In-flight Entertainment System
Duration: 7 months
Team: 3 UX designers, and 3 UI designers at Massive Interactive – Sydney
Role: Concept development and validation, prototyping, usability testing, UX specification documentation
We were tasked with designing a world class in-flight entertainment system (IFE) for United Airlines; incorporating full accessibility options, scalability across legacy and premium hardware, with touchscreen and handset navigation.
The system launched in January 2019, set for global rollout across the fleet of over 700 aircraft.
We completed 7 rounds of user testing (in Sydney and Chicago) across 18 prototypes.
Passengers on any flight are various and multi-faceted. There will be holiday makers, business trippers, relaxed travellers, stressed parents, nervous flyers, restless children, and aviation geeks. With United being the world’s third largest airline, we needed to cater to everyone.
From user interviews, the main thing people said they wanted to know on a flight was how long is left. We made sure that flight information was only ever one tap away. Tapping the screen (or pressing a button on handset) during a movie displays the playback controls and flight time remaining on screen. Users can also open the flight information panel over their movie or show, and quickly check additional flight data without losing context of where they are in the IFE or unintentionally exiting playback.
In addition to flight time remaining, the flight service timeline provides a personalised touch. Passengers are supported to plan their journey – when to eat, when to sleep – and can arrive refreshed.
For many travellers, excitement for the journey officially starts when the cabin doors close. Route specific customisation, such as language tips, currency rates and destination guides help passengers track their journey and feel prepared.
Another key priority for long haul travellers is sleep. For business travellers flights can be enforced down time or an opportunity to get work done without interruption. Many passengers looking to relax or work want to block out the sounds and sights of the aircraft, without having to focus on a narrative or be startled by sudden action in a story.
For nervous or jet lagged flyers, or those simply struggling to sleep we designed Relax Mode. This mode makes use of slow TV footage, images, relaxing music and recordings to lull the passenger to sleep or guide in meditation. This mode also quietly displays flight time remaining so passengers can stay informed in between naps, and other presets to support focused time for work.
When passengers finally get to their seat, many are excited to see what’s available in the seatback entertainment. Feeling spoilt for choice is a premium experience we all welcome, and one that is increasingly expected in the age of Netflix. However streaming licenses for content are a hidden cost of aviation, and can limit libraries. Airlines are keen to showcase whatever content they have every month, and if passengers can’t find content, that content is wasted, with passengers left underwhelmed.
Prioritising discoverability provides a sense of abundance in the IFE which in turn benefits passengers. Carefully considered content strategy on home, genre groupings, search, and recommendations, ensures passengers can easily find and enjoy the wide variety of movies, TV and podcasts on offer. When browsing through lists of content, ‘bookends’ at the end of the list provide onward paths to similar or related content, so users never reach a dead end.
The IFE is available in 15 languages, includes non-latin scripts and right to left languages like Arabic and Hebrew. For these we mirrored the UI where relevant to make the IFE comfortable for right to left users.
To ensure the IFE is also a safe space for younger travellers, we implemented optional parental controls. A guardian can choose to filter content by rating PG or G and below at the global level, so that a child can interact with the IFE without assistance or monitoring.
A major focus of this IFE was accessibility. United were committed to making this IFE the most accessible in the skies. This gave us the platform to make the design as inclusive as possible from the start, and not treat accessibility as an afterthought.
We interviewed people with vision and hearing impairments to learn about their experiences flying. They had had little luck with IFEs and no longer attempted to use them. The hearing impaired passenger said there was a lack of content with captions, and he was better off watching Netflix on his iPad. The vision impaired passenger had no way to navigate to audio without relying on a companion, and audio descriptive movies or shows were generally thin on the ground.
We knew we could do better. While older hardware (resistive touchscreens, low resolution, low memory) presented a challenge across some planes in the 700+ fleet, the newer premium screens allowed us to implement a suite of inclusive features. The UI and content within were made accessible to hearing and vision impaired users, with magnification, three text sizes, customisable closed captions, and adjustable text to speech (via explore by touch, and by linear (tab) navigation using the handset). Users can configure these capabilities in the settings, according to their needs and preferences.
For every screen, semantic order for screen reader logic and point to point (handset) navigation was defined. We left nothing to chance to make this the most accessible in-flight entertainment system to date.
The IFE was designed to respond to each journey in context. When it’s lights out in the cabin, the UI switches to the darker night mode to reduce ambient light pollution and avoid startling sleepy passengers.
The system also responds to user behaviour. As passengers watch or add content to favourites, a recommendation engine surfaces related content at end of playback. This again provides onward journeys to viewers, alleviates choice paralysis, and allows passengers to simply lean back and enjoy the flight.
This system launched in January 2019.