For much of the last two decades, airlines have successfully positioned air travel as being an experiential transition between two destinations. In light of that, airlines have consistently updated and upgraded their offerings to deliver a perceivably more pleasant experience. For the purpose of this article I’m going to concentrate on in-flight infotainment.
While seating comfort and catering are obviously class restricted, infotainment rarely is. Back in the day, passengers had fewer in-flight options to seek solace. For example, apart from a limited music selection, there used to be a single over-head visual display in each cabin and users were left with little choice but to accept whatever was playing. Before that, there was even less – newspapers and magazines.
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.
On a recent flight to Paris, I travelled coach on the advice of colleagues that the flight usually left empty. Not only was it jam packed, but I lost the elbow battle for the arm rest miserably. In what was sure to be an uncomfortable 10-hour journey, I decided to take advantage of a rather sizable selection of new movies.
Two minutes into my interaction with the touch screen and I had spotted a few deviations from the mental-models I had acquired over time. Through repetitive use of interactive technology, particularly mobile phones, computers and apps, we have become accustomed to certain icons and mappings.
However, I was relegated to trial and error as a manner of acquainting myself with the new interface. Now, this may appear acceptable for first-time interactions with any new device. Admit it, most of us never read the user-manual before operation.
But, consider the gentleman seated beside me whose only recourse was to use the icons as guide. This was because the system in front of him was set to french (a language he was obviously not familiar with). It is during these situations that we rely upon past learnings or commonly associated practices for help.
Let’s look at the interactive touch display below to evaluate further.
I have deliberately color-coded the circles (red being difficult and green being easy to comprehend). I’ll explain why the audio socket at the bottom is marked red later.
Placing the menu icon on a navigation bar is compatible with what most people expect. The same holds true for the ‘power-on/off’ button. Note: The power-on/off button simply toggles sleep mode, it’s not really an on/off switch. But, it gets the desired result. No complaints with understanding the ‘sound’ and ‘brightness’ icons as well. They are universally understood. The feedback from those clickthroughs were evident in-ear and on-screen.
However the lightbulb and persona icons were a bit misleading. Most passengers assumed that the persona icon would lead them to user preferences/settings, something we find in most apps. In truth, the icon was a call for assistance. The sheer number of false requests was testimony to the confusion.
In addition, most passengers kept poking at the overhead lights incessantly when in fact that particular operation was linked to the ‘lightbulb’ icon on the touch screen. Usually, both these controls reside overhead. Also the symbols could have been more appropriate, though I’ve seen worse.
The ‘filter on/off’ icon led my colleague and I to think that it would help drill down to more relevant searches. We were far off. It led to a language selection page instead.
The audio jack seemed to be the most obvious, or so we thought. But, when presented with a two-pronged plug it seemed counter-intuitive. We later realized when a fellow passenger claimed to have broken his, that it was actually intended to work that way so that only a single connector was in use.
The ‘airplane’ icon led to what most believed was a real-time multi-angle camera view from the airplane and its flight path (as the accompanying text indicated). Again, we were a little disappointed to note that it actually led to a graphical representation of a map with call-outs. This was an obsolete system that airlines used in the past. Much progress has been made since.
The ‘star’ icon, marked yellow, wasn’t very difficult to grasp. With a bit of probing it led to a favorites section which drew consistency with the hollow stars found in movie titles as seen in the photo. Of course, it was not very evident at the beginning. Usually we associate favorites/likes with a little ‘heart’ icon. But this can be forgiven.
In my opinion the interface was in need of an overhaul. Perhaps, better grouping of icons into related categories, color-coding features and providing better signifiers could go along way in improving usefulness. When you think about the number of nationalities utilizing your flights, language barriers, technological exposure and the cultural differences amongst them, it makes sense to create a system that’s intuitive across boundaries. It’s not as simple as it sounds of course, but by some measure, improvements are necessary.
Enter Emirates ICE
In comparison (from personal experience), I believe that the best user-friendly system so far can be found on Emirates Airlines (I’m sure there are others too). 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 (sort of a get-out-of-trouble door) is also a major plus.
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 users interactions on other devices. To top if off, the screen resolution is brilliant. The screens are tilt-capable to accommodate for seat adjustments, both self and the passenger ahead. Charging sources were also in close proximity. The last two features being absent on my Paris flight.
Agreeably, developing universally accepted symbols/icons and operation flows takes a huge amount of time and effort, especially when we factor in the numerous countries, cultures and stakeholders involved. What we can do when such divergencies exist, particularly when language is a barrier, is perhaps offer a system reset with the ability to reboot in the language of choice. The learning curve would be a lot easier if people had a better understanding of what’s in front of them. There would be fewer demands on flight attendants time and fewer confused passengers.
I also believe that when icons/symbols diverge, labeling helps, even if design is compromised a little. Perceived affordances and signifiers together constrain actions or help avoid unnecessary ones. We also have to take habit into account. For instance, some operations like the overhead light and assistance request were always located above. It’s also a natural location that passengers look for. Perhaps better mapping could be applied in this case.
Else, information in the environment should direct passengers to a single location that controls all aspects of their commute in-flight. Offering a self-serve menu option is also beneficial. Remember, most people do not pay attention to in-flight demonstrations and rarely browse the system manual. Yet, this shouldn’t impede the system from covering for it.