In our Design modules, we often ask our students to take a user trip, to experience the issues a user may face. Over the weekend, I took an involuntary user trip. I focused my anger and frustrations into an opportunity to reflect how automated flight rebooking systems make the user feel and what design oportunities this might offer.
I was flying home from Germany where I visited my parents. During security control I suddenly received a message from Lufthansa that part of my flight, a connecting flight, was cancelled. This is when my user trip started.
Eliza the Lufthansa bot told me about my options from Berlin, but I was already through security and there was no service desk in the departure hall. So, I set out to fly from Berlin to Frankfurt anyway to ask the service personal there. And then everything happened fast. I received an automated message on my phone that I can book my hotel stay in Frankfurt since my flight was cancelled and there wasn’t a connecting flight on the same day. That was nice. When I asked Elisa again about my connection options, she was happy to tell me that I was already rebooked. But I wasn’t so happy when she told me that I had to fly to Prague the next morning to take a connecting flight back home at noon with a different airline. Choosing a hotel to stay was super easy though.
Once in Frankfurt, late in the evening now, I sought the service counter, but it was closed. A friendly machine printed a boarding card for my first leg to Prague the next morning. But what about the boarding card from Prague to home? Here I noticed few issues with automated rebooking.
Communication. I only received an email about my rebooked connection the day after at noon, that is when I already was in Prague. Even though the message about cancellation and hotel booking came through on my phone in the evening. I had to take a photo of the friendly machine screen at Frankfurt airport to confirm that I had indeed a connecting flight from Prague to home with a different airline.
Trust. I knew of stories of endless waits or missed connections with Lufthansa. Suddenly I didn’t trust the airline. Would I make the connection from Prague to home? In the morning the flight to Prague was overbooked and then delayed. I hadn’t had a boarding card for the connecting flight because it was with another airline. Despite reassurances, I didn’t trust that I would get onto my second leg of the flight.
User choice. I was appalled at my additional carbon footprint that I created through this automated rebooking. If I had had the choice, I would have chosen a later direct flight home rather than being routed via a different country. But I wasn’t offered the option.
Limited user knowledge and agency, and lack of system transparency led to a lot of uncertainty in the process of rebooking which led to stress and a feeling of guilt. Should I have stayed in Berlin? Would I have had better, faster, and more sustainable options? I thought I would have more options in Frankfurt because it is the hub for all Lufthansa flights.
A review of automated rebooking systems from a business management company (https://www.wns.com/perspectives/articles/articledetail/724/an-automated-path-to-managing-flight-disruptions)suggested that a “proactive dissemination of information; [and] fast, efficient and automatic hotel bookings;” are essential for an optimal user experience. Most of the communications or interactions I had with the machines and automated systems were efficient and factual but also limited. What I would have really needed was solidarity, and affective and reassuring communication.
Good service design, including automated services, should manage emotions in addition to managing expectations. Will automated bots be able to communicate affectionately in the future? Would we want machines to do so? Could a passenger be given more agency and choice, talking through the options as if talking to another human who understand the disturbing psychological effect of having to go through a third country to get home? Or a system that offers choices whether to consider the most sustainable option rather than the most convenient one?
A side not on the image: of course, I had to indulge in the Czechian waffle sweets when I was offered the opportunity on my layover in Prague. They were more friendly than Lufthansa’s Eliza 😉