mimicking mobile

Image: Ricardo Polo

APEX Insight: Swipe left. Pinch to zoom. Tap to select. Mobile devices have changed our relationship with screens and upended the world of interface design.

Buttons feel outdated compared with the hyper-responsive and intuitive touchscreen navigation of mobile devices. For airlines this means that traditional seatback entertainment systems now need to be rethought. “GUIs [graphical user interfaces] need to mimic the patterns we see on the ground,” says Paul Colley, vice-president of Software Development at Spafax, an in-flight entertainment (IFE) content provider. “It took airlines a lot of time to come around to this idea, but now that’s their starting point.”

Last May, Delta Air Lines premiered a complete redesign of its seatback IFE system on an A330 flying from Atlanta to Honolulu, with plans to implement the redesign across its fleet later this year. The new navigation feels “more like interacting with an iPhone,” said Joe Kiely, the airline’s managing director of Product and Customer Experience, shortly after it launched. Gone is the “back” button, replaced instead with a navigation bar to the left of the screen. And just as importantly, the look and feel is now in line brand-wise with Delta’s other digital properties, such as its mobile app and website.

“GUIs need to mimic the patterns we see on the ground.” — Paul Colley, Spafax

The redesigned platform “gives us greater flexibility to make changes,” says Lissette Alvis, a senior analyst on Delta’s Marketing IFE and Wi-Fi Operations team. Key to the flexibility is a software-based GUI, versus the hard-coded, hardware-first infrastructure of legacy systems. Much like the framework of mobile devices, software systems allow for updates to be pushed with more ease.

Nonetheless, when changing traditional systems, it’s vital that design puts consistency and intuitiveness first. “You need to be careful that you’re not expecting every passenger to be familiar with tablets or a specific hardware,” says Martin Darbyshire, CEO of London-based tangerine, a design consultancy that has worked on cabin revamps for Virgin Australia, Cathay Pacific and British Airways. “The system needs to be immediately familiar.” In collaboration with Thales and B/E Aerospace, tangerine designed Digital Sky, a conceptual prototype of what seatback IFE of the future could look like. The giant, 21.3-inch screen allows users to watch TV and movie content, interact with seatmates on multiplayer games, do two things at once through split-screening or use the system in portrait mode. “We purposefully tried to explore a wider set of what people might do,” Darbyshire adds.

Unlike hardware updates, software can be changed without having to undergo costly head injury criterion tests, but they are subject to regulations and certification. For instance, software needs to be rigorously tested to ensure it has no negative impact on hardware, such as causing a tablet to overheat, explains Colley. Obtaining these certifications may be much quicker for software, but they can stall airline IFE from keeping apace with the breakneck speed of mobile technology evolution on the ground.

“You need to be careful that you’re not expecting every passenger to be familiar with tablets or a specific hardware.” — Martin Darbyshire, tangerine

“It’s a lot easier to future-proof GUIs now because more and more systems are software- rather than hardware-based,” explains Dominic Green, executive vice-president of IFD Americas at Inflight Dublin, which offers wireless IFE streamed from an onboard server as well as portable IFE preloaded on tablets. These types of solutions have led some airlines to ditch the seatback screen altogether.

In January, American Airlines announced that its Boeing 737 MAX would arrive without embedded seatback screens. “Phones and tablets are continually upgraded, they’re easy to use and most importantly they are the technology that our customers have chosen,” read a statement by the airline, justifying the decision. “It makes sense for American to focus on giving customers the best entertainment and fast connection options rather than installing seatback monitors that will be obsolete within a few years.”

“Mimicking Mobile” was originally published in the 7.2 April/May issue of APEX Experience magazine.