Lessons from Redesigning an Airport (pt. 2)

Airports are inefficiencies galore. Maybe that’s why they’re the best case studies for studying user experiences.

Here’s some of what I learned from “redesigning” the NAIA IV Domestic Terminal. This is a two-part series, with the first one written by Nina Domingo (you go, girl!). This introductory portion was taken from her piece, which can be found here.

Project Summary:

Use a Human-Centered Design framework to identify the pain points outbound passengers experience while going through the processes in NAIA Terminal IV, and offer feedback to CebGo on how these pain points may be tackled.

Framework (in terms of the study):

  • Empathize — Learn about the users and their behavior, background, problems and stories through personal observations and in-person interviews (Day 1 & 2)
  • Define — Identify the pain points in the user experience to set the framework for the rest of the study. It is important that we consider problems experienced by all types of people (e.g. people with ESL, elderly, pregnant women, etc) and not just ourselves while defining the problem.
  • Ideate — Think of as many different ideas as you can on how to solve the problems determined in the previous step and select the best ones for prototyping.
  • Prototype — Build the minimum viable product required to test the idea
  • Test — Put the prototype into action and run several rapid iterations to check if the product works and observe how it can be improved. Cycle back to previous steps if necessary and go from there.


  • Time — Because we only had a couple of days to pull off this study, we didn’t have time to prototype and test any of our ideas.
  • Recommendations — Our recommendations are limited to structural changes that can be made by the Cebu Pacific airline and the terminal itself. Other airlines’ operational systems are out of the study’s scope and operations were out of our purview.

Output: A report in progress! Check out the more technical aspects of our project here.

The Crew: Mika Reyes, Nina Domingo, Maxine Pinpin, Monica Recto, Alex Garcia, Kian Baula and Rafa Abaya


1. The importance of asking the right questions or knowing when to not ask them at all

The first day of our on-site research, I gave everyone a sheet of general questions to ask. We wanted to give open-ended questions to invite users to tell their stories. This was harder than expected — When asked, “How is your overall airport experience?” a lot of them said “Okay naman (it’s okay!)” When I tried to probe with more specific questions like “Do you like the food? Is it too expensive?” they were slightly more open to expressing their opinions about those, but that just made me feel like I was leading them to an answer I wanted. Asking the right questions is extremely difficult, and every user research endeavour will be a step towards that goal.

Selfie with Day 2 team (and the Cebu Pacific mascot!)

The second day, we still did interviews, with lessons learned from our first day. But I wanted us to focus on observing people. I wanted everyone to find one person and follow them throughout the entire process (slightly creepy, I know). I thought maybe then we could find answers to our questions, based on insights from their actions — and we did. One example: Nina observed this old lady with a younger woman helping her out. Nina discovered how difficult it was for the disabled or the elderly to lug all their things around. The terminal was not the most elderly/disabled friendly — something we may not have discovered with interviews alone. This segment gave us extremely important insights and informed a lot of our research.

For the future: Develop skills in asking the right questions, an undermined yet extremely important tool for life.

2. How getting used to something feeds into complacency

I observed a psychological phenomenon called learned helplessness. Martin Seligman subjected dogs to shocks, one was able to control the duration of these shocks with the push of a lever, while the other was unable to escape. The latter eventually gave up, and identified the situation as inescapable or hopeless. Even when the dog was shown how it could escape, the learned helplessness was in too deep and prevented the the dog from trying.

Need I say more?

When I probed with more specific questions about an experience, for example, “What do you feel about the waiting times?” some of them would respond defeatingly: “Nakakainis pero ano naman magagawa namin. (It sucks, but what can we do?)” The inefficiencies in the airport process have fed into their learned helplessness and everything, albeit causing them stress, was now accepted as fact. It was sad observing this discouraging sense of disempowerment. I wanted to hold their hands and tell them that they had power to change that and that we were here to help them!!! But, with the inefficiences within the airport bureaucracy (or maybe even the Philippine bureaucracy in general!) I understand their sentiment totally, and it’s sad that this learned helplessness might even permeate throughout Philippine culture.

For the future: How might we promote a more empowering culture and eradicate this notion of learned helplessness among Filipinos?

3. Just ask

I got rejected maybe 3 times throughout the experience. It hurt, I was embarrassed, I felt bad. Then I moved on. Guess what? Out of those 3 rejections, I gathered a team of 5, we ended up collectively with 80+ user interviews, 10+ employee interviews, and we made an awesome list of recommendations for the future of NAIA IV. I would not have gotten a super cool team of user researchers if I had not talked about my projects or outrightly asked if people wanted to join. We would not have gotten our interviews if we had not gotten over the first few minutes of hesitation. We would not have learned from the experience if we didn’t put ourselves out there.

For the future: Get over yourself! Benefits massively outweigh those 3 minutes of sulking from a rejection.

If you’re interested in learning more about the project feel free to check out our proposal and report in progress. Or send me an email at reyes.mikaelahelene@gmail.com. I love talking about entrepreneurship, storytelling, technology or life in general!

Also, don’t forget to check out Nina’s redesign reflections!