Our UX Designer Redesigns the Inflight Experience

Marielle Lee - 14/03/2021
If lockdown is good for something, it’s thinking time. Like many designers, thinking and daydreaming is my bread and butter – solving problems while letting your mind wander. So one day during lockdown, my mind wandered all the way over to inflight entertainment.

A year ago, I flew from Hong Kong to Melbourne on Cathay Pacific and sat next to a senior, she looked over 60. As an experienced designer, I am always curious about how seniors interact with technology. 

At first, she wasn’t sure if it was her seat. Once she sat down, she looked for a local flight attendant to speak to, as she couldn’t speak English, and asked when food was coming. We launched into a quick chat and she told me she was going to visit her grandson.

Into the flight, she started playing around with the touch screen, then asked me how to play a movie. I showed her the buttons she needed to get to the movie selection screen, she looked a bit lost. But not long after, she fell asleep and was out the entire flight – lucky her! 

Then I took a closer look on the movie selection screen, I was a bit in shock myself with all the arrows. I started counting how many arrows there and thought, no wonder she looked lost, I was almost lost too.

Below is another screen which was equally difficult. There is no way I could change the language by just looking at the icon. At the end, after tapping so many different icons, I figured out, the ‘chat’ icon was the one, I thought was a ‘chat’ function to other passengers.

The trigger

The experience this grandma had is not uncommon. Being afraid to sit in the wrong seat, not knowing when food is coming, dealing with a language barrier, these are things I’ve also experienced. So I decided to dig into the on-boarding flying experience.  

I spoke to my colleagues about how old-school some of the inflight entertainment apps were. We mused around how some flights still handed out a printed food menu, the feeling of rushing to eat when you see the trash trolley coming. There was some inflight bashing going on so I decided to dig in even deeper. 

Primary research

Every Friday afternoon, our company has a ‘K Time’ session, which enables anyone to share their knowledge. Thanks to my team, they encouraged me to do a discovery workshop about flight experience during ‘K time’ – I got about 20 people on board. 

These were the pain points discussed during workshop: 

●    Personalisation
●    The journey timeline
●    Language barrier
●    Food ordering
●    Food allergy
●    Being disturbed while watching movie
●    Being disturbed  
●    Gaming
●    Donation transparency
●    Destination details
●    Toilet line
●    App navigation
●    Hate towards the person reclining their seat all the sudden.

Hearing loss 

A week later, I was at a friends's family gathering. As a user experience researcher, I didn’t want to miss out on any ‘research opportunities’, so I told them I was doing research on the inflight experience, to see if they wanted to share any thoughts with me on any challenges they faced.

There were 3 people in the same family that have a hearing impairment (ages 18, 40, 68), and they told me they hate flying because they can barely hear on the plane, if they didn’t wear their hearing aids. However, they said wearing hearing aids is a huge pain because of the massive noise from the plane engine and other passengers, and there's recovery period form this after the flight. It’s really frustrating, so they don't bother.

This is why I love user experience research so much, as the more I dig in, the more problems I find. So I decided to expand my research area in hearing loss, and I contacted members from the Australian hearing loss community and the UK hearing loss community, and also reached out to friends who have hearing loss, to find out their inflight experience.

This is what I found: 

  • People who have hearing impairment, prefer not to wear the hearing aids during the flight, because of the noise 
  • Hearing aids are very small and some don’t want to lose them, so, they usually pack them before going on the plane, meaning they can't hear as well on the flight 
  • Those that do wear them on the flight only do so when the meal comes
  • Many rely on lip reading, facial expression and body language
  • Not knowing what’s going to happen next during the flight, make them anxious
  • Not having captions on the screen, they don’t know what pilots say
  • Majority of them prefer not to be disturbed.

The more people I talked to, the more problems I have found

As much as I would love to keep digging into problems, I think it’s time for me to find a few specific problems to focus on, before going too far down the rabbit hole. These include:

  • Personalisation
  • The journey timeline
  • Being disturbed
  • App navigation
  • Language barrier/communication with people with hearing loss
  • Ordering food

Persona and customer journey map

I decided to focus on only one age group, seniors, mainly because this was all spurred by my Cathay Pacific grandma. Combining all these insights, pain points and needs, I have formed the data into this person.

And based on this persona, I have created a customer journey map.

Special thanks to one of my interviewees, Miss M (also she is my very good friend) who helped me to create this customer journey map together.

Secondary research

Doing secondary research of inflight entertainment apps could be challenging at this time, as most of them are not available on the internet. I wish I could just travel with different airlines and experience their in-flight entertainment apps. With the limited resources, I have found the QANTAS entertainment app, and I found it very useful because of their easy-to-use interface.

Besides QANTAS, I am super impressed with Finnair. There is an article I found about their passenger journey from research to execution and implementation, which influenced me heavily with my design later on. Their caring and brilliant design has solved a lot of passenger’s problems and worries, it has really delivered a peace of mind to their passengers. To read more details about Finnair customer journey, here is the link. 

Problems and solutions - Personalisation

Start from the welcome page with the passengar name, not only to make them feel welcome, but to also signal that they are in the right seat. Simple and effective. 

The journey timeline

From the moment users sit down to when  they leave the plane, they know exactly what is happening, e.g, when the food/trash trolley is coming.

Do not disturb

Being able to customise a ‘do not disturb’ setting , e.g. ‘only wake me up for breakfast’.

App navigation

A small visual guide that showing the user where they are at within the app, so they don’t feel lost 
when browsing different pages.

Language barrier/communication with people with hearing loss

Being able to communicate with flight attendants by a chat tool. This is a win-win feature as users don’t have to push the flight attention button on the roof to communicate with flight attendants, and flight attendants don’t have to keep backward and forward to get things done.

Based on my research, these are the top 5 needs when people push the flight attendant button:

  • They feel sick 
  • Need a pen
  • Need blanket
  • Need water
  • Equipment not working

Ordering food

Users can order their meal, and be able to see all the ingredients on the menu. This not only avoids the unnecessary menu printing, it also makes users feel more comfortable that they don’t have to yell out to the flight attendant what food they want.

My take away

Exploring design in the hearing impairment area is new to me, I am amazed how far this research journey has taken me. I have learnt accessibility is not just creating colour contrast and font size but also being to communicate clearly.

What’s next? 

With the downtime, I managed to do a small prototype, from welcoming to ordering food, and to be able to communicate with flight attendants in their own language. I have shown my interviewees these screens and received positive feedback. 

One of the things I love about UX is, every time I do research, I learn so much. I love to see and hear how people interact with technology in different age groups, what makes them happy and what upsets them, and I believe good UX can definitely make the world a better place.

Hopefully, by the time we reach COVID normal flying, the in-flight entertainment will have received a few upgrades.

Thank you to everyone who has contributed their time and input with my research and design.

Prototype.mov from Marielle on Vimeo.


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