City of Sound is about cities, design, architecture, music, media, politics and more. Written by Dan Hill since 2001.

Occasionally, I’ll make a some quick notes about a new product or service designed elsewhere, unpacking what thoughts I have at the time, primarily as a reference and marker. The thing could be anticipated rather than experienced, as per the iPad, or quickly explored in order to make broader points, as with the redesign of The Guardian. What follows is probably about a few current interests: service design, identity and touch/wireless-enabled transactional spaces. This article was originally published at on January 4, 2011.

I fly a lot. A few thousand kilometres every week on average. I’m not proud of this, and as much as I remain fascinated by airports and aviation I’d really rather not fly so regularly. The reasons for regret are multiple, from family life to carbon footprint to the dismal lack of a high-speed rail alternative, but also because Qantas has an effective monopoly in domestic aviation in Australia. (As with many sectors here, privately-owned effective monopolies rule, from Qantas to Telstra to Coles supermarkets, which leaves punters with few of the benefits of either publicly-owned enterprises or of diverse, competitive markets. It is probably part of the reason why innovation in products and services is so thin on the ground in Australia.) As such, Qantas can deliver a patchy service and largely get away with it.

But, particular credit where it is due for their new frequent flyer check-in experience, which — at this admittedly early stage — is one of the most promising mainstream examples of touch technology and service design I’ve seen recently.

It was launched at Sydney’s Kingsford Smith Airport (SYD) about a month ago. I was there on the day before launch, heading up to Brisbane, and noticed the newly installed check-in poles under cover. On the following day I was there again, horribly early to head to Melbourne, and the system was live.

I’d been sent a new smart card and set of luggage tags a week before. The tags, and what looked like the packaging they arrived in, are designed by Australian designer Marc Newson, and contain sensors that ‘lock’ my identity to the bags, meaning the bags can just be dropped off rather than manually checked-in. The tags are robust, and with pleasingly firm, rubbery tactility, like heavy-ish discs and with a simple loop to attach to bag handles.

The other primary physical interaction is with new check-in ‘poles’ dotted throughout the entry to the terminal concourse. These are the first things passengers see, and are tall-ish tapering columns whose top half is a a glowing ambient light. They go green when a successful check-in occurs.

That the check-in poles are tall is important, with the light forming a beacon of sorts. You can imagine that with more of these poles, in more frequent use, the concourse could be a pulsing array of green lights as passengers move through them, each indicating a successful check-in (a simple reinforcement trick I’ve used on a few projects; potentially ‘confirmation’ has greater value at this civic scale, enabling social learning and potentially even social proof.)

The pole itself is a appealing shape, in terms of the right thickness tapering to a point just above average head height. A pole seems an appropriate form — what else could it have been? Build quality seems OK, though it’ll be interesting to see how it wears.

The contact point is below a simple relatively low-resolution display. You wonder if the display could be higher resolution, but it doesn’t need to do much. It feels more progressive that the pole itself — via its beacon — is the primary interface, rather than a traditional display. Latency in recognising the (presumably RFID-enabled) card is good, and I quite like the straightforward line-art animation indicating where you’re supposed to swipe. After swiping your card across it, your booking is retrieved — or not — and checks you in. That’s it, you’re done. No paper, nothing.

The Qantas card is now the boarding pass, and an SMS is immediately sent to your mobile, networks permitting, with seat number and flight details (seating preferences etc. can be personalised beforehand). There’s no paper involved until you’re boarding the flight, when a ‘boarding receipt’ is handed to you upon swiping the card again at the gate, containing basic flight details. It’s a physical shadow of the SMS’s digital record.

It’s interesting that paper is required at this last point, presumably to act as a physical token — Qantas assuming, perhaps rightly, that we’re not ready for purely digital transactions around flying yet? — and to more easily prevent disputes over seats on-board, perhaps. Mobile screens are just not ready to be used in that way yet, despite it being entirely possibly technically, and with the likes of Nokia having been ready for years (and perhaps able to, in a context like OneWorld partner airline Finnair?). The paper token feels a little flimsy, from a system point-of-view, compared to what’s gone before, but it’s probably pragmatic. Otherwise, the whole process feels as rapid and responsive as it could be. It’s impressive.

Having said all that, the check-in poles have only actually retrieved my booking for around five of the ten or so occasions I’ve used it so far. It’s often been unable to retrieve my check-in, meaning I’ve had to use the more traditional check-in kiosks — which have also been redesigned, with what feels like a slightly more complex interface, with an additional step for no reason, and maybe a fraction of a second of additional latency too. Though physically they do have a pleasing portliness about them.

That the touch check-in poles have only worked for me half the time so far — as in, managed to retrieve by booking — is clearly an issue, but I suspect this is to do with wider service integration aspects (I imagine it’s to do with the particular way flights are booked through our firm’s travel agency.) This doesn’t excuse it, and may not be particularly straightforward to fix — and also indicates that the service design aspects of systems are perhaps the most important, well beyond local interaction design issues. But being an integration problem it might only require a few lines of code. The issue would be knowing whose code, or work practices, needs altering.

(Essentially outside of this physical experience, Qantas have a video explaining their ‘next-generation check-in’ experience in detail. I was fortunate enough to be speaking with Crumpler’s Sam Davy at State of Design this last year, who recounted his previous work at Apple leading their web experience, and I won’t forget Sam’s quietly brilliant explanation of their video work preparing prospective users for the iPhone. It’s a very smart strategy — essentially making compelling instructional videos which meant that users already knew how to swipe, tap and pinch their way through the iPhone user interface, even before it had launched. This also meant that said users become fully-primed instant advocates for the device once it had launched. The Qantas videos are nothing on this.)

Spatially, there’s a different configuration too. The following diagrams are from memory, and impressionistic, in that it’s how the spaces feel to a frequent user — as opposed to any more ‘official’ drawing.

Fig. 1 indicates the traditional set-up, of a row of staffed check-in desks behind rows of self-check-in kiosks, with much mandatory queuing if you have bags to check. It’s a very ordered space, though defined by those temporary configurable gates and channels familiar to sporting events, social security offices, and sheep dips.

Fig. 2 now indicates the first wave of check-in poles for frequent flyers, flanked by a different ‘geese in flying V’ formation for new check-in kiosks, with fewer, smaller check-in desks at the back. Checking in luggage is now done by passengers themselves too, using automated bag drops at more large kiosks which include conveyor belts with weighing scales to the right, on the way towards security. People were approaching these larger kiosks tentatively, that’s for sure.

Qantas staff are wandering around, on-call, helping people through these processes. There seem to be fewer staff involved in the new system. That’s how it feels anyway. While there’s an obvious cost saving to Qantas there, if the system works as it should, it would feel a quicker process with greater individual agency, genuinely necessitating fewer staff. Personally, however, I’d like to see the same staffing levels maintained, as a human ‘membrane’ around the technology, with any cost savings ploughed into training and salary in order to engender further personality, advanced help, and the true responsiveness of the well-trained and motivated worker.

This follows the general trend towards self-direction and self-service in commercial aviation user experience, as with numerous other aspects of daily life. Travel agents are largely disintermediated, though you can see some continuing as a niche, curated service, and these movements through what is a complex, securitised space are now increasingly self-directed. Discovery, booking and purchase, check-in of passengers and luggage is now simply a series of digital interactions, necessitating no human contact until the security check, which remains as cumbersome as ever.

There’s a huge amount to gain from this, potentially, not least multi-lingual support via the kiosks, but some losses too. No more finagling an upgrade at the check-in desk, no discretion in terms of luggage allowance, a more complex system for new users to learn, an unclear understanding of data generated and where that goes etc. I note I also didn’t use it when checking in my family recently — that seems too complex a transaction for that simple little pole to handle.

In the new scenario, as fig. 2 above attempts to illustrate, it’s clear that the space is more fluid, less regimented. The poles are spread apart in almost random fashion; effectively random, given how frequently some will be obscured by people. The larger kiosks are aligned as if directing people through the space. The check-in desks are much smaller, lighter units, with few if any barriers, as if they’re almost on-demand from staff point-of-view i.e. they’re often unattended, until they’re needed. There’s more movement by Qantas staff, mingling as if hosts at a party of total strangers.

While the other aspects of this experience — disintermediation, control, personalisation — are familiar outcomes of digitisation of process, this spatial aspect is interesting. Rather than the new rigidity hinted at in the previous paragraph, this instead implies that touch-based service design might actually enable a more fluid spatial configuration and experience in transactional environments such as this. More to explore here.

Equally, how could this experience be socialised, in terms of the potentially powerful effects of social media? I’d still prefer significant human presence in and around these fluid technologies and processes, but what else could the software do in terms of learning from patterns of use?

Finally, the possibilities in terms of data generation are significant with great digital touch-points punctuating a space like this. The real value of integrated transit smart cards like Oyster, Octopus, Go etc. is in the smoother passenger experience, sure, but also in generating detailed data on use. Even in a distinct bounded space like this, Qantas will have much greater data on how their passengers and customers are interacting with their service, enabling the kind of ongoing post-occupancy evaluation we would expect from to urban informatics experiences.

I think Australian firm Woodhead have been involved in the architecture (though their typically terrible architects’ website does little to confirm). Other than that, any comments are welcome in terms of further details of any of the designers involved here.

There’s a new graphic identity that comes with the ‘next generation check-in’, with the red triangle of the Qantas logo pixellating across large red rounded numbers at the gates.

Although they’re always an appealing prospect for the designer, these supergraphics work less well in crowded environments such as these, as people obscure them. It’s difficult to do wayshowing if you can’t be seen, though to be fair they’re not the only way in which the gate number is displayed.

Leafing through one of the few books I know on aviation experiences outside of airports as social/cultural spaces or aircraft as machines, Airline: Identity, Design and Culture, by Keith Woodgrove discusses the history of differentiation strategies employed by various airlines throughout the 20th century.

In the mid-1930s there were no tiered classes on commercial aircraft — only the rich flew, so there was no reason for segregation or choice. Over the following six decades, as aircraft got bigger, faster and more reliable, more and more people wanted and were able to travel by air. New airlines came (and sometimes went), often opening up original destinations to different types of passengers, but often competing directly with established carriers. With the help of marketing analysis and designers, the commercial aviation industry advanced at high speed. The identity, design and culture of air travel has, in short, adapted, developed and sometimes mutated. This book illustrates and analyses the successful — and occasionally not so successful — results of the airlines’ relentless quest to vie for attention.

Leaving aside the thought that commercial aviation could perhaps return to being a pursuit for the rich only, it’s interesting to see that there was little or no discussion of process and system design in Woodgrove’s book, which was of course entirely reasonable at the time. But you can imagine a future edition would focus on further differentiation possible through these kind of touch- and social-mediated service design experiences.

It’s a bit ‘coffee table’, and with some wonderful images, yet it’s likely that any updated book would have an entirely new section on digital services, illustrating how these new aspects of service design will have far more impact on experience than the design of flight attendants’ uniforms (particularly now that the potentially, er, ‘impactful’ approach of Southwestern Airlines from 1973 above left is no longer possible.)

Not wanting to get all Up In The Air about it, but anything that saves me time and hassle through the uncomfortable process of flying is to be rewarded, and teething problems aside, it feels like Qantas has produced a quality system of much promise here. Kudos to them, at a difficult time for the airline.

I’d still rather have the experience of high-speed rail as a way of travelling between Sydney and Melbourne — the fourth busiest air corridor in the world, with Sydney-Brisbane at number 11 or thereabouts — as that would trump all of this effort instantly, with something far more comfortable, safer, pleasurable, spectacular, sustainable, social and productive. As the Federal Government has a tender out for a feasibility study for high-speed rail along the east coast of Australia, watch that space this year. And of course, Qantas might be good candidates to run such a service. But in the meantime — and watching the US efforts, don’t hold your breath — it’ll be interesting to see how this ‘new way of flying’ develops either way.

If you valued this piece, please recommend it — in other words, press below, so that others may find it too. This article was originally published at on January 4, 2011.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: