11 July 2006

Business processes

As an interaction designer, I'm most interested in working on systems that are either consumer products or specialist tools for folks like doctors and scientists. Alas, I barely get to do that about half the time, since there's so much bread-and-butter work to be done with business processes of one kind or another, and hey, my studio has to pay the electric bill—and my salary.

But I'm a dilettante, interested in everything, so it usually turns out that I can find almost any domain completely fascinating, at least for the length of a project. My favourite book when I was seven years old was Richard Scarry's What Do People Do All Day? In it, you see a house under construction, firefighters cleaning their gear after fighting a fire, a crew building a new road, and so forth. I liked seeing how stuff worked, how stuff got done, and I've never outgrown it.

So while the core business of business—squeezing nickels out of an uncooperatve world—is pretty tiresome, the details can be very interesting indeed. One of the most interesting projects I ever did involved accounting for convenience stores. It turns out that it's a deeply weird business, not least because it uses different accounting methods from almost every other industry in the universe, because of their unique inventory control problems ....

I bring all of this up because I stumbled across this article about how they label cases of stuff for shipping to retailers.

Consumer packaged goods (CPG) are generally sold in standard case packs across most retail channels. For example, a standard case pack might contain 12 bottles of pancake syrup, packaged in a corrugated shipping container. For each base product sold in a standard case pack, there are often dozens of variations, such as different flavors, colors and seasonal promotions. Even though the length, width and depth of the boxes might be exactly the same, each product variation still requires its own unique corrugated shipping container, or shipper. The UPC code and product description are printed by the box manufacturer, with maple-flavored, butter-flavored, blueberry and sugar-free syrups each requiring its own unique shipper even though all four products are all packaged in the same size bottle ...
It turns out that the grubby details of this very mundane problem are actually pretty interesting. Just like everything else.

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