How to Make Technology Work for an Airport: The Inside Story

M Shipol plenty final

About three years ago, I was asked by Schiphol Amsterdam Airport to help them develop a strategy to improve their digital offering, all based on the true needs of the passengers. A few weeks ago, Schiphol launched their new app and website, the first tangible products to result from this new strategy. A perfect time to reflect on the massive change process that preceded.

Design thinking avant la lettre

For the past 50 years, Amsterdam Airport Schiphol has embraced design and design thinking to make air travel as pleasant and seamless as possible. Providing a great passenger experience has always been key for Schiphol to create preference among travelers and airlines.

The groundwork for this vision was laid by the iconic Dutch designers of the 1960s. Architect Marinus Duiker, interior designer Kho Liang Ie, and graphic designer Benno Wissing created a ‘gesamtkunstwerk’ which served a single goal: to put the wellbeing of passengers first. Every design decision they made was aimed to minimise anxiety and provide a sense of overview and control. This thinking was an immediate success and initiated a long period of sustained growth for the airport. Since then, Schiphol-born air travel innovations, like the consistent indoor wayfinding by Paul Mijksenaar, have set the baseline for all airports across the globe.

Putting passengers first / centric

A need for change

Today, we’re no longer living in the age of Don Draper. Where Draper never had to worry about being consistent across a multi-channel ecosystem or the relevant display of real-time information, Schiphol does. Thanks to digital upstarts like AirBnB, and Uber, making travel arrangements has become a 100% digital experience. Following that trend, Schiphol, like many businesses, has been experimenting wildly with all kinds of digital channels. From Google Glass to Smart TV, the Schiphol eBusiness team has tested them all, finding out how the airport could make the best use of different channels and devices.

About three years ago, Schiphol realized it needed a different approach. Just being present on a device, or jumping on the tech trend bandwagon, was no longer enough to foster real interaction with travelers. The traditional website and fragmented product offering couldn’t cater to the needs of Schiphol’s many audiences. The existing approach was also insufficient when it came to solving the business challenges of a modern airport.

How to really make an airport fly for you

Schiphol has a huge challenge ahead. Over the coming years, the number of passengers passing through Schiphol will increase significantly. But, in order to remain competitive, airports need to lower their costs per passenger.

Automation of the passenger handling process, with self-service baggage drop off, automated border control, and electronic boarding access at the gate, is seen as the proven way of bringing down costs. What we’ve seen over and over, however, is that automated efficiency often comes at the expense of a ‘human’ experience. Think of the highly efficient chipcard systems found in urban transportation systems. What makes you feel welcome or safe? Someone to check your tickets or an automated machine? Having the human experience at its core, this is a challenge for Schiphol. How can digital contribute more effectively to realizing the core objectives of Schiphol, and how can we, again, put passengers first?

Making airports human again

Together with Schiphol management, we came to the conclusion that there wasn’t a single solution to the problem. The passenger’s experience wasn’t managed, but the random outcome of the interaction with silo’ed departments in communications and services. Truly adopting a customer centric mindset meant a huge transition for the airport, requiring a change in approach, culture, mentality, and capabilities.

More practically, it meant Schiphol had to start building a in-house team, adopting agile processes, aligning internal goals, and developing a method to increase customer-centricity. Knowing that a well aligned digital experience was the ultimate option for increasing the service for the increasing number of passengers, Schiphol went ahead with the plan.

Building a digitally-minded culture

The first objective was to kickstart a ‘digital’ culture; to build a team of internal stakeholders, tech savvy employees and seasoned professionals. A team mandated by the business, and unconstrained by company silos. With this team we would work towards the first deliverable: a better website.
We assembled a group of the most hands-on, forward thinking employees and added designers, developers and strategic thinkers from the outside world. All working at the airport, close to the users, so we could check real-world experiences or validate assumptions with prototypes.

It wasn’t easy to become an effective team. The business people had to learn the mechanics of digital products. Everybody in the team had to dive deep to get sufficient understanding of the passengers needs and wants. Designers and coders had opposing needs: starting now vs. picturing a future perspective. But spirits were high and everyone was really committed to making the process work. But we found out really quickly that just building a website wouldn’t be enough.

In the revitalized digital channels we wanted to focus on the human experience, which meant translating the design principles of the airport to make them work for digital platforms and modern communication. To emphasize Schiphol’s human approach and get it into the hearts and minds of its passengers, we needed more. We called it a digital identity: communication that travelers could relate to and associate with. And the digital team knew that this wasn’t something that could be handled internally.

Finding a long-term partner

Something so instrumental to the overall change couldn’t be left to a traditional agency—a ‘brief us and we’ll get back to you in four weeks’ approach was the last thing we needed, especially now that this new way of collaboration of the team became effective. So we took a new approach: a challenger, working extremely closely with the internal team to build a design-driven culture, and set the bar for future products. It was essential for Schiphol to find a long-term partner to help design and develop this.

But how do you test the collaboration skills of an agency? Certainly not with a traditional pitch, a process that revolves around presenting and selecting single ideas. When you work with top-notch agencies, great ideas are a given.

What we were looking for was the ability to co-operate with the in-house team: to be able to switch between leading and following, to iterate upon existing ideas, and to help build a design thinking culture within the new team. In order to test this we invented the designathon, a single day of pressure-cooker collaboration to test the skills of several agencies. For Edenspiekermann, this designathon turned out to be the beginning of a great relationship.

Ditch the pitch

Designing a way for collaboration

Since then, Edenspiekermann and Schiphol have been closely collaborating to create a better digital airport experience. It’s been 18 months of adapting and learning. One thing we had to learn was how close collaboration can go hand-in-hand with maintaining an outside perspective. Another was how to drive both short-term deliverables and long-term perspectives forward. How to let go of traditional top-down management, without losing accountability. And maybe the most important of all: how can we install a mindset of customer centricity, based around a set of principles, translated in best practices. A system that integrates the philosophical with the practical. A system that lays the foundation for the coming years, guiding the day-to-day interactions of the airport, regardless of the touchpoint or channel.

At Edenspiekermann we call these systems ‘Playbooks’. And the playbook that Edenspiekermann created for Schiphol has now become the universal hub for maintaining and communicating the design system, from the high level goals and principles that govern the user experience to reusable code snippets ready for implementation. What we see today is the first tangible result of that collaboration.

Collaboration as the driver for change

Laying the foundations for digital transformation

While Schiphol’s physical environment is optimized for anonymous travelers passing through, the digital interactions now strive to personalize this experience. You can see it in action today:

  1. The most relevant information for the passenger is always visible. After the user shares their flight details, an ever-present ‘yellow pill’ communicates important and urgent information on flight status.
  2. Conversational ‘dialog’ offers users a simple mechanism for answering a number of subsequent questions.
  3. A personalized overview of the most important information on a page, based on what we know about the user, prevents them from wading through lots of information to find what they need.
  4. Wherever possible, we offer users a simple but personalized and tailored overview of the steps through an upcoming airport experience, to ensure peace of mind.
  5. The hotline button offers users a way to instantly engage with a Schiphol employee to ask a question or solve a problem in an enjoyable and personable conversation.

The end result: a culture change in-house, a rock solid Schiphol digital team with a customer-centric mindset, and a new website and mobile app, all based on the newly-founded principles. And because the Schiphol teams are working agile, expect new functionality and better communications to appear regularly. So far, the focus has been on improving the UX, but there’s more to come. In the coming year our attention will shift to content and communication, and to finding new opportunities for design and design thinking to improve the daily life of passengers at the best European airport.

Full disclosure: during this process I had many roles. I developed the initial strategic approach together with Infostrada Interactive. Following that I’ve consulted Schiphol directly from my own agency, Geistreich, and for the last few months I’ve been partnering with Edenspiekermann. So I have many perspectives on the same project.

Is your company struggling with customer centricity? Let’s talk…