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UX in airports: Consistency is key

Offline experiences, like one I had recently as a disabled traveller, can teach us a lot about the digital user experience.

I recently got back from a fairly big trip overseas: Australia, New Zealand, and Thailand.

But I’m not her to show you my holiday snaps: on the trip, I appreciated some valuable lessons about user experience that we can learn from and apply to digital content.

Booking airport assistance

I represented a triple threat to airline staff: I’m vegan, was travelling with a child, and I’m disabled.

I have trouble walking. I spent two and half years using a wheelchair to get about, and although I’m much more mobile than I used to be, there are things I struggle with, such as:

  • walking far
  • walking fast
  • standing in queues

This makes long haul flights tricky, so I decided to book assistance.

Booking assistance when you fly involves airline staff and ground staff – and I was travelling with 5 different airlines around 8 different airports, in 4 different countries.

And it was this difference that was key to the suboptimal user experience of airport assistance.

(‘Suboptimal’ is such a jargon-y word. But here, it’s relevant. It wasn’t a bad experience. It was fine. But it could have been better.)

What happened?

The assistance itself was, on the whole, fantastic.

  • In Edinburgh, they gave us a wheelchair which my wife could push, and which had a storage shelf underneath for hand luggage. She wheeled me through the airport. Security asked if I was comfortable getting out of the wheelchair to walk through, which I was and I did. We gave the chair back at the gate, at the time written on the boarding pass.
  • In Dubai, someone was waiting at the airport to wheel me over to the next gate to catch my next flight. He knew who I was when I got off the plane with the other passengers where we needed to be, and my daughter was allowed to sit on my knee. This time I stayed in the chair through security.
  • In Auckland, we were given a chair again, with a storage shelf, but my daughter was not allowed to sit on my knee. We had to meet them again at the gate at an appointed time – 15 minutes before the time on the boarding pass. We all stayed together through customs.
  • In Brisbane, no-one was waiting when we got off the plane, and I had to find my own way (walking) to the security queues. When I got there, I was allowed through the fast track customs queue – but my wife and daughter weren’t.
  • In Wellington, there was no-one meeting us and we had to find our own way out, only to be told later that we should have waited on the plane, as someone tried to find us once everyone else had got off.
  • In Sydney, we had the option of taking the chair away or someone helping us. We had to go for the second option because there was no storage in the chair and my wife couldn’t push the chair, hold my daughter’s hand *and* carry the luggage.
  • In Bangkok, someone was waiting with a chair, who took us right through security and customs, taking my passport and dealing with everything. I don’t speak Thai (though I did learn ‘thank you’), which added a barrier to working out what was going on.

Actually, I’ll be honest: I don’t remember which bit happened in which airport. I know that Thailand was where the language barrier was an issue, but that’s it. Airports are basically the same. My priority wasn’t ‘I am now in [x] city’. It was ‘Am I in pain? Can my family and I get to my next destination safely?’

What frustrated me wasn’t so much any particular part of the experience, but the inconsistency of it. I never knew what to expect or where to go. Travelling is already stressful, and when you’re dealing with something ‘extra’ like a disability, it’s even more so.

Even if an experience is unproblematic in itself, working out what you need to do adds significantly to the cognitive load.

So what’s the answer?

I’m not going to suggest solutions to offering assistance in airports. It’s a huge thing to solve. It needs collaboration between many different stakeholders. The first job of UX is not to come up with solutions; it’s to clearly and accurately define and prioritise problems.

One thing I know that wouldn’t help much is assistance staff across the different airports wearing matching uniforms. I care that the staff are clearly affiliated with someone (I’d feel uncomfortable if they had no kind of badge or uniform). But if anything, having them all look the same would increase my expectation that the experience would be the same.

Consistency, not uniformity

This brings me to one of the key principles of digital experience (told you I’d get there): consistency, not necessarily uniformity. What’s important is not that our digital estate all looks the same; it’s that it functions in the same way.

Principles of Digital Experience Standards – User Experience Services

My experience with air travel has two clear parallels to the digital experience:

  • Users don’t care if they’re on the Finance site, or the Academic Services site, or MyEd – any more than I cared if I was in Scotland or New Zealand. They care if they can complete their task, and easily repeat common tasks, like finding contact details or making their way back to previous content.
  • People who need extra help – maybe people with dyslexia or who don’t speak English as a first language – are already at a cognitive disadvantage. Seemingly small content and design decisions – like avoiding italics, or unfamiliar jargon and acronyms – can have a significant impact on their sense of satisfaction when they leave your site. (So imagine the effect we can have when designing whole systems around user needs!)

Things like EdGEL and the Editorial Style Guide promote the consistency of the user experience across the digital estate – that’s why they’re there.

We also need to keep listening to all of our users to make sure that their needs continue to be met in an effective way.

Human centred design process – User Experience Services



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