Designing a Luxury Environment

31 Mar 2004|Darrel Rhea

Forget what I said about Lufthansa, I take it all back!! (see previous Blog).
The efficient Lufthansa ground crew met me at my late connection in Munich, hustled me down some stairs and into a sedan, raced me across the airport, alerted security and customs by radio, whisked me through backdoors, marble staircases, gleaming glass security doors, and delivered me to a waiting Airbus A340-600. We encountered almost 15 people along the way, each who anticipated my arrival and knew my name. I walked on the plane and the door shut behind me. Welcome Mr. Rhea. Whew. I felt quite the VIP. What a customer experience!

I found my seat in business class and noticed that this was a brand new plane. How new? The photographers were on the runway snapping pictures. The Airbus A340-600 is the new flagship for long-haul international travel and the Lufthansa people were very proud of it. It is huge with completely redesigned interior components. When you sit down in the Recaro-designed seating system, you enter a personal space that is reminiscent of the complexity of an aircraft cockpit.

This brings up a classic design innovation problem. It is clear that the designers were definitely in touch with the needs of long-haul travelers and did substantial research on features, ergonomics, user interaction, and aesthetics. But in responding to these needs and desires, they have created a system that is incredibly complex. I was blown away at first, a kid in a candy store. Finally, a seating system that wasn’t designed to hurt my 6’4” body. I started tweaking buttons to get comfortable without quite getting it right. Then I did what I almost never do; I read the 12 page user manual.

Yes, a 12 page “Quick Guide.” And there you have the problem. Anticipating the every need of a traveler for sitting, reclining, lying flat and sleeping, using the massage function in the seat, a memory function for seat settings, reading, watching videos, using the internet, play video games, reading, listening to music, working with computers including network connections and power connections, eating snacks and drinking while working, eating full formal meals, being social, having visual privacy, storing and accessing personal items, shoes, blankets, personal grooming kits, reading materials, reading glasses…are you getting the idea of the complexity of this design task?

We want to be pampered, but feature complexity makes dealing with the bells and whistles difficult. I was fascinated by the design, but noticed within minutes three critical interface issues not clearly covered in the manual. Basic things – like moving the tray table away to get up requires pressing a release button. The remote control allows you to adjust the seat in 17 ways!! I watched others struggling with the learning curve. An overhead monitor (separate from my personal 15 inch flat panel) played animated instructions too.

In the end, I was left disappointed by the seating experience. It did a lot of things very well and is pure luxury compared to the brutal coach seating. But it had major problems too. The power for the laptops didn’t work, the DVDs distorted, the screen-based interface was a disaster with a cursor control that barely functioned, and other smaller annoyances. I’m sure that if I get the privilege of flying business class in this beautiful, quiet plane again, I’ll be a more proficient user and they will work out some of the bugs in the systems too. But the system design would have benefited from more careful interaction design research to refine the usability.

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