The UX of International Travel

I’m writing this from the airport in Bucharest, Romania. Techsylvania (a leading tech conference of Eastern Europe) has invited me Cluj-Napoca to talk about my upcoming book and lead a workshop on Human-Centered Product Design. What better way to spend a 5-hour layover than writing an email for all of you? On my phone, no less (thanks Mailchimp app)!

Having been on a plane or in airports for the last 17 hours has me thinking about all the micro-interactions you encounter while traveling. Boarding passes, arrival/departure screens, check-in kiosks, passport scans, all the way finding, etc., etc. Add the complexity of multiple languages, currencies, and time/date formats, and you have a real UX problem to solve. 

It’s difficult to eliminate my bias on the Atlanta airport because I’ve been there so many times I don’t even need to look at the maps to know where my gate is, so I won’t talk about that. But Amsterdam’s Schiphol (AMS) is a different matter. Although I’ve flown through Schiphol dozens of times, I still find myself needing assistance to navigate the labyrinth of gates, terminals, stores, and services. 

Being one of the major European hubs and the 11th busiest airport in the world, Schiphol serves about 70 million passengers per year (btw: Atlanta is #1 with over 107 million). Unlike ATL, AMS serves an audience of mostly foreign language speakers which presents a few challenges. I spent several hours just watching people move through the airport and paid close attention to how they interacted with the environment around them. A few observations:

– All the digital signs and kiosks are in Dutch and English, with each language either side-by-side or rotating about every 10 seconds.

– All the printed signs are high-contrast, black background with Dutch in yellow type and English in white type just below. 

– The security lanes have large screens and other printed illustrations clearly posted to help passengers understand where to go and what to do regardless of the language they speak. 

– The bag screening lines have multiple stations where people grab a bin, put their things in, and push it onto a belt that feeds into the X-ray machine (it’s amazing how many people still struggle with doing this efficiently). 

It’s all designed to help people navigate the environment as quickly as possible. Information is always available to help people understand how to complete the task at hand to move to the next step in the process. 

Now, you might be thinking this is all Service Design more than UX Design, but let’s save the pedantry for another time. 

Here are the takeaways from what I saw that you should keep in mind when designing your product. 

– No matter how much attention you pay to creating clear instructions for what to do, people will still get it wrong. This could be because they are distracted, don’t understand the instructions, or just choose to ignore them. Be prepared for this by creating several “safety nets” to catch people gracefully when they fail to follow the process as you defined it. 

– Some people are more informed or experienced than others. You always have to design for the lowest-common-denomination while not offending the people who have the information or experience needed to complete the task without assistance. 

– Even small inconsistencies in how information is displayed exponentially increases risk of failure. I watched people come and go at a set of departure boards for about an hour. One display showed flights in alphabetical order by city while another showed them in order of arrival or departure time. This small change can confuse people and lead them to look at the incorrect information. Hint: In my observation, ordering by time is less error prone, but it takes longer for people to recognize the order. 

How does this relate to making digital products?

Well, most of the things above are digital products! They don’t accept direct interaction, but people are still using them to accomplish a task. 

The lesson here is regardless of how and where people use your product, you need to keep the task they are trying to accomplish and their mental state in mind when designing the interfaces they will use.

Good human-centered design stays focused on the people using a product, the pains they experience and the gains they seek. It might not be the fastest and easiest way to build things, but when done right, it always leads to better outcomes.