Airport User Experience | April 5, 2007

Whenever I talk about designing navigation systems at conferences, I usually use the example of airports. Like surfing the web, when you navigate around an airport you are normally in a hurry and rarely devote your full attention on the job at hand. Instead, your senses are being availed from all sides; from security notifications and advertising, through to environmental factors like the noise and temperature. As an aside, that reminds me of something Jared Spool always says on the subject of design transparency. You only ever notice the air conditioning when it’s too hot or too cold, never when it is working just right. Anyway, I digress …

If airports were built like most modern websites, finding your way around would be a nightmare. In order to extract the most money from visitors, the airport would be littered with signs for shops and restaurants. These would take priority over less revenue generating signs for gates or toilets, which would be placed wherever there was space. The marketing department would insist on huge banners advertising their latest offers, and the maintenance men would hang them wherever it was easiest to reach, often covering up existing signage.

The problem is, this type of thinking is very short sighted. Travellers would start missing connections or get frustrated that they couldn’t find the bathroom after a long flight. People would start spending less time at the airports, or if the option was available. switch airports altogether. So by trying to increase revenue in the short term, you end up frustrating your users and potentially damaging future profitability.

Thankfully airports take a much more user-centerd approach in their design. Signs are big and occupy the most important real estate. The signage at airports is also very contextual and based on the needs of the user at that point in their journey. So when you get to departures, the most prominent signs are for the check-in desks. After checking in, the signs move you towards security. Once airside, they know you’re going to be around for a while, so will give you signs for shops and refreshments. However the gate information always takes priority, to make sure you get to the correct gate on time and don’t miss your flights.

The same is true the other way round. The designers know that when you get off a long international flight, there is a good chance you’ll need to take a bathroom stop, so they make sure there are liberal signs and facilities around the gate areas. They then funnel you towards immigration, baggage claim and then finally out of the airports towards the ground transportation. With such large and complicated spaces, I’m always amazed how airports managed to move hundreds of thousands of travellers around each day. There are definitely lessons to be learned here, so take note the next time you’re passing through an airport.

I’m flying up to Edinburgh today with my friend and colleague Jeremy Keith, to speak at the Highland Fling conference. While waiting at my gate, a woman came round with a PDA and asked if I’d mind answering some questions about finding my way around the airport. Being interested in both navigation systems and contextual enquiry, I jumped at the chance.

After the survey was finished I got chatting to the woman and asked how often they do these type of sessions and how long they last for. I was expecting her to say a couple of days or a week at most, so was surprised when she said that she’d been doing surveys full time at Gatwick for the last 6 years, and she wasn’t the only one! Rather than the one-off field studies that I’m used to, this showed the airport were committed to a long term program of research and contextual enquiry. Top marks Gatwick.

The surveys weren’t always the same. Sometimes they were objective studies around navigation like the one I’d taken. Other times they were subjective studies of peoples likes and dislikes. Asking if the surveys made any real difference, she said that McDonalds had been removed from the airport and replaced with healthier fare purely down to user research. I could personally tell that the quality of the shops and restaurants had improved over the years at Gatwick, and I imagine it has been largely due to these types of surveys. It just goes to show you the importance of talking to your users.

While I was at the airport, I decided to splash out on an expensive pair of noise cancelling headphones. I’ve been doing a lot of ravelling recently, so decided it was a sensible purchase. The shop I bought them from allowed you to test a range of models, obviously trying to tempt the busy executive to buy one for their trip. The irony was, when I opened up the package, the batteries were uncharged, rendering the headphones useless. Somebody realised that it would be a good idea to market noise cancelling headphones to distance travellers as a need was there. They just hadn’t thought about the post sales experience, and the fact that they were effectively useless without a pre-charged battery.

On a similar note, my colleague Jeremy bought some flash memory for his camera from this cool little vending machine. Kensington obviously realised that people never have enough memory for their holidays, so sensibly put a vending machine at the gate. Sadly, this thought didn’t extend to the after sales experience either. The memory came in the traditional blister packs used to stop people opening them up and stealing them in shops. The problem was, we were airside, and thus not allowed to have any sharp objects like a pair of scissors, making it it almost impossible to open the packaging.

If only both of these companies has spent a small amount of time doing contextual research or user testing, they would have witnessed these problems first hand and could have easily rectified them. Bose could have supplied pre-charged batteries while Kensington could have done away with the excess packaging. Neither of these things would have had a direct affect on their bottom line, but they would have made the purchasing experience much more pleasurable. You rarely notice good design, but bad design sticks out like a sore thumb.

Posted at April 5, 2007 12:59 PM


RobMcM said on April 5, 2007 2:20 PM

Great read Andy, and such a good point about those blister packs and not having anything sharp to open them at airports!

Mark J. said on April 5, 2007 4:19 PM

Airports are ugly. Some are very ugly. Some attain a degree of ugliness that can only be the result of a special effort. This ugliness arises because airports are full of people who are tired, cross, and have just discovered that their luggage has landed in Murmansk (Murmansk airport is the only known exception to this otherwise infallible rule), and architects have on the whole tried to reflect this in their designs. They have sought to highlight the tiredness and crossness motif with brutal shapes and nerve jangling colours, to make effortless the business of separating the traveller for ever from his or her luggage or loved ones, to confuse the traveller with arrows that appear to point at the windows, distant tie racks, or the current position of Ursa Minor in the night sky, and wherever possible to expose the plumbing on the grounds that it is functional, and conceal the location of the departure gates, presumably on the grounds that they are not.
Douglas Adams, The Long Dark Tea-Time of the Soul

Andrew Rickmann said on April 5, 2007 6:22 PM

Nicely put Andy. This is certainly food for thought.

Shaun said on April 5, 2007 9:46 PM

As you say Andy, as you navigate through the airport the signs change In line with objectives of the user (read traveller/airport) not many sites do this ! The navigation system on a site tends to focus on bi-directional navigation through a site (where to go next and where to go back) In an airport there is the clear destinction between inbound and outbound can we learn from this in site design?

Paul Hammond said on April 5, 2007 10:14 PM

If you’re interested in the intersection of web design, architecture and airports (and who isn’t?) you really should read Dan Hill’s half-weblog-post-half-essay, Starflyer (and service), Schiphol (and soccer), Stansted (and signage).

It’s about (among other things) how Amsterdam Schiphol gets this so right, how most other airports don’t, and how the solutions are deeper than just signage. Well worth a read.

M. Jackson Wilkinson said on April 6, 2007 5:02 AM

Hey Andy, great article. I just wrote about something similar – how airports/airlines can incorporate user-generated content to create a more positive (and, in the case of the cash-strapped US airlines, more profitable) user experience in general.

It’s interesting how we can extend so many of these concepts from the web out into other areas of business and “offline” life.

Relly said on April 6, 2007 8:40 AM

When I flew out of Gatwick last I bought a Nintendo DS from the Virgin store there, and they offered me that pre-charged. They told me they charged 4 a day for sale as people want to use them on their flights. I thought that was pretty smart.

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