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We made it to the moon before wheels had luggage

Image by Brian McGowan

One of man's greatest achievements is overcoming Earth's gravitational pull, travelling 384,400 km into space, and landing and taking those first steps on the moon.

It's an incredibly difficult feat. 

And you know what? Somehow, we managed to figure out this tremendous feat of travel - getting to the moon... all the while struggling with another part of our regular travel experience - making luggage bags easier to shift. 

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In 1970, Bernard Sadow (ironically a business owner of a luggage company) was at an airport in Puerto Rico, struggling to cope with  2 huge suitcases for his family (hmmm... no details if he was using luggage from his company). Then, he saw a man moving a piece of heavy machinery on a wheeled platform. He exclaimed to his wife, " He had the machinery, and he was just pushing it along without much effort, and I said to my wife, 'That's what we need! We need wheels on luggage.' "

Sadow got to work. He attached 4 casters under a luggage trunk linked to a strap which the user can pull - the world's first-ever wheeled luggage, similar to the picture above. The luggage became commercial, and Sadow was granted a patent in 1972 


While Sadow's model was an improvement from manually carrying heavy suitcases, it remained unwieldy and unreliable. The wheels were fixed in one direction, leading to suitcases toppling over or difficult to navigate except in straight line. Even Mr Bean wasn't a fan - he simply carried his own luggage.  

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It was almost 20 years later in 1989 that a Northwestern pilot, Bob Plath improved on the design. Luggage began to resemble the ones we use today, with more flexible wheels and a retractable handle. 

The moon landing vs wheeled luggage example reveals some biases in how people think:

  • We are much more excited about big problems than small problems, even if we have to live with these small problems on a daily basis. Going to space seems a lot more exciting than re-designing luggage, even though poorly-designed luggage is an annoyance that we have to live with regularly. This applies to organisations as well. Energy levels go up for big projects, while people tend to be less enthusiastic about refining existing processes. We also tend to under-value workers who perform routine tasks which seem small, and it is only their absence that we realise how important they are. Think of your company's IT department, or rubbish collectors for societies, or the logistics group for sports teams.
     

  • If it doesn't reach a certain pain threshold, we just live with it. And habits - doing something over and over again makes us accustomed to certain pains which then no longer notice. For example, think of the hand-soap, shampoo, condiments and other bottled products at home. Most of them dispense at the top, which means when the product is running low, it's very difficult to get it out, and a certain amount is always wasted. Sometimes, it takes a jolt for us to realise the little pains that we've grown numb to. Covid-19 has brought about new awareness on hygiene and how easily diseases can spread. Surfaces that are regularly touched by different people carry a higher risk of transmission of diseases; this includes door handles and faucets. Besides, consider door handles - if you were say carrying 2 cups of beverages, you would realise that the door handle is actually terribly user-unfriendly. What about foot handles or elbow handles instead?

 

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  • Once we have found a solution to a problem, it becomes very difficult for us to see past the existing solution, or to use a more hackneyed term, to "think out of the box". Henry Ford's quote comes to mind: “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.” It's hard for us to picture something else once we have a model in mind. 
     

  • Value can be created not just in the product itself, but in user-experience. Think of the luggage again. The basic premise of the product hasn't changed much - a space to put stuff in. Adding wheels and a handle doesn't change the function fo the product itself, but its value increases sharply to the user. Value doesn't have to be something new, it could simply be a new way of seeing something that is existing. 

 

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