Designing Product Interactions in an Old Industry

How to combat behavioral debt in logisticstech

By: Santosh Sankar

Behavioral debt is something I’ve been spending the last year observing in the broader supply chain. It turns out Ben Bajarin wrote about it last fall as he too came to realize how hard it is to “tech an old dog new tricks.” Behavioral debt comes from the fact that people find it hard to adopt new behaviors for one of many reasons: they don’t totally understand the value, forget about the product, the ease of use is marginal, others aren’t on it, or they fear the unfamiliar.

With Logistics Tech being predominantly B2B, I’ve come to see that even if the benefits are clear — adoption can still be tough. Products have failed to achieve product/market fit despite solving an acute problem, pricing it well, and integrating with existing systems. The reason? Forcing unfamiliar behaviors in an industry that has never been overly excited about changing the status quo.

Know your personas.

To effectively build against behavioral debt, we need to truly understand the people using our product. It’s easy to make an assumption, build, and test it. But I actually caution founders about doubling down on understanding the problem and the personas they’ll be interacting with. This often times results in founding team spending time steeping among the truck drivers, inventory managers, or sailors that drive our supply chain.

The insights we’re looking for often times goes beyond the surface and digs deeper than traditional empathy mapping exercises. Speaking to Michael Felix, former design professor and current CTO of Slope.io, “Empathy mapping tools give founders/designers a false level of comfort with what the customers/users actually are feeling — you’re oversimplifying something really complex.”

Trying to capture, synthesize, and model how people feel is a challenge in itself, but personas give us a viewpoint into seeing the work from the customer’s perspective. Regardless of how they are generated, personas have a tendency to be easily forgotten or selectively applied throughout rapid iterations of design and development. A more complete frame of reference can be found when personas are combined with a clear understanding of how the customer wants to evolve or change through the interactions with the product, service, or system. Felix suggests the “Customer Jobs to be Done” theory by Christensen for a sober view of understanding, mapping, and designing products and systems that address a precise customer desire for change.

This is what happens when you stop drinking buzzword koolaid or listening to oversimplified models for customer empathy. Instead, building a solution to solve a problem in a manner that people don’t hesitate to use because the founders took the time to understand the whole system and every actor’s desire for change. If we’re serving our customers with the deepest understanding of the people and the jobs to be done, we’ll be battling behavioral debt more proactively. Rust and Michael at Slope.io have exemplified a people and jobs-to-be-done first approach where they spent four months understanding the ecosystem of clinical research and lining up pilots prior to engaging with Dynamo. It’s all too easy for industry executives, CTOs, or business people operate on assumptions without informing that assumption. Don’t fall into this trap.

While we acknowledge that this is not simple — we might point to the fact that we must dig deep into a combination of understanding the people and the function.

Leverage familiar interactions.

Once we are familiar with our users, we can design more natural interactions. The mentality of the folks you might be dealing with in trucking, at ports, or in warehouses is the — “that’s the way I’ve always done it.” That’s hard and many of our portfolio companies face that in the early iterations of a product or feature. It can be flabbergasting that something that’s so rational in theory, isn’t being adopted — one of the struggles of achieving product/market fit.

In an antiquated industry where users are not looking for the “next cool thing” we must introduce change in a manner that’s familiar to them — serve it to them in “ways that they’ve always done it.” Only recently are we seeing a mass embrace of smartphones, connectivity, social apps, and messengers by these personas. Leveraging familiar interactions is generally a best practice but also one that’s almost required to see any sustained usage of a product in logistics tech.

Often times, if we’ve done our homework, it turns out interactions related to a feature are much simpler than we realize.

We stand to benefit from the fact that technology has come to a point where we can build interactions that are quite human. So why not cater to their desire to speak to a human? Or message someone with a name? Or even continue to use email? They don’t need to know that there isn’t a human, it just needs to sound familiar — the decision making in large, can be driven algorithmically and by exception.

Some startups leveraging this understanding include FrAIght — using traditional communication channels to leverage AI in the brokerage space, and Stord is designing workflows that are familiar to their constituents.

Educate during the sell.

A big issue among the workforce, especially in more labor-intensive functions is the fear of job loss — “I’ve done it this way the last 30 years and everything has been fine and I can pay for my kids to eat.” That’s a very deep fear as it touches on various aspects of our most human needs. It’s not unwarranted but this fear has someone intentionally sticking to a more inefficient (manual packing of boxes) or dangerous (driving trucks) of doing things. It’s also not uncommon to observe the, “that creates more work for me attitude” which is never helpful when trying to drive buy-in and adoption.

I’ve observed that when we educate our users, not just decision makers, outcomes are easier to achieve. How can we discuss problems openly, have the user base feel like they’re being heard, and show value through explanation? A few different ways: WorkHound does a good job of educating truck drivers through interactive radio spots discussing the various innovative forces on the horizon. Autit, asks for a small data set to determine inventory cost savings and then has an educational discussion with key stakeholders as they drive their subscription solution to limit mismanaged inventory spend.

I’ve found that logistics is riddled with people who are not familiar with social networks, are paranoid about GPS tracking, or afraid of losing work — reverting to “the way we’ve always done it”. There are strategies to help drive “pay back” the behavioral debt inherent in stakeholders that build on the common principles of product design and interactions frankly might need a little more love/care in transforming such antiquated industries. I would love to hear if there are any strategies that have worked for others.

Special thanks to Michael Felix for reviewing and providing perspective.