Holistic service design in aviation: A method for designing future services for future airlines

Designers at the Holistic service design in aviation workshop at IXDA18
February 19, 2018

Read time 6 min

To create great services, you have to understand the industry you’re designing for. With highly regulated, complex industries such as aviation, this can be a challenge. How can you understand the business implications of the services you’re designing, while being an advocate for traveler needs? We’ve created a method called holistic service design in aviation to show the way.  

Most of us have experience from international air travel, using the services of a number of businesses to make our trips happen. And quite often, something goes wrong – a flight is canceled, a bag goes missing. This is often due to the challenge of integrating multiple services from multiple actors, and it can seem easy to point out the obvious problems and issues that this leads to. And it seems easy to envision what the experience would look and feel like if you could design the service yourself. However, changing the way things work on an industry-scale needs more than just a vision of how things should be; it requires an understanding of why things are currently working (or not working) as they are.  

At Reaktor, we have experience of delivering digital services to airlines and airports, and we’ve gained plenty of insight into the industry along the way. The big lesson: When it comes to designing these kinds of services, you need to look at the whole system rather than just its parts. We wanted to share our knowledge with other designers, and put together an approach we call holistic service design in aviation. To start, we created a workshop on our method for the Interaction 18 conference, held in Lyon in early February.

Digital services can help gain growth by adding value, not just by cutting costs

If we look at the industry trends, traditional big airlines are still dominating the scene as the highest profitable airlines in the world, with the three North American giants on the podium. At the same time, low-cost carriers (LCC) are driving growth in the market, eating market share and expanding into new geographical areas where demand is growing. LCC’s core idea is to strip the services to a minimum and providing passengers with just a seat on a plane that takes you from one airport gate to another. As Spirit Airlines puts it: “… you and a personal item can get from Point A to B as economically as possible by paying only for the things you need or want”. And as fluctuations in global fuel prices heavily affect the economics of airlines, optimizing flight operations is indeed critical – and it’s the core and bare minimum for operating an airline.

But how do you create services that generate value for your customers, other than moving them from one location to another, while at the same time addressing the competition for lower and lower ticket prices? There are no known valid business models that combine competing with price and competing with differentiated services; it’s either or. We foresee that the more you concentrate on the bare minimum, i.e. the flying seat, the more you leave opportunity for someone else to own the whole journey experience. This shift is already happening: emerging new services like Winding Tree aim to create a marketplace where service providers, including airlines, are treated as commodity providers that can be utilized to create services for travelers. In order for airlines to compete in this market, they need to take an active role in designing experiences and create differentiated services that generate new business.

With this in mind, we created a workshop to help designers start thinking about how to design for this competitive landscape, while meeting real user needs and helping the business grow.

The workshop: A four-hour crash course in designing human and business-centric services

Twenty experienced and enthusiastic designers participated in our four-hour workshop at Interaction 18, creating future services for future airlines. Four hours is certainly not enough to find the most critical problems worth solving within the whole problem space; however, we aimed to provide an in-depth view of the actual work of creating human-centric solutions while addressing the complex business environment. Four hours is plenty for that.


To address the traveler’s perspective, finding the right problem to solve is a start. In a tightly time-boxed workshop, drawing from our own experiences is sufficient; in real-life you’d want to talk to the actual customers. No matter how you find the problem, we emphasize the importance of analyzing traveler behavior and motivations in the given context. Those needs are then used to create solutions that tackle the identified problems.

The added complexity in the aviation industry comes from understanding the business around the services, how the businesses operate and what makes them tick. Service-level agreements (SLAs) bind service providers into operating in tightly set boundaries. These, in turn, generate a lot of micro-optimization, where everyone tries to do their part with as low costs as possible. Generating holistic services that address the whole picture is impossible in a system designed to optimize individual components; we can’t see the forest for the trees. Without accounting for the business interests of all involved parties, a change can be hard to implement.

We wanted to start drawing the bigger picture by helping service designers think about the whole – user and business. To do this, we use a number of tailored frameworks from user journey mapping to analyzing user behavior and key business metrics. Key questions to address when designing a specific service include:

  • What’s the benefit for the customer?
  • What actors are involved in the play?
  • What’s the business benefit for each stakeholder?
  • How does the generated customer value translate into business value for each of the service providers?

These questions help generate a coherent framework for looking at problem and solution from different angles, taking into account the user’s needs and the stakeholder’s business cases. If these questions can’t be answered, it’s unlikely your service will materialize in the real world.

What you can achieve: Novel concepts that are grounded in your actual business

In spite of the short time-box for finding a problem, analyzing it thoroughly through the behavior of the traveler and each stakeholder’s business metrics, a wide variety of plausible new service concepts were crafted during the workshop. For example, looking at airline travel from the point of view of a person who has fear of flying – how might that help us design better services for all travelers? Or instead of relying on a limited number of food options for the flight, how about using existing on-demand food delivery solutions?

Where this method differs from existing ideation frameworks (which we use often) is that it concentrates on the creation of validatable hypotheses. With each concept, there is a way to find out whether it creates real value for the traveler, as well as whether it meets the business goals of the stakeholders. It combines strict time-boxed ideation, which designers are often extremely good at, with more business-centered thinking. This helps you both understand the service experience from the point of view of the traveler, as well as have meaningful conversations with stakeholders about the services’ business impact.

If you’d like to attend our next holistic service design in aviation workshop, you can do so at the Reaktor Breakpoint conference in Helsinki this May – you can reserve your place now.

Never miss a post