Can we rethink airports – digitally?

The last few years have brought some digital changes to the airport experience. But could we do better? Could we rethink the whole experience for the 21st century?

Life has got much easier for the smart-phone wielding, cabin-bag only business traveller over the last year. There’s a lot less paper in our lives. Easyjet, for example, has recently introduced digital boarding passes in the majority of the airports it services. Smartphone-equipped travellers can check-in and download boarding passes to their devices, without going anywhere near a printer, or even a traditional computer. Great news, in theory, for passengers, if a little demoralising for printer manufactures. Boarding passes were one of the few regular uses for printers in the digital age…

It’s a lovely idea. It really is. As a committed iOS user, I was pleased at how cleanly my pass scanned at Berlin Schönefeld when I travelled to Berlin for this year’s NEXT, while an Android user in front of me struggled. A few weeks later, the joke was very much on me, when my iOS app failed to recognise my surname and booking reference, while my Android-toting colleague (who, admittedly, had been the one booking the flights) was able to do just fine. Back to paper for me. And my recent flight was on Ryanair, which remains defiantly paper-only.

Underlying these small frustrations and triumphs is the fact that digital technology is insinuating itself into our air travel experience more and more. From online booking, to online check-in, to mobile booking and check-in, to mobile boarding passes, pretty much the whole of the pre-airport experience can be handled online, and without directly interacting with another human being.

The future ends at the airport

But then – we arrive at the airport, and any idea that we’re living in the future rapidly erodes. The so-called “fast drop” bag queues are often more congested and slower moving than the traditional check-in lines, a victim of the success in getting people to adopt online checkin. The security process remains as painful as ever, and if anything, is getting progressively worse. Once through it, we still find ourselves clustered around monitors in airside shopping malls, waiting for a gate number to finally pop-up. Why isn’s the gate number pushed to a phone though the app?

Here’s one answer: because we’re not really reinventing the whole pre-boarding experience at all. We’re just adding more and more digital layers to the traditional process, like so many binary barnacles hanging off the side of a ship. As an industry, the airline business not been good about thinking about how it could reconcile the way passenger departure flows could work. Online check-in doesn’t really do anything more profound that replace a human contact moment with a digital one. Mobile boarding passes just replace paper ones directly, and give us an excuse to flash our new, fancy phone around. They’re not changing the process, just doing a direct substitution.

We’ve changed the methods we use to deliver passenger experience in a series of small steps – but we’ve never really taken a big step back, and looked at the process as a whole. Now that we have these new elements in our process, could we redesign it to make it profoundly better?

The key couple of syllables in the last sentence are “design”. There’s a well-honed process for integrating digital experiences with physical ones, one we’ve explored several times at NEXT events – it’s called digital service design. We can – and perhaps should – apply the same sort of design thinking to the passenger experience as we do to, say, the cabin decor, or plane structure.

Service Designing the Airport

Good service, the sorts that sticks in your mind, isn’t just a matter or chance or luck – it’s something that can be designed in a systematic way, by concentrating the process on what the customer needs and experiences at every point that he interacts with your business, and ensuring that each one creates a positive outcome in their mind, while still achieving what you, as a business, need to make the whole process work, and work profitably.

The Service Design Network, an institution to bring service design experts together and to promote the practice, defines service design as:

“the activity of planning and organizing people, infrastructure, communication and material components of a service in order to improve its quality and the interaction between service provider and customers. The purpose of service design methodologies is to design according to the needs of customers or participants, so that the service is user-friendly, competitive and relevant to the customers.”

One could make a reasonable case that the approach we see at the moment in airports reverses that mindset: it puts the needs and desires of the companies involved first, rather than the passenger experience:

  • The need to check passengers in
  • The need to scan and take control of their luggage
  • The need to put them through security checks
  • The desire to sell them goods

Businesses tend to look at the user experience as something that’s draped over the core structure of business processes like an attractive throw – something that changes the way it looks, without really affecting how comfortable it is. Service design methodologies put making a comfortable sofa with all the necessary structure the priority – build the user experience out of the service, not lay it on top of it.

Right now – as many holiday travellers are experiencing – that’s just not the way the airline industry works.

This is the first of two parts – part two looks at the challenges of airport passenger experience.