WHEN AIR New Zealand unveiled its Skycouch concept on January 26, it was hailed as a breakthrough for travellers in the cheap seats.
It was, of all things, a bed for weary long-haul passengers. On the ground the chair/bed concept doesn't seem that big a deal, but in the air, in economy class, it's a different matter entirely.
Air NZ pulled in some heavyweight design expertise to help develop Skycouch, including Palo Alto-based consultancy Ideo, but the work of roadtesting various ideas fell to Optimal Usability, a small New Zealand company named Start-Up of the Year in 2006.
As its name suggests, Optimal Usability advises companies on how to make their products and services work properly for customers. It started on the project in February 2008 as Air NZ worked on creating aircraft interiors that would catapult it two years ahead of the competition.
"They came to us and said `we know you've never done anything like this before, but we back you guys to help us understand how customers will react'," said Optimal director Shailesh Manga.
After brainstorming various ideas with designers and engineers, Air NZ wanted to know which ones were worth taking further.
"That's where our role started to kick in," said Manga. But there was an immediate problem. Because so many ideas were being tested, Air NZ's prototype seats were polystyrene mock-ups. "They don't look real – so how do you get quality information?"
Manga's answer was to hire theatre actors to pretend they were customers.
"We briefed them on the personas [characteristics of key customer groups], they took on those characters and we could simulate a compressed flight."
The actors stayed in character for a whole simulated flight, from boarding to disembarkation. Air NZ engineers observed the effect of various cabin configurations.
Included in the ideas were seats laid out in a chequerboard pattern rather than rows, and in groups with bunks like an old-style railway carriage.
"So with these set designs you end up with potential issues – what is the social context of the environment, are the seats easy to get in and out of, do people hear other people's conversations too much?"
Feedback from the sessions gave strong indicators of which seating ideas would work, and which had problems.
"One with strong positive factor was the bunk configuration – the ability to lie flat was a big plus for customers," said Manga.
"But there's a lot of complexity with service and safety in that configuration. As much as it was a good idea, the engineering challenges were pretty big."
As practical concepts emerged, the mock-ups were made more realistic and real customers were brought in for more testing.
"We increased the whole reality of the flight – we had sampled aircraft noise, we got real crew in to serve real hot meals. We still kept actors coming in – they stayed in character and got everyone else into the zone."
The result of the many simulations and focus group sessions was to identify the Skycouch idea as a goer and refine its design, giving Air NZ greater confidence its investment would be worthwhile.
"It's about doing the research up front," said Manga. "Understand who your customers are and when you do a crude design, test it. So when you launch something you've got something that works for customers."
The Skycouch will be available on some flights between Auckland and Los Angeles from December, and between Auckland and Los Angeles and through to London from April 2011.
- Sunday Star Times