On the road again

A Fortune 1000 transportation management company came to our product team with a specific problem - the company was looking to scale their brokerage business but the workflows of the brokerage teams does not allow for efficiency when scaled. This is a look into of how my research-forward proposal led to a $500K initial engagement to design and develop a carrier management platform.

My role

As the sole designer for most of the engagement, my primary role was to lead the research and discovery process and to engage in analysis of the insights gathered from research. I was also responsible for the initial prototyping and wire framing of designs based on information gathered.

The challenge

The brokerage business is a fast-paced world. The environment is not unlike a trading floor - there’s a constant buzz in the room and a sense that the work is urgent. Efficiency is key. Unfortunately, the system that is currently used is a 20-year old green screen platform which is so unwieldy, it could take a new hire up to 6 months just to learn how to navigate its hierarchy of screens. My job was to figure out a way to modernize their workflows and ensure that scaling the business meant more than just throwing more people at the problem.

  • How do we make better use of existing data?
  • How do we simplify workflows without causing disruption?
  • How do we create an environment where information can be shared easily?

The Approach

Our client was eager to get something up and running early so time was a factor in the way we would approach the discovery phase. My research-driven proposal consisted of 4 phases over 2 weeks:

I narrowed down our methodology to interviews with key members of management and ethnographical observation of workflows of various team members within the brokerage business to gain domain knowledge of the brokerage business. We engaged in research at the headquarters in Oak Brook as well as Toledo, OH which housed the spot freight team - a 24/7 operation which represented the extreme end of their brokerage business.

Key insights

Make better decisions, faster.

The volatile market conditions of the brokerage world is already a tough variable that needs to be managed. Another layer of uncertainty is added because of the fact that the data being fed into the HG system isn’t being meaningfully used to help reps make informed decisions. How do we leverage the existing data to ensure that the operations team are making the best possible decisions which ultimately control the costs of the organization?

Even the playing field

There is always going to be an element of “art” in the business of brokerage, a balance between using data and anticipating future market conditions. Experience goes a long way but we wanted to make sure that scaling up meant also a scaling of knowledge so everyone has more information needed to make better decisions. Current knowledge is tribal and not easy to share which leads to high on-boarding times and a steep learning curve for new employees. Knowing that data is available, how do we use it to allow the organization to scale and show the value of the organization against competitors?

Efficient teams using inefficient systems

Despite the 20-year old green screen system, reps within the brokerage business were very adept at navigating it’s complex screens. But this was a result of habit rather than efficiency. Even the power users we spoke to realize that they needed to step back and consider their current workflows. The question then was - how to we introduce improved workflows without causing disruption?

Designing what’s possible

Carrier reps ultimately have the responsibility to set costs and capacity which is vital to the success of the company. Being able to address the core issues of the carrier reps should alleviate some of the other issues we saw in other departments. Now that we had an initial understanding of the brokerage workflow and how vital the carrier rep role is our initial wireframes were focused on this persona.

Load Details

One of the biggest obstacles within the current green-screen system is the fact that information is often buried within a complicated hierarchy of screens. Over time, carrier reps have become adept at navigating this system but information can be lost along the way and reps are forced to have multiple windows up at once to do one task. Our goal here is to provide a screen that surfaces all relevant information in a way that is easy to digest so when reps are on the phone with a carrier, they don’t have to refer elsewhere and slow down the process.

An idea introduced here is the concept of showing a timeline of the status of an active job. There is no current way for reps to see how far along the process is which can lead to confusion and wasted time trying to track down statuses. By showing the status in a timeline, reps can quickly see who owns the job and who to get in touch with if additional information is needed.

Lane History

Valuable data about market conditions is not being used in a way that would allow reps to make good decisions and be more efficient in their search for carriers. Most reps have their own way of keeping records and managing communication with carriers. This leads to situations where important information is siloed deep within a spreadsheet with no easy way sharing them. We observed many situations where reps yelled across the room to get an answer from someone else while carriers are left on hold. By surfacing available historical information, reps can spend less time fishing for the right carrier and will also be able to negotiate rates that will yield higher margins.

Exception Manager

Carrier reps, especially ones in a fast-paced environment like spot-freight should be focused on very specific tasks. The current system provides few options for filtering. Our design approach was to focus on exceptions - events that deviate from a typical happy path for reps. This could be a short deadline, missed delivery, missing tracking information. The information for all these things already exist but right now, a rep has to actively look for it and things can get lost between the cracks. By bringing these items into focus, the carrier rep can address them immediately and have more time to deal with carrier relationships or look forward and anticipate future needs.

Final thoughts

It’s an exciting time to be involved in the transportation brokerage business. The space is evolving and many companies are adopting a technology-forward approach to not just support business strategy but as a way to define it. Within the span of 3 weeks, we had managed to complete a full-cycle of research, analysis and initial designs. From the beginning of the engagement, there was a shared understanding internally about the issues that they face which helped us get to the point where we were providing design value faster. This is still just a first step towards a permanent solution for our client but our initial $500K engagement sets up a foundation for defining what it means to be a technology-forward transportation business.