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KLM Airlines

Using Design Sprints to Prototype the Airport Experience

Niya Stoimenova

Have you ever wondered why it took so many years to have WiFi in (some) planes? Or how they manage to keep losing luggage even though virtually everything can be tracked? You’re not alone.

The airline industry operates on pretty much every single regulation you can possibly fathom and thus, new technologies take ages to be adopted and implemented. Somewhat naturally, regulations have become the main suspect when it comes to hampering progress in the industry. However, they are there for a very good reason. So then the most logical question is, how do you accelerate the pace of innovation despite all restrictions.

KLM began its mission to figure this out a bit over a year ago with the creation of a new department called the X-Gates. But first, let’s take a step back. Who is KLM?

KLM Royal Dutch Airlines is the oldest commercial airline in the world, whose mission is to become the most innovative, customer-centric and efficient European airline. You might have heard of some of their social media campaigns such as Meet & Seat or #happytohelp (if not, you should Google them). Enter the X-Gates.

X-Gates: A prototyping environment for the airport

Situated in Amsterdam Airport Schiphol, X-Gates includes dedicated gates (yes, you guessed that right), but also since this fall the Departure hall and dedicated flights. The idea behind what they do is very simple.

Imagine a place where ideas can be conjured up, prototyped rapidly and tested in live operation in a matter of days. You can test whatever you come up with before or during real flights, with real passengers and staff without disrupting the operation. And since Schiphol is the second largest hub airport in the world, you get to do this with people from all over the world. That’s actually the most unique and powerful feature of the X-Gates — the genuine and culturally diverse feedback.

KLM’s X-Gates at Amsterdam Airport Schiphol

The idea does not get more straight-forward than that. Alas, like all good things in life, it’s much easier said than done and most great ideas are doomed to turn into a crappy reality.

Why are we being so dramatic, you might ask. Good question! Is it really that difficult to do something like that? Another good question! Short answer: yes, it is really that difficult. Long answer: let us paint you a picture.

The context is complex, messy, chaotic and most of the time you can’t possibly grasp everything that’s going on around you. Even if you try really hard. Then, you have to make sure that whatever you’re going to try won’t stop the staff (e.g. gate agents, flight attendants, people who load the luggage into the plane) from doing their job and the passengers from reaching their destination safely and on time.

Now add airport regulations to the mix. We all know how much time it takes to get through security even though you complied with all requirements. Imagine doing so while armed with a lethal weapon for world destruction. That’s what it’s like when you want to bring even something as simple as a pair of scissors to the gates without a very formal permission to do so (okay, we’re exaggerating, but not a lot).

And, of course, one must not forget that KLM is a big company and thus many different people are bound to be involved in whatever you want to do. So, naturally, you also have to make sure that all of them are on the same page. Thus, being extremely well-versed in company politics, or finding someone who is, will come in handy. The last and most important ingredient in the mix is involving and coordinating a lot of different people — the X-Gates team, passengers from all over the world and KLM staff.

The context is complex, messy, chaotic and most of the time you can’t possibly grasp everything that’s going on around you. Even if you try really hard.

So how did we protect the X-Gates idea from becoming a crappy reality? Several factors helped us in doing so: executive support (so we didn’t have to dip our toes into the deep waters of company politics), the X-Gates team (who really wanted to make a difference), a collaboration with the Industrial Design faculty at TU Delft (where we’re currently following our Master’s) and, of course, the Design Sprint (playing a crucial role in navigating the context by providing quick results).

In fact, adopting the Design Sprint as an element of the X-Gates way of working helped us not only to navigate the context, but also to shape it. However, we won’t discuss its structure as the Sprint book does that wonderfully.

Instead, we will share with you the five most beneficial side effects the Design Sprint has in a big company like KLM. But before we do that, let’s briefly discuss the peculiarities of the sprint we run. There are three major ones:

1. Pay attention to the context

It doesn’t take a genius to realize that understanding your users will provide you with the optimal foundation to create meaningful solution. So we stick to one rule: get your information from several different methods. Quantitative data, interviews and observations are the usual suspects and for a good reason — they provide a lot of insights, just like the Research Sprint.

However, we didn’t only want to involve the X-Gates team and KLM employees (management and development), but also KLM staff and passengers and give all of them an active role in the creation of the new context. And when it comes to doing so, all these methods fall somewhat short.

That’s why we use context mapping before each sprint — a method that has worked for us time and time again. It’s based on the premise that people are experts of their own experience and through photos, icons, colors and phrases they can express their latent needs and tacit knowledge[1]. As such, it helps you to find the answers to questions you didn’t even know existed.

Context-mapping sessions with passengers at the gates

2. Very easy-to-recognize names

Why? Well, as we already mentioned, we want to involve KLM staff, employees and passengers as much as possible in everything we do. Thus, ensuring that they not only understand the way of working but also feel inspired to get involved in it is crucial.

Now, you might ask, why didn’t we just stick to the names the Sprint book suggests? Excellent question! Indeed, they are very easy to understand and perfectly convey what has to be done each day. However, we also wanted to make use of the already existing analogies in people’s heads. Now in plain English — for instance, we named Mondays “Sherlock” instead of “Map” or “Design Analysis”, as this presupposes that not only do we map the problem, but we also try to figure out why it exists in order to solve the mystery. See the difference?

We try to give people an idea about what has to be done, but also why they should do it. It’s a very fine, but important distinction. Besides, it turns out such analogies are quite catchy. Therefore, we also renamed the Design Sprint into Treasure Hunt.

Our Treasure Hunt Map

3. Think in timelines

This one is very similar to the Design Sprint storyboard, the only difference being that in the second half of the Mickey day, we encourage the team to think of as many detailed steps of their idea as possible and put them on a timeline. We also encourage them to try and sketch things out.

The role of the facilitator here is crucial, since if she makes very simple and somewhat ugly sketches throughout the day, the team feels more confident to draw on their own. Using such timelines has proved to be really helpful when we want to prototype a service or its interaction with a product. It also makes it easier to combine the generated ideas in one coherent story and helps us to decide what to prototype during the Lego day. Last but not least, having detailed timelines makes the Mickey and Lego days more action oriented, since small steps are always easier to take and work with than one big idea.

Explaining an idea with a detailed timeline

Now that we have that clear, it’s time for the promised list of Five Most Beneficial Side Effects of the Treasure Hunt (a.k.a. Design Sprint).

1. Introduce new methods

The Sprint book gives multiple suggestions for methods you can use during each day. However, the structure of the sprint is quite open and lends itself perfectly to introducing new methods and figuring out what works best in your context. The possibilities are endless, so don’t be afraid to experiment. Of course, you should not forget to reflect on each one of them on regular basis. This will help you to figure out which methods are best suited for each situation and thus, reap the benefits from your actions in the best possible way.

For instance, sometimes the first thing we do during the Mickey day is to ask the team to imagine how they would advertise a possible solution for our problem in 5 years from now. We give them random magazine ads that have nothing to do with each other, or the topic, or the airline industry and ask them to let their imagination loose. This proved to be a perfect first activity for the Mickey day as it puts the team into a creative mood. Besides, the results are always fun and very much unexpected.

2. Create capabilities

This one is kind of obvious, but it’s still fascinating how well it works. The sprint serves as the perfect medium, in which the team gets to experience many different methods and techniques crammed into 5 days. This accelerates their learning and thus the forming of their capabilities to work with such methods and to facilitate sprints on their own.

It’s practically two birds with one stone — you get actionable outcomes in the end, but you also help the team to create the needed know-how to do it on their own. The trick, however, is not only to ensure they know the methods, but also to give them the right tools. But wait, isn’t that what everyone says? It is. Actually, the Sprint book can easily play this role. What worked for us was to make a Beginner’s Toolbox — all supplies and explanations the team would need put in one place. For instance, the toolbox for the exercise of combining ads we already mentioned was a starter pack of weird, random magazine ads. Once you do that, you can just sit back and watch the magic happen.

3. Keep the long-term vision and goal in mind

The Design Sprint always starts with the long-term goal in mind and makes sure everything you do is connected to it. We decided to take this notion a step further by dedicating an entire day for evaluation — the Mirror day. Wait, isn’t that a waste of time? No and the reasoning is quite simple.

We noticed that when we don’t allow enough time to talk about what we’ve learned, the possible improvements of the process and the actionable next steps, we lose valuable insights and traction. Thus, the notion of “always strike while the iron is hot” is leading for us. Besides, doing so gives us both focus and flexibility.

On the one hand, when Friday is assigned for evaluation, you know you have to do everything before that — this brings sense of urgency to the team. On the other hand, if things fail, and this is bound to happen at some point, we always have the Friday to mend what’s broken (or do a final check). Last but not least, the Mirror day allows us to connect the sprint results to our long-term goal and vision. This way we make sure our future focus is not short-sighted in any way and we can get our priorities straight.

4. Create the mindset

Perhaps this is one of the major impacts the Treasure Hunt had on the X-Gates team and everyone who has participated in one. A few months in, we started noticing a shift in their mindset towards being more exploratory and participatory (a.k.a. involving users throughout the entire project and using design methods outside the Treasure Hunt).

We believe there are several factors you need to establish before you see such change. First, introducing different design methods and thus building capabilities helps tremendously. Another factor is having your entire team actively participating in the test throughout the Dummy day. Although having the team watch the interviews from the sprint room definitely has its pros, due to the nature of our context (did we mention things get really chaotic), we need all hands on deck.

Besides, having the team being actively involved in the test really fortifies their sense of achievement. This, of course, could be risky, but the facilitator is always there to make sure everything is running smoothly and help when help is needed. Last but not least, we believe that the Mirror day also helps a lot in doing so.

5. Use it as an ambassador

The Sprint book suggests four instances in which to use the sprint — when the stakes are high, when time pressure strikes, when stuck and in the beginning of a project. Next to these four, it turns out the Design Sprint is perfect for the role of an ambassador. Since it requires relatively little commitment and resources upfront and achieves plenty of results in just five days, this is one of the fastest ways to convince people and departments to adopt the new way of working and thinking.

For instance, a few months ago, we used the Treasure Hunt to convince another department within KLM in its added value. To do that, we carried out a sprint on preventing people from taking excessive amounts of hand baggage to the plane (in case you’re wondering, this is one of the main reasons why flights don’t leave on time in Europe).

The sprint resulted in dedication of the department to give the X-Gates freedom in the Departure hall, allocated new people to join the X-Gates team part-time and first steps in implementing the way of working in the department.

6. Drop by drop

Yes, yes, we know, we said five. We’re just funny that way. This one is actually some parting words in case you’re wondering how two students managed to pull this off.

We did three things. First, we saw the X-Gates team, KLM staff and passengers as the experts of their own domain. This helped us to gain their trust and to take them along on our journey.

Second, we sometimes operated under the premise “it’s easier to ask for forgiveness than for permission” so we could show them the benefits of the Sprint firsthand without much delay.

Third, we were really (sometimes obnoxiously) persistent. The Treasure Hunt didn’t happen overnight. Actually, the first time we proposed to do something even remotely similar to it, the reaction we got was “we can give you 2 hours”. It took us several months to get to the coveted five days, which turned out to be a blessing in disguise. Why? A Bulgarian saying perfectly sums it up: “you form a lake drop by drop.”

It might sound corny, but we believe the Treasure Hunt became a fundamental element of the X-Gates’ way of working because we introduced elements of it little by little.

Just go out and talk to your users. It’s easier than you think.

Here you go, five (or six) most beneficial side effects of the Treasure Hunt. Although, this is based and adapted for our almost year-long experience within KLM, we strongly believe these insights to be equally important and implementable in companies of different sizes. Besides, the Design Sprint helped us to introduce a new way of working and thinking to the X-Gates. One that takes into consideration the users, the context and shapes the capabilities of the team so they can come up with meaningful solutions. As such, we sincerely hope that these benefits will convince you to run one in your organization and make it a normal occurrence, just like the X-Gates did.

And finally, both of us are designers and thus facilitating the Treasure Hunt is very much in our comfort zone. But no one in the X-Gates team has a design background. Nevertheless, they are facilitating it on their own now. So being a designer is definitely not a requirement to start. All you have to do is to take small steps and simply talk to people about what you want to do. Although at times they might see you as the weirdo who’s here to perform some tricks with his magic wand, if you keep trying, people will start trusting you.

Don’t get discouraged if it doesn’t go well the first time. Remember, one important key to success is self-confidence. And self-confidence is built on preparation. Therefore, it’s imperative to take the time and prepare the ground for the seeds you’re going to plant.

Acknowledgements: Of course, we didn’t do this on our own. We had the help of Hassan Charaf and the entire X-Gates team, Sander Stomph and Christine de Lille.

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