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Ontruck Case Study: Solving the Tricky Times Problem

Context

Ontruck is a service that allows companies with road freight shipping needs to easily book and track shipments online. We refer to these companies as shippers.

Shippers can book shipments with as many pickups and dropoffs as they need. When booking a shipment, we ask them to provide a time window for each stop. Time windows of zero minutes are allowed because pickup/dropoff points often provide shippers specific appointment times.

Ontruck Time Pickers
Pickup and dropoff time pickers

When we originally designed the shipment booking flow, we decided to keep validation as simple as possible. These were the only validation rules that applied initially:

We knew we were taking risks giving so much flexibility to shippers, but we preferred to launch a simple solution and learn from users' behavior rather than over-engineering a solution based on the assumption that shippers would provide problematic pickup/dropoff times.

Problem

Soon after we launched, our drivers started complaining that sometimes it was hard, or even impossible, to make it on time to all the stops in a job. We looked at data to verify this and a significant percentage of shipments did indeed present issues with their pickup/dropoff times. These issues fell into two different categories:

Initial approach

At Ontruck, problems are generally prioritized by Product Managers and solved by Product Designers. We didn't jump into solving these problems right away for different reasons. The impossible times problem had some obvious quick solutions, but wasn't happening very often, which made sense, since most shippers knew pretty well what the driving times between locations were. The tricky times problem was happening more often, but solving the problem through our products or processes wasn't straightforward, so we decided not to tackle it for the time being.

Related problem

In the early days, our Fleet team manually reviewed all next-day shipments to anticipate and solve any potential problems. This included verifying addresses, checking if the driver had overlapping jobs, making sure the assigned vehicle was right for the cargo and checking if pickup/dropoff times were doable. It is needless to say that this process didn't scale very well. The problem got bigger as the number of shipments we handled grew, so it was eventually prioritized by the Product Manager in my squad. I was in charge of finding a solution.

After doing some research to better understand why next-day jobs needed to be verified and the consequences of not doing it, it became clear that the problem could be tackled from two different angles: we could try to decrease the amount of problematic shipments by doing things on the shippers' side (e.g. stricter form validation) or we could help our Fleet team focus on problematic shipments only.

No matter what we did on the shippers' side, we were going to keep receiving problematic shipments, so we decided to tackle the problem from the other end. I went to the product engineers in my squad to discuss the possibility of automatically identifying any of the problems that our Fleet team searched for every single day. I learned that we could automatically identify problems such as suspicious addresses, weird cargo characteristics, or even scan the special requirements field searching for specific words that we knew could mean trouble. This is when I saw an opportunity to tackle the unrealistic pickup/dropoff times problem, which was in our problems backlog.

After aligning all the stakeholders, I started designing an alert system that would allow our Fleet team to stop reviewing all next-day shipments, and start focusing on potentially problematic shipments only.

We decided to ship a solution that alerted about four types of problems, with the idea of adding more types of problems in the future, so that our Fleet team could eventually rely 100% on the alert system. These are the actions that could be performed by our agents on the alerts:

Back to the original problem

The alert system solution improved the productivity of our Fleet team. It also allowed us to react earlier to problematic shipments, including those with pickup/dropoff times problems. For the impossible times problem, our agents could reach out to the shipper asking them to modify the times. For the tricky times problem, our agents could reach out to the drivers asking them to plan their route making sure they could make it on time to all the stops. But we were still getting shipments with impossible and tricky times.

A few months after the alert system had been deployed, the impossible and tricky times problem was prioritized by the Product Manager in my squad so I set out to find a solution.

Solving the impossible times problem

Out of the two problems, this was the easy one, so I decided to tackle it first. As mentioned above, the only validation rule that affected the 'Dropoff from' input was this one: 'Dropoff from' can't be earlier than 'Pickup from'. This wasn't a problem if the time windows were big enough. For example, considering the driving time between Getafe and Toledo is around 45 min, these times were tricky, but not impossible:

Pickup in Getafe from 9:00 am to 11:00 am and Dropoff in Toledo from 9:00 to 11:00.

The problem was when the difference between the 'Pickup from' time and the 'Dropoff to' time was shorter than the driving time. For example:

⚠️
Pickup in Getafe from 9:30 am to 9:30 am and Dropoff in Toledo from 10:00 to 10:00.

We knew the average loading time for a shipment depending on the amount of pallets. We also could calculate driving distances between two stops. With all that information we introduced a new validation rule: Minimum 'Dropoff from' time = 'Pickup from' time + X + Y, where X is the optimistic loading time for the amount of pallets in the shipment and Y the optimistic driving time for the distance between the stops.

The reason why we used the optimistic driving times was because calculating driving times considering the expected traffic was technically expensive and was left out of scope.

impossible times
Minimum 'Dropoff from' time = 'Pickup from' time + X + Y

Today, drivers only make it late to one stop when the times are tight and the loading time or the driving time take longer than expected, but other than that, this solution solved the impossible times problem.

Solving the tricky times problem

After the solution for the impossible times problem was designed, I moved to the tricky times problem. I started by exploring the obvious solution, which was introducing new validation rules just like we just did for the impossible times problem, but I soon realized that they would have a negative impact on the user experience. We couldn't set a minimum 'Dropoff to' time based on the 'Dropoff from' time because pickup/dropoff points often provided shippers specific appointment times. That means that a dropoff window of zero minutes was perfectly valid.

The tricky times problem could only be detected after the user selected the 'Dropoff to' time, which is the last of the four times in the booking flow and overriding times that the user had already typed didn't make any sense. Displaying a warning to the shipper when the problem was detected didn't sound like a good solution either, considering the times were actually doable.

But what if instead of adding friction to the shippers we could just translate tricky times into non-tricky times? I started exploring this avenue, which led my to the final solution. Tricky times would happen whenever the time between the 'Pickup to' and the 'Dropoff to' was shorter than the loading time plus the driving time between the stops. By communicating the driver a different 'Pickup from' time than the one requested by the shipper, we could solve the problem. Both the pickup and the dropoff would happen within the time window requested by the shipper, but we would avoid running late to the dropoff.

tricky times
Tricky times cases

To make this work, we also had to introduce some changes in the tool that our Fleet and Traffic teams uses to monitor shipments. Since they had to communicate with both shippers and drivers, they needed to be able visualize both the original times requested by the shipper and the times we shared with the drivers in the tricky times cases.

This solution improved the on-time rate for tricky times shipments by 7 points. That was a huge improvement and we considered the problem as solved. If at some point we can calculate driving times based on expected traffic, then we should be able to improve the on-time rate of tricky shipments even further.

This case study is a good example of how products are designed and built at Ontruck. It all starts with a problem-based roadmap instead of a feature-based one. From there, problem-solving rarely follows a linear path. We work in lean cycles, looking for ways to validate our hypothesis investing as little time and effort as possible.

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