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Recognising the positive impact wayfinding has on passengers can help airports better manage their customer experience and boost revenues, writes James Ackomann.

Being able to navigate your way through any building is important. If that building is an airport moving millions of passengers through often-unfamiliar environments, processes, procedures and languages, the need for good wayfinding is imperative. 

When successful it can enhance the user experience and have a significant impact on both the airports operational efficiency, and the passenger’s spending behaviour. 

Comfortable and relaxed passengers explore an airport’s facilities and spend money in retail and restaurants significantly more than lost, anxious or stressed passengers.

The latest ACI research found that for every 1% increase in passenger satisfaction levels, an average growth of 1.5% in non-aeronautical revenue is generated, significantly out-performing the same increases in retail space and passenger traffic.

With more than 300 new airports planned across the Asia-Pacific region in the next 10 years, improving the passenger experience is rapidly becoming a major competitive advantage and revenue driver. 

Wayfinding has traditionally been understood as the signage within any environment that provides directional information to users. 

In recent years, however, contemporary wayfinding practice has developed a much more integrated role within airport planning and the design of the passenger journey.

According to Australian agency, Büro North, the best wayfinding solutions are those that are highly integrated as part of the airport design, influencing both the physical space and the operational processes to deliver legible environments rather than relying on signage.

Its strategic director Finn Butler – who was part of the BAA design team for London Heathrow’s award winning Terminal 5 – says: “Unfortunately, many people still think wayfinding is just about signage, and often this leads to spaces that have had sign upon sign continually added until there is a forest of conflicting messages and millions of lost, frustrated and unsatisfied passengers.”

The key to the delivery of successful wayfinding, he says, ideally involves treating it as part of the design process of the terminal and relies on a broad and sometimes complex range of design and human behaviour factors. 

These include understanding the airport processes, the capabilities and cognitive load on users, the development of logical and sequential numbering across terminals, check-in desks, piers and gates whilst creating clear sight-lines to ensure spacial legibility for users.


The design of clear signage relies on the sensitive management of typography, pictograms, colours, illumination and often multiple languages through both static and flexible signage. 

Büro North has worked on user experience and wayfinding projects at airports for over a decade, and following Butler’s role at BAA on London Heathrow’s T5, the agency has been worked intensively with Brisbane, Sydney and Perth airports in Australia. 

Its team uses an evidence-based approach to the development of wayfinding, focusing on the user experience and co-ordination of the ‘sensory inputs’ experienced by passengers on their journey.

More than signs, their approach takes in the environment, the processes and the procedures passengers go through from airport arrival to the moment they board their flight.

They believe they owe their success in the space to their collaborative approach to working with clients and co-designing solutions, which they claim brings many of the competing agendas within airport businesses together. 

Indeed, they believe that this way of doing things helps bridge and develop a shared understanding of the overall airport user experience between commercial operations, aviation planning, retail, hospitality, advertising and marketing teams.

At Brisbane Airport, for example, the agency recently worked with the owners of the airport to develop a unique passenger experience strategy that incorporated digital content, advertising placement and terminal wayfinding. 

And together with Virgin Australia the team has developed and delivered the passenger experience from airport arrival to aircraft boarding for Perth Airport’s Terminal 1 expansion. 

Recently winning the 2016 Melbourne Design Award for User Experience, the project encompassed the arrival experience, self check-in, self bag-drop through security and onto departure lounges and gates. 

Through mapping the physical process and digital touchpoints of the passenger experience and co-ordination with architecture, interiors, lighting and branding, it claims that its team ensured every step of journey was clear, logical and easy.


What’s next for the user experience and wayfinding within airport design?

Airports are increasingly competing with shopping malls for customer spending, and with a captive audience due to the airport check-in and arrivals processes, they have a unique competitive advantage. 

However, this advantage will only result in retail growth if passenger experiences are managed to ensure lower stress levels, decreased anxiety and increased comfort within airports.

Moving beyond just delivering comfortable environments might just be the next challenge, and if so, then creating entertaining and enlivening experiences could provide a significant competitive advantage.

Büro North’s design director, Soren Luckins, states: “We want to design the future aviation user experience to reflect the awe and wonder it had 50 years ago. We want to help our clients create pleasurable and meaningful experiences.

“The best shopping malls internationally have 10 million litre fish tanks, children’s playgrounds designed by world leading artists, cinemas, zoos and truly exciting experiences. There is no reason the airport of the future should not be as exciting as these shopping malls.”

It is clear that the future of airport design must begin with a user-centered approach, to ensure passenger experiences are better, and more meaningful than ever.

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