By George Aveling, CEO TACK TMI Malaysia


I have done a fair amount of travel around the world.

I believe that passenger experience design at most airports has been driven by the paradigm of “efficient processing of humans”.

As a departing passenger, I always feel like I am being processed every step of my passenger journey, from check in, to immigration, security and then onto the plane. The process and long queues can create stress. It seems noisy and fast-moving.  When I am in the terminal, waiting for my plane, I have to try to find seating that is most often designed with cost savings, rather than the customer comfort, in mind.

So like most people, I have come to expect that airports can be stressful places.

A great example of human centred design with high tech and high touch (if needed)

I want to share with you a great example of design thinking that combines both high tech and high touch (when needed).

In particular, I want to tell you about, correction, rave about, Singapore’s Changi Airport Terminal 4 (let’s affectionately get on first name terms and call it “Terminal 4”).

The Terminal 4 experience is simply joyful.

I got through the normal pain points of check-in, immigration and security quickly and with no stress. There were no winding queues. I did not feel rushed. The design of the building seemed to have a calming effect on passengers.

Once through the formalities, I had a wonderfully peaceful time while waiting for my plane.

And, what is really interesting from a customer service point of view, is that I rate the service from Terminal 4 really high – even though I barely had any human contact.

Let me explain.

Human-centred design and design thinking in a nutshell

It is clear that the multi-award winning Terminal 4 has adopted a human-centred mind-set to its experience design.

Human-centred design puts humans at the centre of experience, process and space design. It’s a mind-set.

Design thinking is a process that helps to make it happen.

The process starts with having a deep empathy for the user – in this case, passengers. This means really understanding what passengers want at a transactional level (e.g. speed, simplicity, on-time) and emotional level (how people want to feel during the process).

For a bit more information on the design thinking process, there is a brief overview in my article on applying design thinking to the customer experience .

Human-centred design for people like me

My ideal experience as a departing passenger is for it to be 1. fast, 2. stress free, and 3. comfortable. When I say “comfortable”, I want to be able to find a comfortable place to sit and chill while waiting for my plane.

Terminal 4 gets a “high distinction” on each of these elements throughout my departure experience.

High tech with high touch (if needed) for fast, stress-free check-in

I am used to seeing hordes of people, in a snaking line, waiting to be served by the check-in agent.

Not at Terminal 4.

On entering the check-in hall, I do not see long queues. It seems calm.

The snaking lines, waiting for a check-in agent to manage the check-in have been replaced by a self-check-in and bag drop. It is easy and quick to print your boarding pass and your luggage tag, and to bid your luggage bon voyage.

And, there is a human on hand if you seem to need help.

It is fast and stress free. So far so good.

High tech with high touch (if needed) for fast, stress-free immigration

Close to 100 countries of the world have e-passports. Australia is one of them.

With e-passport in hand, my immigration experience takes less than a minute. It scans my e-passport, takes a picture of me and takes a thumb print. I am a fan of this high tech – even if I never get a smile from the very efficient machine!

And, waiting with the human touch, are Terminal 4 employees diligently watching out for people who seem to be having trouble navigating the technology.

The process of going to an immigration desk to have my passport stamped by a human has been partially eliminated. It is still required for passengers that can’t go through the e-passport smart gates.

I love this process! It have just had a fast and stress free immigration check experience.

(Low) Tech fast bag security checks

The baggage security checks are the most stressful part of my airport customer journey. This is because I have to unload my electronic devices, with passengers waiting in line behind me. I feel that I have to rush. Then, if a suspect bag is detected, the baggage security belt is held up. This means that I (and lots of other passengers) have to wait.

But not at Terminal 4.

I don’t have to unload my electronic devices. And, there are two baggage screening belts. One for suspect baggage, and the other one to let baggage go straight through.

No unloading of laptops, no unnecessary waiting. I still have to empty my pockets and take off my belt. Perhaps these steps will be eliminated soon (I hope!)

Thank you Terminal 4 experience designers for empathising with my pain points!

So far, so good. My passenger experience been fast and stress free.

It is now time to wait for my flight.

I’m not a shopper. I just want to relax before my flight.

At Terminal 4, this is a joyful experience.

Physical environment design to create a relaxing experience

The physical environment in Terminal 4 is beautiful.

I feel relaxed when I am in a space that has lots of live trees, wide spaces, super-comfortable chairs that come in different styles and colours. There are seats with backs. There are pods. There beautiful bench-style seats. I feel like I am in a designer seat showroom!

If you decide to go to the washroom, you won’t have any trouble finding your way back as long as you remember the colour of the seats in your area.

If you want to charge your devices. No issue. There are lots of those comfortable seats where you can do that. If you want to watch television, with good quality sound, you can (of course, sitting in a comfortable chair), with the sound coming from sound poles next to the chairs.

If you want to chill and talk, or just relax, there are lots of spaces in Terminal 4 to do this. You will get a cultural experience when shopping in one part of the terminal. And, of course, if you want to eat or shop, you can do that too!

Talking about the washrooms. If you want to have a 5-star washroom experience  (including warm toilet seat!)  outside of a 5-star hotel, take a plane to or from Changi!

I’m now seated comfortably at the boarding gate. There is an announcement that the plane will be boarding soon.  There is a monitor that lets me know which rows will be boarding. I don’t have the stress of trying to understand the announcement over the PA system.

It’s time to for the last check before I board the plane. This can be done without airport staff. All I have to do is scan my boarding pass. I don’t need my passport as a photo is taken of me at this point – and as long as the machine can match it with the pic taken earlier at immigration, all is good. It’s done in seconds.

And, if you need help, there is someone there for you.

As I walk towards the aerobridge, I pass by live plants. I take a deep breath. I’m about to go home, feeling relaxed.

And I promise myself that, next time, I am going to arrive early to spend a lot more time in Terminal 4.

My guess that the experience designers would look at me, smile and say, “Mission accomplished!” It is these people who should be congratulated for demonstrating a world class example of human-centred design.

One last thing. I have only described the departure experience. And, there is so much more that I could write about. I have not mentioned that Terminal 4 saves on people doing repetitive tasks, like checking passengers in and stamping passports at immigration.

Until next time.

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