image by Ellen Von Unwerth

In my day-to-day work performing user-experience research and design, I put a lot of effort into understanding the psychological needs of those who use technology.

Last month, I spent a sum total of about 50 hours in flight during a pilgrimage through India. In addition to the many eye-opening revelations that came from walking the burgeoning land of my ancestors, my designer’s mind noted a major disconnect between the user experience of Air India’s inflight entertainment systems and the diversity of its passengers.

Sure, there were standard usability flaws like disorganized information architecture, slow response times, and ergonomic problems with the remote control. But a more fundamental problem lay in the system’s content strategy.

It all started with Air India’s movie selection, which consisted of about eight Hollywood new releases, a few “classics” (which, strangely, included Die Hard), and an array of Bollywood movies. It quickly became clear to me that I wasn’t very interested in any of the new releases: 500 Days of Summer (a theatric exploration of dating), The Proposal (an American tale of a green-card wedding), and Ghosts of Girlfriends Past (about a womanizer confronted with the error of his ways during his brother’s wedding), to name a few.

Notice a pattern? All the English-language selections were romantic comedies selected to attract members of the Indian culture, in which love and marriage are a very different affair.

As Die Hard was ending, I tried to figure out why I clearly hadn’t figured into the target audience of Air India’s inflight content. I looked around at my fellow passengers and realized many of them were likely worse off. Sure, it was a flight from Canada to India via England, but the passengers appeared to come from a much wider range of countries and backgrounds. The content selection simply wasn’t appropriate for such a multicultural audience, and this was contributing to a poor user experience.

Designing for multiple cultures is not a new problem. I was recently involved in an exhaustive analysis of how well adapted international airline websites are to local cultures, based on factors such as the proper use of language and culturally sensitive imagery (Emirates came out on top). These sorts of studies always produce some surprising findings; did you know the Chinese have a very specific interpretation of the colour yellow?

The fact is that an airline’s clientele is inherently diverse and multicultural, and no carrier’s inflight entertainment can satisfy every passenger. But it can be internally consistent, positive and universal.

Consider the restaurant model, in which customers happily perform the host culture’s customs as part of the dining experience. We use chopsticks for Chinese food, eat with our hands at an Ethiopian restaurant, and sit on the floor at a sushi joint.

In the same vein, Air India could benefit from a user-experience strategy that emphasizes the brand’s role as an ambassador of a culturally rich society. The cabin crew already sports traditional dress and the inflight meal is unmistakably Indian, so why not also embrace this cultural expression in passenger entertainment?

Air India’s infight system could emphasize documentaries and programs that showcase the uniqueness of Indian media, introduce international passengers to the peculiarities of Indian culture, and complement the content with a distinctly Indian aesthetic (stylistic touches, decoration, music).

This strategy would exploit the natural curiosities of international travellers while creating an unforgettable brand experience. And on my next flight to India, instead of watching Die Hardtwice – I might learn a bit more about where I come from, and where I’m headed.