Five insights into product innovation from the Air New Zealand Skycouch

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.


  • Waylon Kenning

    I’m really inspired by what Air New Zealand has done with the Skycouch. Ultimately it’s one of those ideas I think that’s brilliantly simple in execution, and certainly a great way to differentiate yourself from competitors, and increase revenue through licensing deals.

    Alas, not all businesses operate the same way Air New Zealand does, especially in terms of having strong leadership, innovation, and funding to deliver successful prototypes. I really think out of all of these, strong leadership is the most vital to create a culture of innovation, and also to take on the risk of asking for funding, and to see the project through to the end.

    Here’s my own innovative idea for Air New Zealand – why don’t flights Twitter automatically when they depart and arrive? This way flight information isn’t restricted to the Airport’s website, but could be found by searching Twitter where people happen to be, where they have clients on their phones, and also easy alerts people to when flights are delayed or cancelled or whatever. What do you think?

  • David Morris

    @Waylon – you’re right, it is inspiring seeing what is possible – thank you for your comments.

    A great suggestion regarding tweeting arrival and departure times – I know a few people at Air New Zealand, so I will pass that on to them (referencing you, of course).

  • Waylon Kenning

    Hey thanks for that, that’d be cool. I’m working on coming up with 29 more technology-focused ideas (a month’s worth) for Air New Zealand that either improve the load of aircraft or attract marketing attention (in a positive way).

    Why? I guess because I’m bored, I love Air New Zealand as a brand, and I think it values innovation:) I’ll let you know when it’s ready…

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