Sunday, January 17, 2021

User Experience – What Many Airlines Overlook

Today, it is an expectation to have an interactive touch screen at the back of every seat, irrespective of cabin class. You would think that with so many airlines sporting similar devices that there would be some evidence of standardization. You’d be wrong.

By Sheldon De Sousa , in Product Management , at June 15, 2019 Tags: , , , , , ,


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Excuse me, Stewardess ?

Does touch screen user experience matter on an airplane? Even though a typical user’s experience begins well before he/she steps foot on an aircraft, much of their travel assessment comes from time spent in their seat.

Historically, air travel was literally the most boring commute ever, highly restrictive in terms of movement and limited in entertainment options. Journeys, particularly longer ones, appeared painful to endure. Fortunately, much has changed in recent times.

Airlines have consistently upgraded service offerings, building a competitive edge, to promote a better user experience. Digital advancements, as in every other case, never lags far behind. I remember a time, when, in the absence of good conversation, newspapers, magazines and a pixelated central display of the flight path was your only respite.

Today, it is an expectation that an interactive touch screen be present at every seat, irrespective of cabin class. When you consider the increase in air travel and the fact that a seat is practically a passengers home for some time, it seems obvious that more attention be paid to this device. Or is it?

On a recent 10-hour flight to Paris, I had a difficult time trying to make sense of the touch display. Two minutes into my interaction, it was apparent that while a lot of attention had gone into the aesthetic appeal of the cabin and other comforts, very little went into developing a good user interface and ultimately a good user experience.

Let’s have a look at the interactive touch display below.

I have color-coded the circles in relation to difficulty (red being difficult, yellow being neutral and green being easy to comprehend) . I’ll explain why the audio socket at the bottom is marked red later.

On the positive side, placing the ‘menu‘ icon on the navigation bar is compatible with what most people expect. The ‘power-on/off‘ button was equally intuitive. No complaints with understanding the ‘sound‘ and ‘brightness‘ icons either. The feedback from those clickthroughs was clear.


However the lightbulb and persona icons were a bit misleading. Most passengers assumed that the persona icon led them to their user profile, personal preferences or settings,  something we find on most apps. In truth, the icon was a call for assistance. This seemed counter-intuitive when you consider the somewhat clickable service symbol located overhead.

The sheer number of false requests was testimony to the confusion as there were no feedback indications to inform the passenger of what he/she had just done.

In addition, most passengers kept poking incessantly at the overhead lights switch . That unfortunately was a dummy switch much like the blue service symbol beside it. Strange, but both those locations made more sense for actual placement. The lights were actually linked to the ‘lightbulb‘ icon on the touch display.

Moving forward, the ‘filter on/off‘ icon led my colleague and I to think that we could drill down to more relevant searches. We were far off. It led to a language selection page instead. Why couldn’t they just label it ‘Language‘?

The audio jack I mentioned earlier seemed to be the most obvious, or so we thought. But, when presented with a two-pronged plug, it suddenly becomes questionable. A fellow passenger discovered that the plug could be split so that only a single connector was usable.

The ‘star’ icon, marked yellow, wasn’t very difficult to grasp. It led to a favorites folder. Unfortunately, it wasn’t clear how items could be added to that folder. It was only later that we realised the tiny stars seen in movie titles were related and clickable. But, I’ll put this one down as neutral.

Another major oversight was the fact the touch screen position could not be adjusted in anyway. Your viewing experience depended on the seat in front.

In my opinion the device was in much need of an overhaul. Perhaps better grouping of icons, better categorization, better mapping, color-coding of features, better signifiers and adjustability could go a long way in improving user experience.

When you think about the number of nationalities utilizing international flights, language barriers, technological exposure and cultural differences, it makes sense to create a system that’s intuitive across boundaries.

Emirates ICE – User Experience In Action


In comparison, I believe one of the best user-friendly systems so far can be found on Emirates Airlines.

The Emirates ICE system is very intuitive. It color-codes three interfaces i.e. I = Information, C = Communication and E = Entertainment on the Home screen, so passengers know where they are or where to go at any given point. It also retains the main navigation bar (including the demarcated colors) on screen until otherwise unnecessary and all icons pretty much do what one expects them to. The inclusion of a ‘home’ button  is also a major plus (sort of like a get-out-of-trouble door).

The system incorporates a search function, seat-to-seat communication, duty-free shopping and live multi-directional camera feeds from the aircraft. The system also facilitates collaboration with personal mobile devices.

Gesture controls are also compatible with user interactions on other devices. The screens are tilt-capable to accommodate for seat adjustments, both self and the passenger ahead. A lot more functionality and customization when compared to what we were exposed to.


Agreeably, developing universally accepted icons and operation flows is a bit of a stretch given multiple countries, cultures and stakeholders involved. What we can do when divergencies exist, particularly in the case of language, is ensure at the very least, that that option is prominently visible with an international accepted icon to boot. I’m sure all airlines/countries could agree to this if not everything else.

The learning curve would be a lot easier if people understood what was in front of them. I also believe that when icons/symbols diverge, labeling helps, even if design is compromised a little.

User-Experience requires a lot of attention to detail and should be guided by research. It should never be left to chance or cash strapped. Wherever possible, use universally accepted icons/symbols and always try to build products for inclusion.

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