I recently had the opportunity to revisit an airport terminal I worked on 20 years ago. I had not returned since its construction and my last memory of the project was walking through the site and conducting a construction review recording my notes on a mini cassette recorder.
As I sat down, absorbed in a nostalgic moment, I gazed at the aircraft pushing back and reflected back to the time and place when I worked on the design. The architectural firm I was working for believed that the best ideas could come from anyone in the room, and that it was our responsibility as design leaders to engage the entire team and bring out the best ideas for discussion.
The philosophy was actively reinforced and I remembered the flow of ideas from the room and the discussions about them that followed. It requires discipline and consistent effort in the pursuit of that ideal.
Although experience was nearly two decades ago, it’s interesting to recall within the current context of ‘inclusion and diversity’ that has become a popular focus in the business world and in the airport industry today.
‘Inclusion and diversity’ as a topic has been actively discussed for quite some time, and is being adopted into the mission of many Fortune 500 companies, including my current employer. Its application is broad, guiding organisation’s in aspects from recruitment to project execution and in environments ranging from the business workplace to community organisations.
Diversity can be generally defined as the recognition of human differences that span multiple categories which include race, gender, cultural and ethnic background and more. The definition of inclusion is an effort, through any means, that results in an emotional state of inclusivity and a desire for individuals to contribute for the betterment of a specific goal.
As airport designers, it is important to practice inclusion and diversity in the design process as it positively impacts the terminal design and improves the level of customer service.
Airport terminals are the cross-roads of the world
It is hard to think of another public building that comes close to an airport in terms of the wide range of people travelling through and its facilities.
In the early days of aviation, airports may have seen only the very wealthy pass through. However, as air travel has progressed and become more accessible, the spectrum of the travelling public has widened to represent a greater cross section of the population.
Today’s passengers come from all walks of life and from diverse backgrounds. As airport planners and designers, we need to identify and respond to needs that come from a diverse travelling public in order to provide the best of passenger experience and customer service.
We need to understand how we can make their journeys more convenient, stress free, enjoyable, easy to navigate and that provide amenities that are valued.
As the airport user group of today is more complex than it has been in the past, we must enhance our design in order to better capture the knowledge that will help us design better facilities, tailored to the needs and desires of passengers.
And we need to begin by understanding that the assumptions we often make in the traditional design process has its boundaries.
Assumptions are limiting
In early phases of design, we often identify key passenger profiles and personify them as a means for us to imagine the journey through the eyes of different passenger types.
As we envisage their path and track each of their journeys through the airport, we make assumptions about their experience and the challenges they might face along the way. We identify their challenges and specific needs based on our own experiences with the types of passengers we have identified.
In rare cases, we may actually bear similarity to a specific passenger type, but in most cases, we do not and therefore we can never truly understand how it is to experience life as that person.
A good example of this would be designing facilities for international passengers. Thinking back to a past project for the design of a new airport immigration facility in the US, I recall a discussion involving a new processing procedure that was non-traditional in layout.
While the operators of the space were sceptical that it would be universally understood and would only lead to confusion, the designers argued the opposite, likening it to a grocery store self check-out, and therefore intuitive. But would this be true if I were a passenger coming from a foreign country where this technology and process didn’t exist?
Adding the additional challenges that a non-English speaker would face, this design would likely be a daunting experience for international travellers.
Assumptions are limiting and many of us don’t know what the airport experience is like for many people. Do any of us truly understand what it is like for the elderly, the foreigner with little knowledge of the local language or the visually impaired going through an airport?
As design professionals we are further biased because we are experts in this field and understand how airports operate. This, ultimately, impairs our ability to empathise with travellers and truly understand their experience at an airport from their perspective.
Seek diversity in the design process
In order to design terminals that are more suited to a diverse traveller population, designers should invite and include more diversity into the review and critique of design alternatives.
Inviting comments and opinions from an audience of greater diversity can provide ideas that would help direct the development of the design towards a better passenger experience.
Carefully selecting a diverse group to ‘test run’ the passenger journey will reveal insight that will positively impact the final design from a customer service standpoint. We should reach beyond the project team and tap into the greater resources of the organisations we all work within to find the diversity of people that could help make our new airport designs a success.
With virtual reality technology, we also have the ability to immerse our audience directly into a virtual construct of a new terminal design that hasn’t been built yet. In this way, they can provide better experiential feedback compared to just drawings alone.
As an example of the benefits of diversity in concept review, I recall a project where our team presented their study of an airport terminal to an audience that included the firm’s healthcare specialists. This careful joining of market sectors was able to spark synergy and cross pollination of ideas.
As I walked through our concept study and took in queries, I quickly realised how limited we were, as aviation professionals and frequent flyers, in our ability to assess the arrivals wayfinding experience for the general public. As non-aviation professionals the audience were able to point out difficulties in understanding the exact path through the process – as healthcare specialists they were acutely aware of the traveller’s every step and turning point.
I later learned that intuitive wayfinding in healthcare facilities is vitally important as it could impact the patient’s anxiety and perception of care provided at the facility. This rings true at airports as well; the healthcare specialists may have a better ability to empathise with the travelling public.
Airport customer surveys aimed at diverse passengers are further proof that there are needs and expectations from travellers that we would never realise unless we asked them.
For example, when conducting research to find out what international passengers wanted to find included in the design of a planned new terminal, the customer service department of one airport discovered that Chinese travellers were disappointed that they could not find any hot water dispensers.
From my own travels in China, I remember seeing vending stations inside airports that included hot water dispensers used by travellers to make tea in their own thermoses and also for pouring into cup noodles during long flight delays.
Surveys such as these tell us that different cultures can have very different expectations when it comes to airport amenities and customer service levels.
Whether it is through diversifying our design team/review panel or conducting surveys to find out what different passenger groups want, we need to seek diversity and enrich the design process by becoming more sensitive to the varying needs of a multicultural and diverse travelling population.
This way, we can overcome the limitations of our assumptions and create better designs that elevate customer service levels at airports.