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Seeking the Adaptive Airport Experience



by Ashwin Rajan

(This article was first published on

I was late for my flight and rushing through Copenhagen's airport, a backpack over my shoulders and a large smartphone in one hand. Finding the right gate should have been easy in this rather small airport.

Instead, with only crucial minutes on hand, it was anything but. The distance to the gate seemed incredibly long. When I did reach the gate, I found that the text message notifying me with the gate number was actually wrong - the gate simply featured a different destination! What's more - the boarding card I had printed out of the kiosk had no gate number on it. I frantically searched for the airline schedule screen before I sprinted over to a cafe and breathlessly asked the vendor, who waved me in the direction of the nearest screen. After a scan of the confusingly long list of flights, I was able to find the right gate and run in just on time. As I was entering the plane, my mobile received an updated sms notification with the corrected gate number.

What just happened? And why? I can think of a few forces conspiring to create this unfortunately common, and highly undesirable, flyer experience.

Difficulty, or ease, is a matter of perception and context.

Things like time and distance, although measured in absolute terms, are actually extremely subjective and relative, especially in unfamiliar contexts. And even though airports are fairly standard in their overall format - (check-in > security > gate) - the differences in their specific design varies enough to be very confusing when time or attention is limited.

Airports drive two - competing - user experience journeys.

Increasingly, airports focussed on monetising the flyer moving through it are designed to capture as much shopping value as possible. So, for the majority of the experience past security check, an airport 'behaves' more like a shopping mall with signage to the gates. The shopping mall experience strategy is to drive a leisurely user journey, one that assumes considerable user time available; it supports browsing, curiosity, lingering and exploration. It is the place of brands, products and services wooing the browser within every available square foot of real estate, both real and virtual.

In this process, the second and more critical experience journey - the navigational one - suffers unintended collateral damage. Even well-designed signage systems, navigational aids, and icons are simply out-competed by the shopping experience. A "normal" human being requires a a minimum optimum amount of resources, time and attention, to navigate this maze.

This conflict in design is the reason for the fatigue you experience as a result of passing through an airport - you are simultaneously pushing forward and being held back at the same time.

The fatigue you experience in passing through an airport is because you simultaneously pushing forward (driven ny the urgency of getting to your plane) and being held back (by the brands and stores trying to get your attention).

Airports are not designed for adaptive human pace.

As a result, the cognitive effort it takes to get from point A to point B within an airport can vary - a lot. Things change if you are with a family rather than alone, or with a single carry-on rather than with many bags or shopping. The journey and the space aren't very forgiving to your context or liabilities. When liabilities increase, the shopping user journey starts to get in the way of the navigational journey. As a user's most important resource - in my case above, time - diminishes, they less they can adapt to changing conditions such as a gate change. The system instead should adapt.


Travelers can't rely on the usual social signifiers.

Humans rely all the time on 'social signifiers' - other peoples behaviour - to operate in the world. The social signifiers we follow in public could be literal or iconic. For example, we see a path stamped out through the park grass and we assume it's a shortcut to somewhere. We see people running for a train and assume it is leaving soon. We also can tell when a bunch of people are probably headed for a rock concert by the way they are dressed and interacting.


But places like airports skew our ability to read social signifiers significantly. Airports are full of the similar looking people doing similar stuff everywhere. So in this mish-mash of human bodies, we rely on deeper cues, things like people's ethnicity or other cultural markers, to navigate through the shopping mall journey. But this only works a small lucky percentage of the time.


'Digizens' don't comprehend, or forgive, systemic screwups.

Digital experiences are by their nature designed for increasing seamlessness. In the sense that, non-technical (read, above 99%) users increasingly don't comprehend that different stacks of services owned by different service providers work in tandem to support their seamless experience. Users simply can't keep track of all the underlying layers of technology-enabled services, and they shouldn't! So they don't - and shouldn't - care that the airline has supported their digital experience until a very specific point, and then the airport has taken over the experience, and therefore the last minute gate change. Who is to blame? The simple user conclusion is - everyone! When even a single digital service in the stack screws up, the entire system loses face and brand value.

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