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One of the biggest hurdles an organization faces improving the experience of their customers is the weight of "the way we’ve always done things." Addressing customer needs with digital can be challenging because digital has an entirely different mindset from that of brick and mortar. If an organization remains too hard set on how they have served customers in the past, it will be difficult to envision how digital could free them to serve their customers in entirely new ways.
Consider the flight boarding pass. For a long time, passengers have shown up to an airport and have printed out paper slips with all the relevant details on them. Passenger name, airline, flight number, gate, and boarding, departure, and arrival times.
Airlines improved upon this somewhat by offering digital versions of these tickets loaded on our phones, equipped with barcodes so airline staff can bring up our flight information with a quick scan.
Converting paper tickets to digital is helpful, since it allows faster access to the airline's database to verify a passenger's information. But these digital versions aren’t much more than a facsimile of the paper ticket. If flight times or gates change, we still have to run off to an arrivals/departures screen and search for the updated information.
This isn’t really a digital solution, just a slight upgrade from paper.
How digital could improve the passenger experience
Instead, imagine if boarding passes could be dynamic, updating in real-time so that you always have the most up to date information about your next connection.
Imagine with me:
A few weeks ahead of your intended trip, you buy your tickets — taking off from Montreal, connecting in Toronto, and ultimately arriving in Regina. You finish the purchase, and the airline (let’s say it’s WestJet) prompts you to view your new flights in their app.
There, you find your flights, and all the information is listed in the way you are accustomed to seeing it. Your name, flight number, date and time of the flight, departure and destination cities. Probably without a gate at this point since that won’t be assigned until the flight draws nearer.
A couple of weeks pass and it is now the day before your flight. WestJet notifies you that it is time to check in. After your checkin is complete, their app invites you to view your updated flight information.
Now you see the gate has been added, and there is note on the boarding pass reminding you to get to the airport a little extra early because of COVID precautions.
The next morning, you’re off to the airport. You notice on the ride in that your boarding pass has changed its layout subtly. WestJet is aware that this is your flight day, and that you are not yet at the airport, so your boarding pass transforms to embolden the boarding time and the reminder to arrive extra early.
You arrive at the airport, and the COVID reminder drops away because you’re there now, so the reminder is no longer helpful. Your boarding pass now highlights your boarding time, with a countdown clock showing you how many minutes you have left, and reminds you to grab baggage tags for the bags you are checking.
You head upstairs and go through security, and now highlighted boldly on your screen is your gate number. Unbeknownst to you, the gate changed earlier this morning because of preceding flight's delay. But because your ticket is connected to WestJet's brain, all you see is the updated information. No need to search the tiny printing on your paper ticket. The answer to your pressing question is right there in front of you.
You shuffle off to the gate, take a seat at the gate with 20 minutes to spare, and breathe a sigh of relief. You’re right where you need to be and all is accounted for.
How digital could increase efficiency at the gate
Now consider what this might be like from the airline's perspective.
As passengers purchase tickets, their flight records fill up as normal. On the day of the flight, WestJet can see how many of a flight's passengers have made it into the airport, perhaps even how many have come through security and have made it to the gate area.
Inevitably there are a few stragglers who need warnings like, "Last call for WestJet flight 208 to Montreal", or even, "Paging passenger Myron Tardypants". Myron isn’t at the gate, but the gate staff can see he has checked in and is in the airport. They send a rumbling push notification to Myron's phone with a prompt to let them know what’s going on. Myron is held up in a long security line. When prompted by the gate staff, Myron sends an alert to the gate, "Help! I’m stuck in security! Nearly there!"
With the same sort of location recognition used in countless other apps, the gate staff would have a rapid way of sizing up the manifest for today's flight and to lend support to wayward travellers.
Of course, airlines would need to work through issues of privacy and how to support passengers who don’t travel with smart devices. But the potential benefit for passengers and airlines is significant, given the amount of stress digital boarding passes could remove from the travel experience.
Digital is more than replicating paper to a screen
Digital can do a lot more than taking paper-bound information and moving it online. A piece of paper can’t do much beyond grieving for the tree it came from. But when an organization releases itself to reimagine business functions as digital services, the possibilities are endless.
Essentially, this is the work of service design — not merely designing interfaces, but designing how an organization serves its customers. Even though this work can be very complex, it is very much worthwhile. Organizations that embrace digital transformation far outperform their competitors because of the enormous benefit to their users.
The next time you fly, take stock of the questions that cross your mind as you proceed from home to your seat on the plane. A digital services designed around users' questions will be a digital service users choose every time.