Service Design: Think Outside The Plane

Imagine my alarm when I had this conversation with an engineer (paraphrased, because really it took half an hour to get all of this information).

Engineer: "Well, it'd be way easier to just make Wi-Fi available when it's available, but we decided to shut it off before the plane even takes off if the flight's connectivity will be intermittent."

Me: "But... it's our flagship product. Wi-fi makes 96% of our revenue. Why on EARTH would we make it so people can't buy it when we could make it available?"

Engineer: "Because we don't know how to notify the user of what's available. That would be hard. And we're afraid we'll upset someone who just bought a subscription and then can't use it because they're flying over the ocean."

<eight more edge case descriptions ensue>

Me: "But... that's a user experience problem we can totally solve. It's just about notifying people and letting them plan their trip accordingly."

Engineer: "Well, you'd better say something in the next meeting or that's the final design."

The Business Problem
If an aircraft was going to have intermittent Wi-Fi available due to things like flying over bodies of water, then Wi-Fi was going to be completely shut off on that flight -- by design. What that means is this: the company's flagship product was not going to be made available for purchase during a growing number of flights over the next two to five years. 

The Technical Problem
Planes fly over oceans, and the system was originally built for the contiguous 48 states using land-based cellular towers.  Since satellite-based service was at least two years out from being installed widely, we had to work with the current systems.


The People Problem
People who make a product can't see that what they're making isn't the best thing for the people using it. And I had a very limited amount of time to persuade those same people to change the hardware design. People who couldn't see beyond the edge cases like the one described above.

The Approach
Move quickly to have effective, game-changing conversations with decision makers that would change the system design by showing what we could do with flights that spent some time with and some time without wi-fi.

Me and my partner in crime at the time decided we'd have to tell a story so clear, compelling and persuasive it would give us an undeniable path. We scheduled meetings and got ourselves invited to others.

The Deliverable
The right deliverable for this situation was a deck. It needed to be shareable, grokable without us needing to be there to explain it, and optimized for meetings, not individual demos.

Really, we were empathizing and extrapolating about what end users would want. We didn't have personas or journey maps, because the organization didn't understand how those would help in a case exactly like this one and so wouldn't allow the time to be spent creating them.

The Effect
Almost a year later, we've done the research needed to discover what people expect and want. And I am shocked to be able to tell you that we were actually... pretty... dead on about what people expect when they fly.

Not a moment too soon, either, as Gogo gets ready to launch Alaska Airlines by early 2015. Their fleet flies over water all the time.

What I learned
First: two years of guerrilla research really did help us make an educated guess about what the service could become. And I really do have a good eye for human behavior. 

While presenting this work I also learned when I was out of gas and when my reach had finally exceeded my grasp -- AKA, why title and place in an organization really matters and what biting off more than I could chew really meant. This was a place that was "struggling to keep the lights on" as my boss said to me when I resigned, "and your ideas are just too big." She may have been trying to make me feel better, but it wasn't untrue, either. 

By way of comparison, many many people want to "fix" air travel. They want the experience to be better in virtually every way. I get it. Lots of room for improvement. I know many people who went to work for United in Chicago fervently believing they would do just that.  But the truth is, United's job is to get an object weighing many tons, full of people, up into the air in one place and back to the ground in another place, safely. And profitably. Everything else comes second. Everything. At Gogo, it was a similar chain. The people who ran the place viewed themselves as running a telecom company - they made the internet work in planes and that was it. Their whole job. The whole list. And people want it enough to go through a painful user experience to get it. So, me suggesting all of this easing into the service by making a plan before the plane took off? Just too much. 

The gallery below shows a selection of slides we put together for our presentation. (It was really fun to use 80s movies.)