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departing from poor user experience at airports

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I recently returned from a trip out of the country. As is the case with international travel, I was welcomed back by the chaos of Customs. After waiting an hour on the ground to disembark the plane, I was greeted by a coil of people waiting to get the stamp of approval from the U.S. Government.

We were at the Charlotte airport, which recently installed 24 passport kiosks—to the tune of $2.5 million—to help cut down passenger wait time. But what should have saved passengers time caused headaches instead. Obviously the process of getting cleared for re-entry through Customs requires a degree of patience, but I’m almost certain a snail could have moved faster than that line.

I watched dozens of people in line before me approach the kiosks with caution, hesitant to do the wrong thing or press the wrong button on a government-monitored machine. Beyond that, there was general confusion about how many people were supposed to use the machine at once and what passengers were supposed to do when they were done. Rather than quickly and effortlessly making their way through Customs, passengers stalled to ask questions and fumble through the poorly-designed system. After about 30 minutes, the airport staff manning the kiosks must have gotten fed up. They ushered us into yet another line where everyone waited to be cleared by humans, completely bypassing the flashy new technology.

Airports are notorious for poor user experiences, but they also leave the most room for innovation and improvement. Redesigning the experience of Customs is a great place to start, but flashy kiosks are not going to deliver results on their own. In the hour and a half I waited in the Customs line, I decided there were three problems that interfered with the entire experience.

Problem 1: Unacknowledged fear of repercussions

The fix: Any time passengers go through Customs, they’re dealing with the government, and dealing with the government can be stressful. Putting passengers in front of kiosks and having them complete a government-ordered request on their own adds unnecessary pressure. It’s like asking people to quickly and accurately file their own taxes when they are accustomed to paying H&R Block to do it for them.

In this case, the only guidance came from two Temp_Employees barking orders at passengers as they entered Customs. Had the airport handed out or displayed information about why these kiosks were installed and how to use them before passengers even reached Customs or while they waited in line, people may have felt more comfortable using them.

Problem 2: Inconsistent technology

The fix: Charlotte is one of a handful of airports with passport kiosks, but the design of these kiosks differs in each airport, so the interface of Charlotte’s kiosks is not the same as those in Chicago or Los Angeles. It’s unlikely that passengers fly into the same airport every time they enter the country. This means that they are greeted with a new experience when they go through Customs at a different airport, creating new questions and more hesitation.

In contrast, when I go through self-checkout at Wegmans, I know exactly what to do whether I’m at the Wegmans down the street or in another state. The experience is identical. Deploying one, unified experience across every kiosk in every airport would help familiarize passengers with this new technology, making it easier to learn and adopt.

Problem 3: Too many missed design opportunities in general

The fix: Design appeared to take a back seat throughout the entire Customs process. I’ve never made my way through Customs, in any airport, without waiting. Regardless of the efficiency that passport kiosks could provide, there will probably always be lines. Airports should design around passenger wait time and use it to their advantage. For example, they could display estimated wait times for passengers in line to help alleviate the stress of the unknown, or display a demo of the passport kiosk on an overhead screen to show passengers what they can expect when they get to the front of the line. Airports should always be looking for new opportunities to use design to solve problems and improve conditions.

The Takeoff

An airport is a complex ecosystem, and that’s exactly why a kiosk can’t be expected to solve its greater problems. In an attempt to create a system capable of solving for a specific task, these airports have neglected to understand how the environment impacts completion of the task. The efficiency and effectiveness the Charlotte airport hoped to achieve by installing these kiosks were thrown out the window because they failed to address the concerns, sentiments and pain points of the passengers themselves. Good design happens when the objective doesn’t just address the task, but the conditions surrounding that task.