01 – Project Overview
• Senior UX Designer for United Airlines
Dec 2022 – Present
In 2022, United Airlines launched a new navigational feature on their award-winning app. The purpose of this feature was to serve as a personalized guide, which would show travelers the best way to get to their gates, where to go through security, and where to drop bags at any of United’s seven domestic hubs. After its initial launch, I was brought onto this project to iterate on the MVP, address usability concerns, and develop integrations between existing features.
Navigating through the airport can be tricky for seasoned travelers and first-time flyers alike. Our user needed a way to find their way more easily from their arrival door to their gate.
Streamline and improve existing features meant to guide users through the airport.
02 – Context
Existing states (December 2022)
In late 2022 the United Airlines app was primarily addressing the problem of airport navigation in three ways—
1. Trip tips
Trip tips and notifications function to serve the user contextual messaging as they move through different states of their journey. As an example, the app serves a trip tip explaining where to leave a bag at the airport if the user has indicated that they’ll be bringing one. Alerts in the trip tip section also let the user know if a gate changes or if there are delays. Trip tips are displayed above the fold on the home screen of the United app, and when I joined this project in 2022 it was standard to display multiple trip tips per stage of the journey.
2. Contextual Card
The contextual card functions as the central home screen messaging component. This card appears after a flight has been booked, and content adjusts as the user’s trip progresses. Some examples of the states displayed on the contextual card in late 2022 include upcoming trip, checked in, on board, and welcome. The goal of this card was to give users the most relevant status updates and links for their journey.
3. terminal guide
Terminal guide, a new feature deployed in 2022, was built to give step-by-step instructions through the airport. The initial design featured a list of steps with a take me there CTA giving users a map of the airport in order to find their way. Both trip tips and the contextual card featured links into terminal guide during certain states.
As part of my work on this project, I took a holistic approach in addressing how these elements worked together. I conducted user research which revealed, among other concerns, a lack of consistency in messaging and design. I secured alignment between leadership for a strategic path forward and was able to iterate on new versions of all three features.
03 – Research
Terminal guide behavior
In aggregating data on terminal guide after its launch, we were able to observe user behavior through tracking bounce rates, time spent on the feature, and click-through rates on important CTAs. On launch, we observed that although time spent in terminal guide was high, the amount of users on the feature was relatively low. We developed two theories around this behavior—
- Our in-app messaging was failing to connect users to terminal guide, or
- Terminal guide was less relevant to a majority of users once they’d clicked in to see what it was
Due to a pattern of lower bounce rates and above-average time spent in terminal guide, we established that theory two was less likely. This led us to conduct qualitative user testing in order to understand why users may not be taking advantage of this new feature.
Pain points with delays and cancellations
As part of our research, I had the invaluable opportunity to work from O’Hare International Airport during a day of considerable operational struggle (due to storms). I had volunteered to help travelers who were stuck in long customer support lines with potential self-service on the United app. These hours doubled as a boots-on-the-ground user testing experience, and I was able to witness confusion around navigation first-hand.
Users experiencing irregular operations had received mixed-messages around rerouted planes, gates, and departure times. I observed frustration with misaligned instructions and helped to steer travelers in the right direction. After a busy day, I took notes on my impressions.
Messaging pain points
Through this research, a few major pain points emerged—
- Users were struggling with how to get to terminal guide in the first place
- Users were confused about navigation-related messaging throughout the app
- Users had a hard time understanding inconsistency between digital and physical signage
Travelers reported uncertainty around inaccurate gates and departure times after seeing inconsistent messaging. Similarly, overlaps in our in-app messaging (i.e., two or more stacked alerts) overloaded the user with instructional info, making it harder for our in-app navigation to cut through the noise.
Although some of our messaging errors had been connected to gaps in backend data or real-time flight info, more often than not, these less-than-ideal user experiences came down to strategy decisions made in a vacuum. After compiling the research, we hypothesized that we needed to address inconsistent messaging and more directly bring users into terminal guide in order to improve airport navigation.
04 – Strategy
A clear win for user understanding is to create consistency between experiences, both digital and physical. To further improve navigation, we sought a partnership with the brand team at United. We collaborated to create a color-coded system between in-app wayfinding and signage at our terminals. I found value in this partnership, having previously designed a physical and digital wayfinding system in a former role at a new contemporary art space.
Current state user flow
To solve for inconsistency between digital features, I created a diagram outlining the messages conveyed for each state of the user journey. Our existing state user flow reflected the following—
This user flow allowed us to see from a high level where we had misalignments with our messaging. We identified areas where users received too many notifications at once. We also identified steps in the process with gaps in messaging, giving us opportunities to open new pathways to terminal guide.
user flow adjustments
A future state user flow was created to address areas of improvement. In mapping this out, we were able to reach alignment with the product and business teams on next steps for improving each feature. Our strategy included the following—
- Additional states in the user journey for navigational features—trip tips, contextual cards, and terminal guide—addressing gaps where we needed to give users clearer instructions.
- An additional state for error messaging. Our research showed a gap in communication to travelers during operational challenges—right when the need for clear messaging is most important.
- An outline for streamlined trip tips, prescribing an order of operations to display only one trip tip at a time. We also mapped out color-coding for all appropriate steps.
- A new feature—iOS Live Activities—used to provide clearer contextual messaging and further outlined in a separate case study.
future state user flow
Adding new states and features to our user flow increased the complexity exponentially, but our future state plan proved to be a more accurate reflection of the nuances travelers typically encounter. Subtle messaging decisions had to be made in order to create a more coherent navigational experience.
After defining the problems we needed to solve through research and aligning on our strategy through a well-defined user flow, the next step was execution. While our product team worked on simplifying this initiative into smaller units, I began my next steps by aligning with our development teams and digging into wireframes, prototypes, and further iterations for each feature.
05 – Trip Tip Iterations
Trip tips were an obvious choice for providing contextual color-coding. Below are some iterations on color-matching and layout on a new trip tip linking to terminal guide. Following the framework established in our future state user flow, the United app now limits trip tips to one message at a time.
With accessibility in mind, we also used updates to wayfinding as an opportunity to define paths for travelers with wheelchairs, unaccompanied minors, and other traveler-specific needs. One such example is shown below. Further efforts aimed at travelers with wheelchairs are outlined in a separate case study.
06 – Contextual Card Iterations
For contextual cards, we launched new variants corresponding to each step in terminal guide. These states each provided links into terminal guide and included error states for travelers experiencing delays or cancellations. Our final set of contextual cards provides a more holistic step-by-step guide through the airport, while also aligning with existing messaging.
07 – Terminal guide Iterations
As we built out new states in terminal guide, we started to question the validity of original design constraints on the MVP. The initial release had been designed under the assumption that users would prefer a step-by-step list of their airport journey, with links out to a full map experience at each step. As I was working through alternatives to this approach, our developers were able to unlock new functionality with the map API we had implemented, giving us more functionality within the layout. This led to the next iteration of terminal guide, which showed embedded maps alongside each step in the user journey.
Additionally, in conjunction with our changes for trip tips, we leveraged terminal guide to provide new paths for travelers with specific travel needs, including traveling with a wheelchair, guidance for unaccompanied minors, and where to go when traveling with a pet.
A separate solution we explored was designed in the framework of an Apple Maps or Google Maps wayfinding experience. We thought through the implications of displaying text in a sheet over a dynamic map interface, allowing users with a more visual mindset to easily switch between our map and our checklist. Initial reactions have been positive, and we are working toward this approach in further iterations.
08 – Outcomes
Although our work is never done, the iterations deployed within the first few months of 2023 have seen a major improvement in terminal guide usage and overall NPS for mobile app users (our mobile app is currently the only platform for terminal guide). We’ve tracked an uptick in travelers using our bag drop shortcut, which is a prominent CTA in the messaging for terminal guide, contextual cards, and our improved trip tips. Most importantly, we’ve continued to monitor messaging around navigation for travelers experiencing irregular operations. Our efforts have streamlined notifications for users experiencing delays and cancellations, further cutting through the noise so we can continue to guide travelers during stressful situations.
As United grows and expands, time and testing will tell if our efforts persist in helping users navigate through the airport. We continue to iterate on these features, working hard to expand terminal guide from United’s seven domestic hubs to include directions for each of our airports. In my role at United, I continue to find opportunities to improve design and seek new integrations between features.
Our airport navigation efforts, highlighting terminal guide, have been featured in United’s Hemispheres magazine.