Do Aircraft Designers Use User Tests?

Boeing 787 Dreamliner

Interior Design of Boeing Dreamliner Steeped in User Research by Ashley McKee is one of the latest articles from User Interface Engineering.

As she recounts:

Boeing has unveiled a new addition to its fleet of commercial aircraft called the 787 Dreamliner. The plane promises high fuel-efficiency, longer travelling distances, more cabin space, bigger windows, softer lighting that adjusts with the time of day, and increased in-flight humidity for greater passenger comfort. Where did all of these innovative features come from? They came from intensive user research that dove directly into the passenger experience.

She then introduces an interview with John Barratt, CEO of Teague, the firm that designed the interior for Dreamliner. This appears on the Design & Emotion website with the title Getting Emotional With John Barratt. It has some excellent insights including the following:

This new approach not only allowed, but demanded that the end user, in this case, travelers the world over, were considered foremost. We invested an unbelievable amount of time into uncovering the unarticulated needs of consumers, in my mind, those implicit needs that so often fall to the wayside should be considered equivalent, if not more important than affirmed desires.

We can all relate to that, since users rarely are able to express their needs in standard surveys or focus groups.

What is a little surprising is that there is no mention of user tests. UIE has been a strong proponent of such tests, even advocating their use in the early stages of product development with prototypes. It is very difficult for a designer to adopt the mindset of a typical user. This is why user tests are so useful and indeed often produce somewhat surprising results.

No amount of theorizing, even with the best supporting data, can match the immediate insights that come from practical experimentation. The interview would seem to suggest that the theorizing approach has been used rather than the experimentation approach. Clearly it may be difficult to do user tests with prototypes when it comes to designing an aircraft. However it would be most interesting to know whether such user tests were done, particularly in the early stages of the aircraft design.

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