Ask anyone, role-playing exercises are almost universally loathed.

Encouraging participants to walk through a challenging fantasy scenario in front of their colleagues and peers is enough to bring even the most confident of delegates out in a cold sweat. Some go as far as deeming it a ‘pointless’ exercise. So, it is no surprise that when we were planning a ‘simulation day’ to gather user feedback on our customer-facing retail platform, eyebrows were raised. But ahead of our first pilot with our product, this is exactly what we set out to do.  

At Beyond we are committed to ensuring that the products we develop are the right ones, designed and built with the customer's (or end user’s) needs at their heart. That’s why it is essential to conduct not only detailed research but to ensure a breadth of approaches are used to make sure we are getting the full picture. Up to this point, from the inception, through design and until delivery of our Crew POS and Onboard retail platform, we had been conducting user research in many guises. Whether that was questionnaires, interviews, or interactive user testing – all went toward informing extensive, iterative wire-framing and prototyping.  

Progress, however, was hampered by the Covid-19 pandemic. The impact of this left no area of the airline industry untouched. Similarly, trying to conduct user research for a product that relied on deploying multiple pieces of hardware, and multiple participant players was tricky, to say the least. While aircraft were grounded, access was impossible, and though the crew weren’t flying, the huge uncertainty surrounding their industry made conducting research with them in traditional ways feel almost unethical. Yet, as the flying programme began to ramp up again our client was keen to get the product in the skies – but before that, we needed to walk through the product with the key actors in this scenario, the crew community.  

Service Design in action

Ordinarily, as part of initial investigations, service designers would conduct field research or ‘service safaris’ where we can experience first-hand the frustrations and obstacles that may present themselves along the customer journey. As well as the intangible factors at play, we need to see how our users physically interact with the world around them, as well as the tools, or service design artefacts, at their disposal. We would also gather insights from stakeholders in each area of an organisation, from customer-facing staff and people managers to back-office workers and tech support, in workshops and ideation sessions.  

But we weren’t dealing with the ordinary. With Covid restrictions still firmly in place, we had to create an environment where our delegates could experience the product in as natural a way as possible. Our product owner working on the project, alongside the design team devised an ‘onboard’ simulation in which crew members, crew managers and key decision makers from the airline were assigned roles and responsibilities to carry out during our ‘flight’ to Tenerife. POS devices were shipped to participants, alongside a simulation pack, outlining their role on the day. Some were assigned crew working positions, while others were given boarding cards and assigned the role of paying customers.  

Our participants dialled in, and we presented a day in the life of the crew and the customers. My background in onboard service allowed us to speak the same language as the crew and keep the narrative as close to the reality of a flight to Tenerife as possible. The participants with POS devices were asked to set up a flight just as they normally would, thinking out loud as they did so, which enabled us to gather insights into the product set in areas we hadn’t anticipated.  Using QR codes to connect to our server, we then asked our ‘customers’ to browse the store before placing orders which would be received by our ‘crew’ POS devices.  

The Results

Besides the insights gathered, the exercise highlighted the importance of service design and user research more broadly. Firstly, for the stakeholders, their engagement in service design processes is key, and sharing the output helps bring external players along with you in evangelising user research as the holy grail of successful product development. Also sharing with them the iterative process, demonstrating that their input, ideation, and insights help shape the products in a meaningful way, can add real value to the client relationship.  

Secondly, it provides us with invaluable insights into how our users will ultimately interact with the product, both physically and emotionally. Seeing first-hand the delight or confusion a solution can cause, how deftly or otherwise they handle physical artefacts and seeing how and why they use the tools at hand, creates a holistic picture of the project's impact on their daily life.  Customer journey mapping can only go so far but going further allows us to not only build better products but also gauge projected engagement with, and sentiment toward, our designs.  

From these sessions specifically, we learned a great deal. It aided us in feature development prioritisation, user messaging improvements, and UI and branding design tweaks and encouraged us to build the platform in a way that was customisable to a changing landscape of Airline SOPs. One of the most enlightening elements, which went on to inform a lot of our designs thereafter, was the crew’s continual empathy toward the customer experience. Our delegates proved to us that it wasn’t enough to simply allow customers to order items and have them be delivered promptly – their customers’ expectations of service needed to be met, and they needed to feel confident in the security of the system and they wanted to be reassured that they would still get the quintessential in-flight experience.  

I’m not about to say that the delegates relished every moment of the role play, or that by calling it a simulation we somehow circumvented any predispositions toward the process. But by participating fully as a team, sharing back the findings, and integrating the outcome into visible and tangible improvements, I will defend the ‘remote service safari’ as being far from a pointless exercise.