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Challenging the assumptions means being an explorer, investigator, and adventurer. When we play with new technology, we should co-create with customers, stakeholders, and new designers.


I’m a designer and frequent traveler interested in adventure, luxury, and finding joy in everyday experiences. I’m also an explorer, and a sort of investigative consultant for companies that want to explore ways to innovate. I’m particularly interested in the question of airports, where I spend a lot of time. How can we turn these gateways into extraordinary destinations?


I was preparing for a trip recently when my phone reminded me to check in and print my boarding pass. I thought to myself, as I often do, why wasn’t my fingerprint my boarding pass? We already have mobile passes with JetBlue and Virgin–but what else can we do to improve the process? Where else are we missing opportunities to innovate?

A visit to the airport is filled with such opportunities. Every tension point is a solution camouflaged as something that sucks. Where most people assume there’s going to be a line and are resigned to standing in it, even with a “more speed” tag, service design thinking gets to ask, why travel in the first place? What’s awesome about going on a trip? What are your needs, desires, and expectations? What if every part of the travel experience, including the most mundane aspects thereof, were something for which we tweeted praise?

Of course, our buddies over at the TSA are actually invested stakeholders in the travel experience. They probably have insight but they don’t seem to collaborate with many other moving parts. They’re interested in being thorough, I suppose, and they’d probably rather not go any faster than they go. But what would it look like if more customers became trusted travelers, as with global entry, IRIS, or CLEAR and what if security was broken into two steps, like in some Asian airports where security is at the gate? These “what if” scenarios are my most exciting mode of thinking. It’s actually a solace as I raise my arms for my pat-down to think, what if this was fun? What if this was a game?

There are tools and tricks that keep customers on their feet on a long wait. Airport security gates often have upbeat music even at 5 a.m. It cuts down our perception of how long we are actually waiting. The same goes with TVs in terminals. But I still wonder, what would it take to be engaged authentically past just upbeat music and the mainstream news? How can we enjoy the experience that is the magic of travel? What is the magic of travel?

There’s such a stark difference once you pass security at JetBlue’s Terminal 5 at JFK, aka T5. It’s open and airy, like most terminals, but there are restaurants offering tapas, sushi, a wine bar with spread-out seating, bleachers, sculptures; it feels different. There are concerts here sometimes. It’s Times Square meets the mall; however, I’m struck by the notion that this place, once a beacon of the future, as was the now-deserted TWA terminal past which I just walked, is now seemingly hovering in the present. Its technology-driven flare no longer burns quite so brightly; whereas, a few years ago, it was a new frontier in the flying experience. T5 was, for me, the beginning of not dreading the airport.

Granted, it’s far better than most terminals–I mean, where else can I order lunch on a screen anywhere I sit? But why stop there? This place is a prototype in a technologically advancing world–continue innovating or blend in upgrades as we adjust our expectations to a norm. This is the type of physical space designers would have a blast in! There is so much space to play, experiment, observe, reflect, and inspire action. Someone get David Barger on the phone!


In fact, everything we make is a prototype; culture evolves, people change, and new needs present themselves. To consider anything “done” is to ignore technological progress. We have to design products to be expandable, growable, scalable, and modular. Otherwise, as we learn more, we have to start over! There are some airlines, hotels, and travel services that know this, and that is what is separating them from the rest. They keep moving forward.

To look at the travel experience through a service-design lens, we travel to 40,000 feet and back down to the tarmac, again and again, questioning our assumptions, observing and identifying raw data, wondering if the frictions we encounter have underlying causes we’re not looking at. We’re forced to consider whether our symptoms are not the same things as our problems.

Consider this example from the banking world: A credit service sends statements to customers who, struggling to interpret them, call customer service, which walks them through those bills and, in turn, receives high marks on the follow-up surveys–except for the wait time. A bank then invests more in human capital to reduce wait times so customers can get a service rep on the phone quicker, but those banks miss the more important chance to redesign the bill. If they’d just looked for the problem, those hard-to-read bills, as the cause of the symptom–call volume–the whole situation would look a lot different.

Challenging the assumptions about these symptoms means being an explorer, investigator, and adventurer. When we play with new technology for checking in, for example, we should co-create with customers, stakeholders, and new designers to look both inside and outside for answers and ideas.

What happened since the Pan Am glory days where the sounds of clinking champagne glasses welcomed the world to our doorstep? We used to travel to get face time. Now we have FaceTime; but you can’t make out with someone on FaceTime. What about sightseeing, now we have Google Earth; but you can’t touch a cactus on Google Earth. Travel is about real-life experience now more than ever before but the process has become less and less human. If we can do most business on the Internet, and we can, then travel must be about the pleasure and luxury of real human interaction.

All that happened was we thought we were done and we’re not. We have prototypes begging for innovation. There’s so much room for growth in travel and there’s a way to find it and get back to that sense of awe and wonder we felt the first time we took flight. We don’t have to wait for the future to come to us. We can act now and use creative analytics, combine insight with intuition, and design vital living products. This is service design. It’s how we design the future of travel.


So, you have 15 seconds to draw: What do you think an airport might look like in 20 years? Tweet it, post it, or comment below.

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Micah Spear is the Creative Braintrust Design Expert and Founder & CEO of Playtime