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Flex

A speculative redesign of air travel systems

How might air travel systems be more empathetic towards larger-sized passengers in physical infrastructure and user experience?

Context:

SVA MFA Products of Design graduate thesis

 

Date:

2021-2022

Methods:

User research, UI/UX, Interaction design, 3D Rendering, User journeys, Data Visualization, Ideation

Tools:

Figma, Keyshot, Usertesting, Rhino, Zoom

Designed a speculative air fleet that redesigns physical airplane structure and the airplane booking experience to reduce strain on "passengers of size".

What I Did

Responses

Flex highlighted concerns that larger passengers faced for many who had not considered the toll constraint places on larger bodies.

Many responded by noting that the physical seat could be applied to other use cases, such as monetizing smaller spaces for additional luggage capabilities or pet carry-on options.

The biggest concern surrounded pricing on what would be equitable, yet profitable. In further exploration, I would attempt to do more research in what that could look like.

Making the business case for restructuring

While this is a speculative design, I looked to airline cases of adjusting seat layout in response to customer needs. I primarily looked at the pandemic and saw that Delta was the last airline to keep their middle seat open, and reducing space capabilities. The assumption was that they would end up losing money, but they ended up increasing their Net Promoter Score from the pre-pandemic 40s to 50s to a score within the 70s by communicating that they were focusing on their customers safety. This sets a precedent for showing that listening to customer needs and pain points can end up increasing profitability, which is what Flex would hope to achieve.

Background

As part of this investigation, I initially came from a place of figuring out where people felt constrained in physical environments. Based on secondary and user research, I determined that airplane and travel seating is especially fraught for larger people because of the tight spaces for long periods of time, which make their body size hypervisible and in close contact with other passengers. Fat passengers on flights face a myriad of challenges, including in-flight harassment, the potential to be bumped from the flights, and physical pain of not fitting in seats. This project aimed to highlight the challenges fat passengers face and to show how one interaction of an experience has a myriad of effects on larger passengers.

A note, during this project and my thesis work, I and the people I spoke with are comfortable with reclaiming the word fat, which is why I refer to the users I worked with using that descriptor. But not everyone is comfortable with that reclamation, so please defer to how the person describes themselves before using that word because it has a history of being used in a derogatory way that many still are not comfortable with being addressed by.

Constraints

It's expensive to rehaul a plane and airlines, on average, are not the most profitable, but as we begin to reimagine transport for the upcoming age, especially as technology's capabilities begin to expand (and as there is a growing trend of airplane seats becoming smaller) and people maintaining a certain size. It makes sense to reimagine what travel and transportation looks like to actually accommodate real people. 

How I began

What I did

To do this work, I began by conducting research on size determinations and engineering designations, trends of airplane redesign, and the pre, during, and post-flight experiences of larger users. I then began to map out those experiences and developed brainstorming ideas for how to improve seating through sketches, renderings, and concept tests, as well as investigating other points of pain outside of the seating experience I also attempted to figure out the business case for the experience, and developed a campaign for how to present the Flex speculative fleet.

Key Activity

In addition to reimagining the physical seat, what accompanies that is the change in the booking process, particularly the seat choice process. By making adjustments to the physical seat, I also developed a digital flow to address those changes even during the booking phase.

Process

🔎 Observation

The whole flight experience was fraught with unease and anxiety about fitting, extra planning, paying for more, and not even potentially being guaranteed a flight or a good experience.

😮 Insight

Fat people are constricted and do not voice the accompanying effects of that state. They are being physically restrained and by addressing that, we can change the system to be easier to fit and also to develop changes in the overall flight experience.

🙍‍♀️ Persona:

Wallpaper Traveler

This user seeks to avoid unwanted in-flight passenger harassment and name-calling regarding their body size and hopes to enjoy a peaceful quiet flight.

🙍‍♀️ Persona: Former Traveler

This user previously traveled, but over time, the memory of the physical pain from the tight spaces of the seats created a seat anxiety that limits this traveler's abilities to travel via airplane.

3 Main Opportunities

When conducting my research, I saw that the seat was a center for a lot of pain points for larger passengers to the point that I developed three personas based off those pain points.

🙍‍♀️ Persona:

Super-Planner

This user has a high burden of pre-trip planning to account for the fear of being bumped from the flight. They are highly anxious pre-flight about having their trip details changed due to their body size.

Addressing the needs of the Former Traveler led to the development of remodeling the airplane seat to become adjustable based on a person's size, so that they are allotted the space they need to be comfortable in-flight.

The need to reduce the physical pain of tight seating, which lead to a seat that is one long bench with a cushion with a track in the back to accommodate adjustments.

The Adjustable Track Seat

Privacy Screen Implementation

Addressing the needs of the Wallpaper Traveler led to the development of not just developing a longer bench with a track to provide seating adjustments, but also adding on a privacy screen between passengers. A point of hostility that is brought up during flight by other passengers comes from having to share armrest space or touching a larger passenger. With the privacy screens, larger passengers can enjoy not having the fear of sitting next to a passenger who will berate them for their body and be able to sit in peace.

The need to reduce the potential for unwanted close-quarters can reduce hostile passenger interactions through the privacy screen to give passengers their own spaces.

Addressing the needs of the Super-Planner and the changing of the physical seat by introducing a bench seat called for a readjustment of the airplane booking process. By changing the physical seat to accommodate larger passengers, confirming how you book your seat changes and makes it easier for larger passengers to confirm how much space is needed for them. This readjusted booking process also makes it so that the space they book is not two seats, which means that there would not be a precedent to kick a larger passenger off a flight in the favor of accommodating more people to fit the two seats.

Seat confirmation and selection works by picking a bench section, then using a slider to select the amount of space you need by inches, which can be measured at home. Once you choose how much space you need, you can confirm that seat pre-flight.

The Digital Seat Selection Platform

Pre-Flight Experience Flow of a 'Passenger of Size'

*Red indicates experience of stress

Pre-Flight Experience Flow of a 'Typical' Passenger

*Red indicates experience of stress

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