that. Since emojis are an abstraction, these symbols can mean as much or as little as we want. The planner uses emojis in the reservations interface to represent volume and size. For the team at the warehouse, emojis represent nothing more than ‘this box is different than that.’

The team!

The flight club

When we started, we only knew consolidation by the tools that were used to perform it. This gave us a distorted view of the process. It looks far more complicated when you see the work as a jumble of emails, excel files, paper sketches, and text messages.

Placing ourselves side-by-side with our users, in the context of their work, helped us put a face to the problem. These people didn’t need a behemoth computer system to make their process more efficient; they just needed an easier way to work with each other.