Translating My Poor Travel Experience Into Lessons for Good Tech Design

Design is everywhere. Good design is not.

Image: Katerina Kamprani

Last week I took an amazing trip to Guyana. As is the law of the universe, no amazing trip can end without a less-than-ideal transit experience back home. For me, that was the 20 hours I spent at airports or in the air (note to self: next time don’t book tickets three days in advance). But there’s a lesson in everything I suppose, and this time around it was about the universality of good design principles. If you look hard enough, you’ll see that all of these are equally applicable to the tech world as they are to the travel industry. Here are the three lessons that spoke to me the most:

Where do I go?

The first thing you see when you arrive at the only departure terminal in Guyana’s main airport is a mass of people crowding around the entrance to the building. What are they doing there? Unclear. Where do I go? Also unclear. There seems to be some form of security person and a parting of the sea of people in front of the entrance. Are these people waiting in line to check-in? To go through security? Turns out neither of those is true (I still have no idea why all of those people were there). I walk past the throngs of people to get inside and I’m met with another zoo that looks something like this:

Image: Guyana Chronicle

Now where? I don’t see a banner for my airline. I eventually discover that the check-in desk is under the banner of another airline. I drop my bag off at the security scanner and wait there, since I see other people waiting there too. After a minute the person manning the scanner tells me I don’t need to wait. Cool, see ya. After that, I’m supposed to stand in another line to pay my exit tax (which… I mean… come on, an exit tax? Really?). That line is either at a booth inside the airport or is at a window outside the building where those throngs of people were. Luckily, I had apparently already paid my exit tax among the dozen or so other fees I paid when I bought my ticket so I got to skip that line… wherever it was.

The point is: at no point in this experience did I know where to go or what I should be doing. Nothing was obvious when everything should have been obvious. Particularly for foreigners in a somewhat stressful context who may be visiting for the first time, comfort in knowing what they’re doing is essential. The same is true for users trying your product for the first time:

Design Lesson #1: Users shouldn’t have to think. It should be obvious how to use your product.

If my airport experience is so bad that I miss my flight or adds an undue amount of stress to my experience, it leaves a bad taste and will probably influence my decision about whether or not to come visit again. Similarly, if I can’t figure out how to play your game, I’m uninstalling it. If I don’t know how to put together my drone, I’m returning it. If I can’t figure out your online checkout system, I’m not buying the items in my cart. Don’t make me think, just surprise and delight me with how amazing your product is.

What flight is this?

I managed to make my flight and got one of those state-of-the-art paper customs forms to fill out. When it came time to write in my flight number, I pulled out my boarding pass and… there was no flight number written on it. A few hours earlier when I had boarded the plane, the gate agent had scanned my boarding pass and tore off the part of it that contained all of the additional information. While that little boarding pass stub I kept had served its purpose for one audience (the gate agent), it wasn’t able to serve my purpose now.

Design Lesson #2: Know your audience.

WhatsApp offers us a great example of design done right when it comes to knowing your audience. Originally, the product was built to enable users to show the equivalent of a Facebook status, but on their phones. What the company found in their user behavior was that people were updating their statuses very, very frequently because they were using those status updates as a makeshift chat system. With that audience insight, they changed the functionality of their product to focus specifically on building out chat capabilities. And then they immediately sold the company to Facebook for more money than you would ever see in 100 lifetimes. Ok, it wasn’t immediate, but there were maybe one or two steps in between, at most.

A Darwin Award in the making

After 18 hours of travel, my phone battery was all but dead. Luckily, I was on one of those fancy new planes where every seat has an outlet beneath it. In theory, this is great. People are flying with more and more electronics. Flights are long. People need to recharge any number of devices, especially if airlines are moving away from in-flight entertainment systems toward providing entertainment on your own devices. The problem is that outlets are pretty hard to use if you can’t see where to plug in. If you’ve ever tried to pick up something you’ve dropped while sitting in a coach airplane seat, you know exactly what I’m talking about. With all seven of inches of room you’ve got between you and the seat in front of you, you’re essentially forced to bend down and blindly search with your hands for your beloved bag of pretzels (and good luck if the person in front of you is already fully reclined 45 seconds after takeoff).

Photo: USA Today

The same is true of these outlets. First, you have to search for the outlet itself. Next, you have to feel the face of it to try and decipher the orientation of the outlet. Third, and perhaps most difficult of all, you need to blindly plug in your device, which is both frustrating and potentially dangerous since now we’re dealing with electricity.

Design Lesson #3: Context matters.

I’m sure that in the design studio, these outlets were beautiful. I’m sure that when this outlet was put on the seat and the entire row was demonstrated on its own, it was easy to see how convenient it was to plug in the device. But when that seat is place right behind another row of seats as is the case in the real world, the seemingly simple becomes nearly impossible.

We can see this principle in action with Embrace, an infant warmer designed to be low-cost for use in the developing world. In these parts of the world, more technologically advanced methods for keeping babies warm are prohibitively expensive. Parents warmed up the device and a gauge told them when it was 37 degrees, the right temperature for the baby to be put inside.

Image: Embrace

However, in the field, they found that parents believed Western medicine was too extreme, and would only warm the device to 30 degrees. Understanding this context enabled the Embrace team to search for a design solution, switching the gauge to an indicator that said “OK” to remove the cross-cultural misconceptions preventing the proper use of their product (the team has since gone through additional iterations of a readiness indicator).

Twenty hours later I finally made it home. Aside from finding the one functioning drinking fountain in the Panama airport (FYI, next to Gate D8), my biggest takeaway was that lessons about technology don’t need to come from studying technology.

Have you learned any design lessons from your own travels that can apply to the tech world? Let me know in a response.

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