Priority Queue — Designing Ryanair’s Boarding Pass

Lynsey Duncan, former Service Designer and Aonghus Davoren, former UI Designer at Ryanair Labs, were the lucky designers who got to redesign the boarding pass that passes the hands of thousands of people everyday. The pair joined a talented team of designers in Ryanair labs over a year ago to help fulfil the company’s new promise to be nicer to their customer.

You can also read this article here.


The History of Ryanair’s Boarding Pass

The humble boarding pass, up until the mid 2000’s was just a simple document to get you from the check-in desk to your airplane seat. Gate Number? Check. Seat Number? Check. Ample time to peruse the shops and sip a fine Italian macchiato while you waited for flight number to be called.

Old Boarding Pass

Fast forward to 2005 and Irish airline Ryanair decide to change the landscape of how you board your flight. Eager to change the customer behaviour of queuing at check-in desks to have boarding passes printed, they allowed customers to check-in online, print their own boarding pass and make their way to the gate thus bypassing all those nasty queues.

The reason? Board planes quicker, faster turnaround at airports, cut operation costs and run more flights per day. The catch? If you forgot to print your own boarding pass you’d incur a hefty fee for the convenience of Ryanair printing it for you.

What was once a simple piece of paper became an invaluable currency capable of inducing mountainous volumes of stress for already jittery travellers.

Any designer worth their salt should jump at the chance to redesign a boarding pass. A quick dribbble search and you’ll see hundreds of mocked up boarding passes for both screen and print. Dig a little deeper and you will see how many leave out the details that are necessary for both customers and flight operations. This isn’t a criticism of any of those mockups, what we want to highlight is the vast chasm of difference between a visual concept and a living design that needs to satisfy both business requirements and user needs.

In the following article we’ll outline the beginnings of the project, some of the challenges we encountered and ultimately what we learned from the process of redesigning Ryanair’s boarding pass.

The Beginning

To start we need to go back to the beginning of how this project came about. In 2014 Ryanair launched ‘Digital Labs’. The goal of which is to bring the airline into the 21st century by hiring a team of dedicated engineers, designers and product owners. The primary focus of the early stages of the team was to re-engineer the existing website into a travel platform that would both cater for the increased customer demand and scale with business expectations.

Starting the Project

During the design of our new platform, we were tasked with designing check-in. There was no scope for redesigning the paper boarding pass, but we felt it warranted the same level of design consideration. Compared with both our competitors and our own mobile app boarding pass, we felt it contained too much information with poor hierarchy.

We could have easily disregarded investing time into the paper boarding pass with the launch of our mobile app version. However, paper is not quite dead yet with many of our passengers still relying on it, if only for a physical backup.

Rethinking this iconic document felt within our reach, so bursting with excitement and a touch of naivety, we went to seek out a few stakeholders who had the down-low on the boarding pass. Hooray! Everyone seemed up for change. We questioned the necessity of every single item on the existing pass. These early conversations with the stakeholders were positive with very few blockers, however we lacked detail on the scale of changes we were about to make.

The Research

With everyone onboard, we launched into the next phase; research. As referenced earlier, there are plenty of redesigns of boarding passes but the majority of these are UI mockups to showcase a designer’s skill-set. We needed more concrete examples of boarding passes that were out in the wild.

Two airlines that stood out were Virgin America and Vueling with their foldable boarding passes. This folding concept became more intriguing following some research conducted at Dublin Airport. We observed that a sizeable number of people did in fact fold their boarding pass into quarters so they could insert it into their Passport.

Enthused with possibilities, we got a bunch of designers into a room for a quick sketching session. In a very short space of time we had a couple of new boarding pass layouts that had a better information hierarchy, used less aviation jargon and contained a passenger travel plan for the flight in question.

Below you can see an early wireframe concept for the boarding pass, designed for the user behaviour of folding that A4 piece of paper into quarters.

Old Boarding Pass and Wireframe of new concept

The New Design

The new concept contained 4 distinct sections. Let’s talk about the rationale behind each of these.

Section 1: Travel timeline

On the old version of the boarding pass we had a section called ‘important reminders’. This was a block of dense text, essentially explaining the times you had to be at the airport and the documents you had to bring. Stakeholders insisted we keep it after we questioned its inclusion, but they were open to a change of format. In our sketching session we had the idea to turn this into a travel plan to make it feel more personal to the traveller.

Section 2: The actual boarding pass

This is the most important section and front page when folded into a booklet. This was modelled on our more simplified mobile app boarding pass. We grouped the information in a logical way i.e, one area for boarding information, another area for origin, destination, dates/times and finally a section for flight operations. We also included a yellow banner which was designed as an alert for staff when a passenger required special attention, for example their documents needed to be checked or they required special assistance to board the plane.

Section 3: Bags & Operational checks

This section visually broke down the cabin baggage restrictions. An outline of a stamp was included for passengers who needed their documents checked before boarding.

Section 4: Promotional space

Finally, a large part of Ryanair’s revenue is generated by ancillary income, so allowing for ad space was an important business requirement.

The Prototype

We had a concept we were pretty happy with, but would it work for customers and operational staff? Let’s test it! One of the most exciting methods in a service designer’s toolkit is experience prototyping, which was the perfect methodology for testing the boarding pass. A few members of our team were due to travel, so we created a prototype boarding pass to test in this real travel situation.

Experience Prototype

Using the prototype, they made their way to their flight, and asked for feedback from airport staff and crew. The main learning was that a good hierarchy of information is crucial as quick scanning is essential.

Coincidentally our Chief Marketing Officer was on the same flight as our team members with the experience prototype. He took a real interest in what had been produced and requested that the CEO of our airline should see this new boarding pass concept. Wireframes wouldn’t cut it, so we quickly put together a visual design.

The Visual

We had just started to investigate some of the technical considerations but all of these evaporated like a mouse’s fart as we had to quickly turn around a visual that would demonstrate the work we had done so far and our plans to proceed with the project.

We were sure this was a temporary concept to illustrate our vision, then we could go back to the list of technical questions and requirements, maybe work with some developers, sandbox some ideas and develop some prototypes. Some freshly printed boarding passes later, labelled “CEO” and we got back to our scheduled workload.

Some of the early quick visuals

Feedback

Getting feedback from our CEO was an exciting moment, it being positive was a bonus. He suggested a few enhancements, but in general was happy with the progress we had made.

As we basked in our talents as designers, the immortal words were uttered:Let’s line it up for sprint…

The red button has been pressed, the conveyor belt has started, designs are needed for salivating developers…we had two quick visual concepts and yet to be written down list of technical questions.

Stakeholders & Requirements

With the wheels in motion we started to gather the ‘real requirements’. Turns out there were almost 50 variants of the boarding pass! We needed to cater for information including visa checks, fare types, discounts, fast tracks and all sorts of other edge cases, not to mention allowing for translation into other languages.

Our initial interviews with stakeholders were useful, however with the wheels of change kicking into motion the importance of the project took a serious shift. More stakeholders began to come out of the woodwork and included everyone from Operations, Airport systems, Ancillary, Immigration, etc. It surprised us how much importance was placed on this one paper document.

As well as trying to make it work for all these existing requirements, there was a growing list of new requirements that cropped up along the way. As these operational requirements surfaced we began to run out of space on the boarding pass. We had no option but to use the yellow banner that we’d reserved for those customers needing special attention for this extra information. While we had created more variations of the layout we felt wedded to the version that had initially received such positive feedback.

Technical

One of the most difficult aspects of design within a company whose customers span multiple countries is ensuring a good user experience across different languages. When your primary language is English it’s tempting to create a quick mock-up and get it signed off by the stakeholders, bypassing millions of users who converse in a different language.

One way to overcome this problem is to design with localisation in mind, giving extra space for the words to flow into. However this can cause a problem when presenting to stakeholders as the design can look ‘empty’ and can result in negative feedback. This kind of feedback usually (but not always) occurs when a designer is not present to talk the stakeholder through the layout. To satisfy both user requirements and business requests we created a second template that would cater for the localised languages.

Another issue that affected the flexibility of the layout was down to the old boarding pass being served to the user as a HTML template. This could then be printed, or downloaded as a pdf for printing later. This delivery was to continue in the new boarding pass due to the lack of time to research a new method, meaning that we had to consider all the nasty quirks of cross browser support into our new boarding pass template.

In order to free up some space for important information we wanted to replace the bulky barcode with the aztec code we used on our mobile boarding pass. Having tested a couple of our prototypes we didn’t foresee any issues. However the IATA (International Air Transport Association) standard recommends barcodes for paper documents. No problem we thought, we can make this work with a smaller barcode. However even this seemingly small change had to be scrapped as changing the barcode size would have required testing at almost 200 airports. With only a few weeks until go-live, we were forced to retain the existing barcode dimensions.

The result

Our clean design and folding concept was really stretched with all the requirements and technical issues, but that’s real life! After many trade-offs, compromises, and tests, this is the boarding pass that we arrived at:

The finished boarding pass
“Design is an exercise in considered compromise.” Mark Boulton

In just over 4 months the boarding pass evolved from pencil sketch to being folded, scanned and eventually discarded by thousands of passengers daily. With the almost 250,000 passengers flying each day, this is pretty impressive.

Working on this project really immersed us in the aviation industry, so it was a great learning experience from that perspective. It was also a lesson in the art of compromise. With so many stakeholders, and indeed end users there were many trade-offs to be made. While we can see problems with the finished design, we think we’ve created a much more user centred boarding pass. Our main failing was in not considering deeply enough the end user that is the operational staff.

Even though there were frustrations, it was truly a privilege to get to work on a boarding pass that is used by millions of people annually. Would we do it again? Of course we would!

Lessons Learned

Of course no project you work on is complete without discussing what you have learnt. Here’s what we’d do differently next time:

  • Showing a version of the boarding pass gave us more feedback from stakeholders than abstract conversations, so we’d do this earlier.
  • Gather requirements to have a more finished design before showing to senior stakeholders.
  • Be more considerate of the flight operations requirements as a user base.
  • Be more open to change, even if a concept has been ‘signed off’.
  • Attend senior stakeholder presentations, so design rationale isn’t lost.
  • Make sure to explain the role of design to stakeholders.
  • Make sure to dig deeper into what a project really entails, the smaller projects often have iceberg like features.