KLM Service Design

Design Goal – The KLM design research goal for long haul flights is that passengers have “as much energy coming off the flight as stepping on.” The restrictions are no interior or chair design changes, and the focus is strictly the time spent in the plane from take off to landing.

My first instinct is to relate “energy” to metabolism more than psychology. For example, insulin and when digesting, stress hormones when travelling etc, the body’s reflex to hibernate or go dormant when it’s forced to stay still.

Personas – The Crisp open design space frames the design research in the context of mapping different persona’s for different passenger types. It is a very interesting way of approaching a service design research project.

We develop and flesh out the personas of five different “types” of passengers into specific individuals. My group focuses on Jim Miller the positivist:

An infrequent flyer, psychologically stable: from a big rural family, curious and engaged. Australian, finished his bachelors and going on a long awaited dream sabbatical to South America. Studied Anthropology. He is positive because he is finally going on his dream holiday, freshly graduated. He is open to new experiences, his trip is about self-development and finding out what life is about. His motto is Carpe Dieum. We even make an itinerary of items in his hand luggage.

I like this guy, I can identify with him, but I can see myself in all five different personas given the right triggers or situation, and I could pass from one person to another in a given amount of time. I think these personas don’t necessarily have to relate to deeply rooted psychological profiles, but could just as easily be short-term attitudes.

In thinking of the five personas my first instinct to relate “energy” to metabolism inspires me to make the connection between the five personas and aryuvedic or medicinal profiles for different metabolic temperaments. I start thinking of aromatherapy, herbal teas, etc.

Scenarios – We create five scenarios that would test the persona’s we developed in the first week.

Scenario 1: boarding – Searching for luggage space

Arrives on board when the plane is already quite full – “there’s no space for my hand luggage near my seat” – looks for space in over head storage nearby – lots of people doing the same – competition – finds space but someone jumps in front – eventually cabin crew search for space.

Scenario 2: meal 1 – Blocked by food carts when going to the toilet

Suddenly wakes up bursting to go to the toilet – Blocked in both directions – “excuse me I have to get passed to go to the toilet” – “ Sorry sir, please wait until the trolley service has passed your seat” – (Really bursting) – He insists,  steps in front of passenger on the aisle seat, and waits for trolley to pass.

Scenario 3: between meals – a kid behind him starts to cry and kick his seat.

First time this happens Jim gets up and goes for a walk and waits for things to settle down. Second time he stands up and makes eye contact with the kid – the kicking continues so Jim tries to make conversation to defuse the situation before asking the child to stop kicking

Scenario 4: meal 2 – the last one to have a meal / portion is too small

Jim is hungry and has to wait for his meal a long time, when it arrives it is too small to satisfy him.

Scenario 5: landing and exiting – Jacket falls on floor and is walked on / Hit by suitcase

Jim wants to wait until everyone is gone. Other passengers drop his jacket from the overhead storage on the floor and it gets trampled on. He tries to save his jacket but in his rush someone drops a suitcase on his head.

Our Group choose to further develop scenario 3 because it had the most interaction between Jim and other passengers. It also shifted focus from Jim to the child. The child’s behaviour seems to stem from an energy issue, that the child either had too much sugar, or has too much energy and thus bored and frustrated with the situation. We further developed the scenario, creating scripts with different variations until we found one that seemed to work best. The second day we preformed our scenarios in front of and with a group of KLM cabin crew.

KLM Scenario Feedback – From the feedback we got from the KLM crew about our scenario and the answers to our questions some interesting things came up. One of the KLM cabin crew stewards related how she dilutes coke with water “half water and half coke” for more difficult children to avoid situations like these. We also learned that KLM stocks valerian herbal tea, which has a sedating effect, for passengers that have trouble sleeping.

This further encourages me to think of handling “energy” levels in a metabolic way. If I could perhaps graph or map Jim’s, and the other personas, energy levels through the flight: where they peak and drop off etc. I could find appropriate herbal teas or metabolic stimulus to be applied to dips and peaks to try and hold passengers in comfortable energy equilibrium. And from this research design a new catering service with perhaps a new programme of 3 – 5 cold and hot metabolic intakes rather than 2 meals.

Ice Breaking – From our talks with the cabin crew where they were recounting to us different real life situations they have personally encountered, I picked up a type of situation where the “Ice broke” on the airplane. These are situations where some sort of community bonding occurs through an unscheduled and unexpected event. For example on a Christmas flight one of the cabin crew dressed up as Santa and this started a lot of conversation amongst the passengers which shifted the entire energy of airplane. I think the space for unscheduled and unexpected events to happen could be designed into service programme. In a way designing no design. For example letting cabin crew select spontaneously as a team a certain theme of special uniform, such as cowboy, or space man etc. Or selecting for themselves a certain kind of exercise or activity for passengers when they “feel” the energy of the passengers needs it or is up for it. Cabin Crew discretion being more random than a fixed programme.

Trick Book – From the way the KLM cabin crew talked about how they would deal with certain situations, it seems that they learn how to defuse certain situations with certain “tricks” they learn from other cabin crew or from experience.  So for example dealing with smelly feet by using air freshener designed for the toilets in the flight cabin, or offering a cup of tea or extra blankets as a form of compensation for a situation, or to comfort someone. These artefacts are not used by the cabin crew for their intended function, but rather to communicate some social meaning, or to serve some social purpose. I think it might be useful to design the cabin crew a set of more comprehensive and specific tools for certain scenarios. So for example, comforting teas, or energizing teas, aromatherapy essential oils to drop in certain areas where smell or energy is an issue, perhaps extra portions etc.

Last minute changes – The workshop lost a lot of participants towards the end so the groups had to restructure.  Along with the group restructuring, the project goal was refocused on creating objects that generate interactions between passengers.

It feels to me like the project process and momentum that’s been developing since the start of the workshop has been made redundant and we are all but starting a new project, with a new brief, in new groups. Somehow we are starting a new design process, even though the research and discussions are still fresh in our memory, the new groups and brief has given everything a new context and has changed the meaning of the workshop.

Brainstorm- In our brainstorm we focused on 1-1 interactions and collective interactions. Inspired by recently watching Fight Club with its “single serving friends” idea, I thought it might be interesting to develop a “shared serving friends” service. So instead of individual servings of butter, salt, pepper, sugar, etc.passengers would have to share collective salt and pepper shakers for example, and would therefore have to ask each other to pass these objects, and therefore stimulate interaction. However we were told that a similar project had recently been done by a prior workshop in Delft Technical University; it didn’t go down so well because the interactions were too forced.

Another idea was to “break the ice” with an initial “take off toast” or a high-five. So after the demonstration of how to put on the life jackets etc., the cabin crew would say something like “ so please introduce yourself to the passengers on you row, while we serve the take-off toast” and then the passengers and crew would then drink a toast together to a safe landing.

Reflecting on times when I experienced moments of group interaction, I remembered a creative writing exercise from my Creative writing bachelors. The whole class wrote a story together by adding one or two sentences in turn, one after the other, to create a sort of nonsense story that was quite amusing. In the context of a temporary community of passengers, individuals would literally have to weave their individual narratives together into a collective narrative, and somehow this would open the cocoons people shroud themselves in to “break the ice”.

As a group we choose to go with the creative writing exercise.

Air stories–Working out the details of the idea, we thought it was important that it remains analogue, something like a note pad that can be handed physically from passenger to passenger, where individual hand writings were important. Then when the story was finished it would be read aloud at the end of the flight or printed in the in-flight magazine. We developed a quick prototype and tested it by passing it between different students and teachers, this is the first story:

In the shopping mall, there was standing this man completely wet from the rain…

Even though it was rainy, he was eating strawberry ice cream…

Then suddenly, a rift in the fabric of space/time opened and he walked in…

I had never seen a space monkey before; it was surprisingly clam and started staring at me…

First I thought it was one of the monkeys from the wizard of Oz and I wanted to click my heels and get the hell out of there…

I felt like this witch hit down by the house rolling up my feet…

Far away trains passing by and the voices of the frogs next to the point. What a musical!

Kind of annoying this rhythmic crying of the frogs…

Air stories could take different forms, such as an open question; for example “what did you dream about last night?” or with a story with a set opening paragraph to direct the narrative more. We still have to work out the details

In the final week everything came together in an effortless synergy.

Approaching the project through Persona’s and their subjective narratives allowed our design research to focus on the intangible, the subjective, and the human -rather than fixating on the material and coming up with yet another product/object.

It allowed the design research to touch the very subtle human context of the flight experience and so allowed us as designers to design service solutions to stimulate a certain social atmosphere: to create a space and mood for social interactions.


What became clear is that passengers tend to deal with the discomfort the flight experience by physically and psychologically “cocooning”:  attempting to shut out the experience of the flight and create their own little bubble.

As designers you could deal with this by designing aids for “cocooning”. For example giving each passenger an individual screen to watch movies and so help them distract themselves from the flight experience. While building-in individual curtains between seats and offering ear plugs and eye masks would help passengers physically cocoon them.

On the other hand, it became clear that most in-flight service failures occur because of a lack of social awareness and empathy between the passengers, for example arguments between passengers about invading each other’s space in one form or another. So especially for long-haul flights cocooning costs more energy and creates more problems them it solves.



The alternative design solution is to design means of “breaking the ice”. When the ice breaks something happens in the flight: as the invisible bubbles melt the pressure of trying to keep out the world is lifted and everyone becomes lighter – a shift in the energy of passenger group occurs: a shift towards community and openness that energizes and revitalizes everyone.

KLM cabin crew recounted a few examples from when the ice broke: on a Christmas flight one of the crew dressed up as Santa and started giving out candy to the children on board, this unexpected event broke the ice and people started talking to each other.

Another example was a passenger falling ill during the flight, this event, collectively experienced by the passengers, galvanized and unified them; breaking the ice and stimulating interaction and awareness of each other.

In the end our research defined the project goal as “break the ice”: to design an artifact that stimulated interaction between the passengers, and supported an atmosphere of collective experience, community, and openness.

We came up with “Air story”, a story written by the passengers together; each passenger contributing a single sentence to create a collective narrative both literally and symbolically. As air story is being passed around the cabin there is awareness and anticipation amongst the passengers that they will be participating in something together. This alone is enough the burst the bubble or cocoon around most passengers, because suddenly passengers are aware of the others around them. Then by reading the last sentence and writing the next sentence, passengers are literally weaving their individual imaginations and private narratives together into a single collective narrative: a shared experience. At the end of the flight, air story is read out aloud by the cabin crew, and then passengers can pick out their own sentence in the story, feel they have been part of a larger community. As a long term initiative, passengers will begin to anticipate the sense of community that air story creates even before finding their seats.

After the flight, Air story is sent by email to the passengers, and the best air stories are printed in the in-flight magazine.


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