Shailesh Manga is the director of Optimal Usability, the New Zealand-based UX firm that managed customer testing for Skycouch.

In your conference brief, you talk about Air New Zealand transitioning “from selling seats to selling experiences.” What do you mean by this?

Air New Zealand started with the goal of creating the world’s best long-haul flight experience. To date most airlines have been in the business of selling individual seats. Even if you are a couple or a family, they will sell you more individual seats that happen to be next to each other.

The research that Air New Zealand conducted showed that there was an opportunity to break out of this model and provide experiences that combined the physical space, service and entertainment in a way that met the needs of specific groups of their customers.

For example, travelling with young children is a big challenge. Having recently been on a flight with my two- and four-year-olds, the appeal of having a flat area that they can play on and then lie flat is something I would pay for rather than trying to make the current individual seats work for me.

Air New Zealand's Skycouch (

The inflight experience has a lot of nuances that are extremely difficult to simulate in an office or on a computer screen. How do you design for the sky while stuck on the ground?

One of the key challenges we faced on the Skycouch project was how to simulate a flight and make it realistic enough such that test participants would exhibit real behaviours. If we were not able to achieve this, the quality of the data wouldn’t be good enough to make sound design decisions.

Air New Zealand had invested in building a mock Boeing 787 cabin in a secret location in Auckland (the first outside of Boeing’s facility in Seattle). Our firm worked on creating a realistic shortened flight experience. Some key contributors to the realism were:

  • actual aircraft sound;
  • lighting that mimicked a real flight;
  • real cabin crew to provide safety instructions and service;
  • adequate lengths of time for sleep to understand real behaviours;
  • adequate number of passengers in a test flight to encourage real social behaviours.

For the initial series of customer tests there was the additional challenge of the seats being made of polystyrene and pieces of wood – these were crude prototypes. Our belief was that real customers would struggle to see past the crude nature of the setup and provide quality data.

We decided to hire theatre actors to take on the passenger personas that we had developed with Air New Zealand. This worked very well because actors are used to working in makeshift environments and this technique allowed them to focus on seat interaction insights rather than the imperfections of the environment.

Their feedback was further validated when we brought in real customers to test more complete prototypes. In fact we continued to use actors with the real customers as this brought a level of realism to the flight and helped other passengers get into a role-playing frame of mind.

Actors simulate the inflight experience

People have very specific needs, habits and preferences when they are in transit. How do you take this into account in the design process?

People on the go tend to be quite adaptive. When there is a great product or service design that meets core needs, I think passengers are free to push these solutions to the next level to make them even better or to interact with designs in a way that was not initially anticipated.

When the product or service does not address core needs well and is a bit of a bumpy ride, passengers will often get caught up in the design aspects that are causing frustrations. I think we saw that when testing the Skycouch. There was a design that worked well but when a family was put into the seats some real magic occurred and the seat was used in ways that were not anticipated.

What have you learned from designing for the airline environment that can be applied to other, non-travel spaces?

The lessons cover a number of different areas. First, up-front customer research is critical. The core customer drivers that are derived provide focus and consistency through the project and help drive good design decisions.

Second, don’t be afraid to iterate multiple times to get to the final solution – it’s surprising what issues you can miss the first time that you discover in future iterations.

Third, it’s important to explore creativity in the methods you use, and accept that you won’t get things perfect every time. The use of theatre actors was controversial but we were willing to try it and evolve it. This resulted in a great outcome.

Fourth, don’t underestimate the importance of environmental factors when setting up your test environment. We did not initially realize how important the noise factor was in our testing. As you test, always get feedback from participants as to how the environment can be improved.

And lastly, when testing physical space environments, have engineers available throughout testing to make changes as you see opportunities for improvement.

There seem to be a lot of innovative design ideas coming out of New Zealand these days. Is there something in the air down there?

New Zealand is a small country with only 4 million people but our opportunities lie in taking innovative ideas, products and services to the world.

Sometimes I think it is the fact we are stuck at the bottom of the world and often have limited resources that forces us to think outside the square and be creative in the solutions that we dream up.

The User Experience Masterclass takes place on September 20 in Montreal.