Business Analyst | Process Design: Airport Taxis and Empathy With Newbies


I was chatting to a taxi driver recently who was telling me about his previous fare.

He’d been taking a family from Portsmouth (on the South Coast of the UK) to London Heathrow airport—a ride that would normally take around 1.5 hours if there’s no traffic. Unfortunately on this occasion the traffic was bad, so the taxi driver asked what time the family’s flight was. He was somewhat dismayed to find that they hadn’t factored in anywhere near enough time for possible traffic delays, or even time for navigating through airport security. They had planned to arrive 20 minutes before the scheduled departure time.

As anyone who has ever flown from any major international airport will know, 20 minutes is not going to be enough, especially if you have bags to check in. It turns out that this was the family’s first ever journey on a plane. They’d never been to a large airport before, and had only a vague idea of how things worked. The taxi driver explained he dropped them off, hoping that they would somehow make it in time…

My first reaction to this story was one of bemusement. ‘How could someone have no idea how an airport works?’. Yet I am approaching this from the perspective of someone who has travelled fairly frequently. It’s hard to imagine what it might be like if I’d never experienced an airport before, so I then started to wonder how much information airlines and travel companies actually give passengers on how airports work. The answer in many cases is probably both ‘not enough’ and ‘far too much’: booking an airline ticket often leads to getting lengthy e-mails with T&Cs, information on bag sizing, timings—so much information that knowing what is ‘important’ would be really hard to judge for someone who has no frame of reference. In fact come to think of it, look at many of the e-mails, letters and websites that companies produce—there is often so much information it’s hard to see the ‘wood for the trees’. In an attempt to be informative, customers are flooded with information and don’t know what to do.


Empathize with Newbies

This experience reminded me of how important it is to try and avoid being blinkered when we are carrying out business analysis. When we’re defining requirements for processes, services, user interfaces, etc, it’s very easy to project our own knowledge onto the situation. This can lead to us falling into a trap where we think that something will be ‘obvious’ to our customers, users or stakeholders because it’s ‘obvious’ to us. However, this might not be the case, especially for folks who are completely new to the process or service, as the example above illustrates.

This is one area where user profiles or personas—when they are based on insight or data, or at the very least a well-considered hypothesis—can be extremely useful. These tools help us to switch our thinking, and put ourselves in the shoes of different types of service user. We can ask “what would they value?”, “how would they respond?”, “would they understand?” and “how can we best communicate with them?”. This can help to find ways of serving up the right information at the right time, rather than flooding people with all conceivable information they might need.

Building upon this, whether we use personas or not, it is worth considering what kind of pre-existing knowledge, expectations and mental models will exist amongst our service users. For example, regular airport users will have certain expectations of how airports work. This might be quite different from how, say, an airstrip at a military base works. That might be very different again from a helicopter landing pad on private land. Knowledge and experience of one of these things does not equate to knowledge and experience of all of them. Imagine we are re-designing the claims process for a car (auto) insurance company. We might assume that the client will know roughly what is covered, and how to claim. After all, there is lots of information provided during the sign-up process—there’s a whole downloadable PDF (with tens of pages) explaining all the perils that are covered. How could they not know!

Perhaps some people read every word of every insurance policy, but I suspect some people buy insurance quickly and put it in a drawer and forget about it. If they ever need to claim this is a ‘moment of truth’ for them—they are probably stressed, upset and possibly even angry. Knowing what expectations they are likely to have, and designing a process that is easy to navigate even if you’ve never done it before will be crucial. Building in opportunities for signposting, expectation setting and anticipating queries is important. If the customer has to ask “how do I do this?” or “what happens next?” then this shows an opportunity for potential improvement.

Accepting that not every user will be an ‘expert’ or a ‘regular’ user, and empathizing with ‘newbies’ as well as experienced users can really help.


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