Making Companies Competitive By Expanding Design’s Role

It’s miserable to be sitting at an airport gate, hearing that the airline has cancelled the very flight you were hoping to board. You now get to enter a special type of air travel hell, where the airline works (without seeming to care) to get you on another flight to your destination. Most of the flights are full and those that aren’t only have a few empty seats. You’re stuck and the airline can’t quite deliver on its simple promise of delivering you to your destination.

That’s frustration. Frustration is the stock and trade of the airline industry.

Frustration is also one end of the ways we can measure a user experience, with delight being its polar opposite. Decisions — design decisions, in fact — are what determine if a customer is delighted or frustrated. The decision to cancel the flight created the frustration.

Though it may seem the contrary, the airline didn’t make that decision lightly. They had a good reason.

Let’s say, in this case, the reason was a safety issue. The mechanics, upon a routine pre-flight inspection, noticed that one of the rotor blades in the jet engine was out of alignment. While the plane can still fly, it’s less efficient and dramatically increases the chance of mid-flight engine failure. (If you think getting your flight cancelled is a bad day, try a mid-flight engine failure. Not fun at all.)


The flight gets cancelled. The plane is towed into a repair bay. The engine is removed and repairs are made. This misaligned rotor blade has taken the plane out of service for several days, which has now affected many other operations issues, where more passengers are frustrated by changes in their schedules.

The Passenger’s Experience from Engine Design

The newest jet engines are designed to prevent this kind of passenger frustration. It’s not that they don’t fail — that’s impossible with mechanical equipment that’s constantly in use. It’s that they can predict their failure.

GE, a dominant manufacturer of jet engines, has designed their engines to track their performance. Their newest generation of engines collect data in use. Upwards of a terabyte of data per flight.

In that data is how each part of the engine is performing. Including the rotor blades. If a blade starts to shift, even a thousandth of a millimeter, the sensors can detect it.

GE’s software engineers have written applications to go through the engine data after each flight. It can signal to the airline’s maintenance operations staff that the engine will need repair and predict the best time to do it.

If caught early enough, the engine can be repaired without taking it off the plane. That’s huge, because it puts the plane back in service much sooner.

There are no surprises to the operations team, which means the passengers won’t notice. A substitute plane for any affected scheduled flights can be slotted into service imperceptibly. Flights leave on time and land on time, resulting in delighted passengers.

The Jet Engine Engineer as Experience Designer

GE’s engineers have designed jet engines for decades. Never once did they consider themselves an experience designer.

Yet, decisions they make can frustrate or delight airline passengers, airline personnel, and others. They are making decisions that affect the experience of those folks. They are experience designers, whether they like it or not.

The Downstream Effect of Experience Design

This isn’t just happening in the airline industry. It’s happening everywhere. We’re seeing it in banking, retail, education, and even government.

Companies that make point of sale equipment are thinking about the bookkeepers, retail cashiers, and purchasers. Manufacturers of medical devices are thinking about hospitals, doctors, patients, and even the patients’ caregivers. Designers of educational materials are designing for curriculum developers, teachers, students, and the students’ parents.

Professionals are making decisions that affect the experience of the people who use their products or services, even if they aren’t the direct customers of their company. Those decisions can either frustrate or delight. People who never knew they were designers are now affecting the downstream user experience.

Becoming More Competitive by Expanding Design’s Role

In the last few years, companies like GE, Fidelity, Marriott, MasterCard, IBM, Paypal, Nasdaq, and Capital One have realized they can gain a competitive advantage by producing better downstream user experiences. They’re driving change in their industry by helping their customers’ organizations deliver better experiences in their own products and services.

It’s not good enough to delight your direct customers. You have to delight all the customers and employees down the supply chain. Your methods for user research must go beyond your customers. Use cases and scenarios have to include what happens downstream. Every method we use has to adapt.

This is a new level of design awareness for organizations. It’s beyond the basic struggles of producing something acceptable to the market. It requires understanding how design can make a difference to anyone who directly or indirectly interacts with the product.

An airline passenger may never know the engines on their plane are producing data to prevent their flights from being cancelled. But the designers know that, even before they knew they were designers.