David Morris

In a groundbreaking development, Air New Zealand are building on their success as Airline of the Year 2009 by lifting their long-haul economy-class experience above the chase for cheapest price. Learn how they took the best in user experience and usability testing, combined with good agile working practices, to drive the New Zealand spirit of innovation to another world first — lie-flat beds in economy.

Hudson Smales, of Air New Zealand, opened the User Experience (UX) Masterclass conference — presenting how they brought user research and agile practices into their new product development process for the Skycouch.  UX Masterclass was organised by Trent Mankelow, of Optimal Usability.

Redesigning the economy class experience

Air New Zealand economy Skycouch, space to keep your children safe and happy

Starting from first principles — they realised that it did not make good long-term economic sense to compete for economy class customers solely on price, so decided to find out what would really make customers have a better experience on the longest consumer air journey in the world — Auckland to London.

From the beginning, it was clear that Air New Zealand were determined to base any changes on what was actually needed, by involving customers from the outset, developing a set of personas (illustrated with Simpsons characters) around the five key customer value drivers. This proved invaluable to convince their senior executives that not all travelers were ‘cocooners’ (Lisa) and ‘isolationists’ (Mr Burns) like them.

They simplified the five traveler personas into two main drivers — the need for social connectedness versus the need for privacy and quiet — sometimes in the same person at different times during the flight.

From their research and experience, it was clear that addressing seating in economy class was a vital element in improving the flying experience, but they had been using the same style of economy seating for some time.

How do you discover totally new seating concepts?

To generate the broadest range of ideas, Air New Zealand invited four NZ companies, under strict terms of confidentiality, to a three-day seatcamp — where they were tasked to create a number of ideas that would satisfy both of these criteria then build prototypes in a mocked-up cabin.

A number of really interesting ideas surfaced, and this enabled Air New Zealand to rapidly discount ideas around bunks above the seats, booths, and staggered seating.

From this, a few prototypes made it through to the next round, which was to try them in a real-world experience setting, simulating a long-haul flight — but real customers would struggle to see beyond the Heath-Robinson nature of the prototypes.

How do you test usability, if you cannot rely on real users?

Air New Zealand economy Skycouch, young couple stretched out

Testing consumer reaction to mocked-up web-pages can be a challenge, but it is achievable. Asking a real customer to sit in a polystyrene seat with armrests that don’t lift properly, however, will likely result in immediate rejection.

Working with NZ usability company Optimal Usability, Air New Zealand’s response was to use actors (who also had flying experience) who could then really simulate what it was like as one of the personas. This was highly successful, with the key elements of flights being simulated within an hour — from pre-flight entry and seating, taking off, safety announcements, meals (without the actual food), drinks, landing, and disembarking.

This enabled the seating to be refined so that subsequent rounds of usability testing became more real, to the point that real customers did become involved.

The resulting seat banks of three seats, christened ‘Skycouch‘, is another first for New Zealand, and will enable couples to sleep lying flat and parents to better manage their families. The pricing is expected to be around NZ$200 more than standard economy, and couples will be able to reserve the third seat for around half-price. While more expensive than standard economy, it will still be a clear price-break below premium economy.

The first flight to be fitted with these new seats will be the December 12 flight to Los Angeles.

Key learnings for innovative product development

Hudson ended by running through their key learnings from the experience:

  1. There must be strong and clear leadership — it won’t always run smoothly, so it needs backing and drive to succeed
  2. Draw your team from multiple disciplines and trust them to make decisions (and make occasional failures)
  3. Whenever there is a crunch decision within the project, always trust your first instincts
  4. Create a separate prototyping space, away from normal working environments, to keep your key team together and hide the mess and chaos
  5. Ensure you have enough funding to keep going, even if it is only seeded until the next review

These echo many of the same learnings from agile software development projects over the last fifteen years, and it is great seeing so much success coming from organisations applying the same principles to tangible products and services.