All hail the humble automated baggage tag

Picture of an ABT, courtesy of Samantha Brown

I just read a great article that dives into a fairly pedestrian kind of product: the automated baggage tag (a.k.a. the “ABT”) that almost anyone who’s travelled has probably gotten one wrapped around the handle of their luggage. Through the perspective of a product manger, I found it to be a great example of product design that touches upon so many areas. There’s plenty of good stuff about human factors, systems design/resilience, and iterating upon requirements. And despite the thought and design that’s gone into it, it’s such a simple product at first sight.

As a quick synopsis of the requirements that the teams developed for (eventually!):

  1. The tag label itself has to have the right, individualized information to guide the bag handlers and systems appropriately.
  2. The label has to hold up to temperature, moisture, oil, and light, to name a few elements.
  3. The label has to be useful in both modern and modest airports alike.
  4. The tag has to resist tearing, yet be easily removable by a traveller.
  5. The tag has to be cheap to produce, and disposable too.
  6. The tag adhesive needs to be weather and moisture resistant too.

That’s no easy order to fill. And the interesting thing is that the article notes early snafus such as “Old[er] tags were fastened with a string through a hole, but mechanized baggage systems eat these for breakfast.” and “early adhesives couldn’t cope with extreme cold, so snowy tarmacs would end up littered with detached tags”. Iteration and thoughtful design are illustrated very well here.

For more, Slate hosts the full article, and the accompanying slide show too!

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